In search of serendipity

05.05.2013 | Author: Eric Reiss
If reports from the recent South By Southwest Interactive Festival are to be believed,
“serendipity” – a fortunate accidental discovery – appears to be “Buzzword of the Month.” This is both good and bad.

Good, because we need more serendipity in our lives.
Bad, because the word has become synonymous with creativity, which it isn’t.

Invention vs. innovation
Let’s start with the bad. Invention can happen by accident (“Mr. Watson, come here! I need you!”). And yes, chance meetings between engineers and developers have often led to a beneficial combination of ideas. This is why coffee breaks and water coolers play key roles in breaking down departmental silos. In fact, MIT discovered that longer tables in company cafeterias contribute tremendously to enabling these serendipitous meetings. And smokers, gathering outside the building 10-15 times a day, often have the most effective cross-silo social networks in their companies.

But encouraging spontaneous meetings does not necessarily spawn creativity. Nor do they necessarily encourage innovation. As opposed to invention, innovation is always a planned activity. It solves a problem – and if it doesn’t, it will invariably create one. And every innovation will result in technological, social, and political consequences. Companies can’t afford to leave this to chance.

Google and serendipity
Google’s Eric Schmidt calls their product “a serendipity engine.” Yet Google’s entire philosophy rests on its ability to zero in on data and display it in an incredibly targeted manner. In truth, the less serendipitous the results, the better the sales results from AdWords, etc.

Google is giving serendipity lip service while encouraging conformity. I dislike this kind of hypocracy.

Pasta and serendipity

Some months back, I was having lunch with an Italian acquaintance. I was chided for my Scandinavian manners, having used my knife to cut my pasta. Apparently, the correct method is to use the sharp crust of the accompanying bread (which you are not required to actually eat). The knife itself is never touched.

This is typical of the kind of accidental discovery that we see less and less of. Our lives are becoming more focused. The people we follow on Twitter and Facebook are selected because they often share our viewpoints. Yes, we are exposed to cute photos and viral videos, but how much do we actually learn from these interactions? I’ll bet you cannot browse through a printed newspaper without reading at least one article that fell outside your “normal” profile. That’s serendipity.

Social media and serendipity
As the amount of information at our disposal explodes, our tendency is to focus on fewer and fewer subjects. Authors such as Eli Pariser talk of how enterprises want to keep customers encased in information cocoons. And the information architecture community, myself included, has worked hard to emphasize the importance of both relevant content and context.

Unfortunately, this attitude is as right as it is wrong. Right because it introduces some of the basics of feng shui – we eliminate the clutter. Wrong because we hinder those accidental discoveries that make our lives richer.

Sorry, I don’t have a solution. But this is something I think about constantly and I suspect social media is going to play an important role it has not yet discovered. At the dawn of the Web era, Microsoft had a great slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” Alas, most people now go to exactly the same places they went yesterday. I think we are losing something incredibly valuable. Not because people have become less curious, but because they are being robbed of the opportunity to exercise their curiosity.

TIMBUK2 And Social Customer Service

25.01.2013 | Author: Borislav Kiprin
On January 24, 2013 one of the clips on my TIMBUK2 Messendger D-Lux Bag broke due to harsh weather conditions. To be fair, it was the second time, cause low temperatures cause the plastic to wear off in general and become fragile. About 40 days ago another one broke, but I replaced it with a spare I had on the other strap that came with the bag...

I've had my TIMBUK2 bag for about two years. It is one of the things I carry around every day that I cannot live without. It is functional and I can put everything in there - my iPad, my Friday antipasti bought at the market, my umbrella and even my niece when she was a bit younger... So you can imagine how devastated I was when the clip broke...

Since I already knew before hand that TIMBUK2 does not have retail shops in Germany (I got my bag on, I decided to battle my own laziness and took a picture immediately attaching it to a tweet addressed to @timbook2:

Twitter timbuk2 borislavkiprin

And this is the chronology of events in their full length:

At 8:32 pm I reported the problem (photo included) and asked for help/guidance.
At 8:41 pm (only 9 minutes later) I got a reply with instructions on how to proceed.
At 8:49 pm I shot an email featuring the picture, a screenshot of my amazon order details (so they'd know the model of the bag) and my email copy.
At 9:15 pm I received a reply from "CustomerService At Timbuk2" filled with compassion and asking me from my address.
At 9:23 pm I sent a reply with my address.

To sum up, I had a shout out on Twitter @timbuk2, was transferred to email to deal with privacy sensitive information and none of my time was wasted by unnecessary questions. Throughout the communication I was being treated with genuine care, understanding, addressed by a first name in an informal, but yet polite tone and everything was kept short and to the point. My user experience was just great.

And since I am a digital marketing professional with a thing for User Experience, I can only treasure the approach TIMBUK2 is taking on service design. If one visits their website, they will see the same coherent approach there as well. Starting from shared reference on bag vs laptop sizes, going through well implemented personalisation functionality in their online shop and finishing up with support information from integrated social media channels. These guys have their digital marketing strategy on the right path.  

It still amazes me that in the age of social media being used virtually by everyone that is on the net (one way or another), there are still companies that neglect social media integration in their customer support services. To be able to do so, one has to have a well structured service design, otherwise it would be an even greater mess delivering bad user experience.

I've wrote today back to them, asking whether it would be possible to talk to their Digital Marketing Manager or the Marketing one, just to learn more about the social customer service integration at the back-end. Not sure, if they will have time for me. But if they do, I will try to make a case out of it and offer it to you on this blog, should TIMBUK2 give their explicit permission to do so, of course.

Kudos, TIMBUK2! You've got a customer for life.

Do you have any experience with social media integrated in customer service? Care to share it in the comments bellow?

Vestas - "We don't need no stinkin' social media"

03.11.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Investors have totally lost confidence in the leadership of the Danish windmill giant, Vestas. Earlier this week, on October 31, 2011, their stock plummeted almost 25% - the most recent, most dramatic swing in a roller-coaster ride that started in 2008.

This most recent disaster was triggered by a discreet announcement late Sunday evening that a German turbine factory, owned by Vestas, couldn’t deliver on time, which was going to severely reduce earnings for the year.

I’ve been monitoring Vestas for over a year, not as an investor, but because I am fascinated by how poorly this company handles social media. Let me be blunt: Vestas just doesn’t get it - and it has cost them millions.

A story about “Black Tuesday”
On the morning of October 26, 2010, I read the headline on the Danish business newspaper, Børsen, that Vestas was going to fire 3000 employees. At 9:45, someone told me that Vestas’ CEO, Ditlev Engel was holding a press conference at 10:00. Around 10:15, another colleague told me that a Danish windmill company was declaring bankruptcy and that there would be a statement at 11:00.

About 10:20, as Engel rambled on to the press corps (streamed live on the internet), the first remarks started to appear on Twitter: “So when is he going to tell us the company has gone bust?” Actually, another, smaller windmill company, Skycon, had gone into receivership. Although this news had been announced earlier that morning, the particulars were overshadowed by the happenings at Vestas. No interesting statements were made at 11:00.

However, looking at Vestas’ stock price that morning, there was a curious, minute-by-minute correlation between the tweets and the stock. About 10:20, when the stock was falling, but not yet in free-fall, the first social media messages appeared. And during the next 15 minutes, Vestas lost almost DKK 20 million in stock capitalization. After 11:00, when it was clear from the news updates that Skycon, not Vestas, had gone broke, Vestas stock rallied briefly. But only briefly; the company lost a bundle that day - the company’s communication punctuated by occasional tweets providing a link to the online video of Engel’s press conference.

Coincidentally, a senior VP at Vestas told me later that day that the company had a community manager responsible for their social media. But what does this person actually do? For the next 26 hours, there wasn’t a single tweet - during which time Vestas lost over 10% of its total market capitalization.

Late in the evening of October 27, 2010, Vestas finally posted a tweet. Too little, too late.

Could social media help?
If you had looked at social-media activity related to Vestas on October 26-27, 2010, it was clear that people - including Bloomberg - were looking for some kind of useful communication. But there was none.

On October 27, 2010, Vestas had roughly 450 followers. A couple of days ago, Vestas stock again plummeted, this time by almost 25%. They now have 3,600 followers on Twitter. But did Vestas tweet? No. A repeat performance from a year ago.

Finally, a tweet - at 9:20 AM on Tuesday November 1, 2011. Throughout the dismal Monday, Vestas remained silent.

So here’s my message, dear Vestas: people WANT to talk with you. The dramatic rise in your number of Twitter followers shows this. So why aren’t you engaging with them? Do you have a social-media strategy or are you just making this up as you go along? If so, consider taking a different approach. The most recent debacle reduced the value of your stock by 24.3%. The costs to prepare a professional social-media strategy and the salary for an effective community manager are far less. You do the math.

FatDUX Prague sponsoring EuroIA in Prague

22.08.2011 | Author: Stepan Doubrava
I am proud to announce the opening of FatDUX Prague. Our offices are located just minutes from the famed Wenceslas Square in the heart of the Czech capital. Over the past few years, our sister company, ExperienceU, has grown to become one of the most respected usability testing facilities in Central Europe. Now, working hand-in-hand with FatDUX Prague, we are able to provide a full range of UX services – from strategy and design to usability and search optimisation.

To help celebrate our new company and build our local user-experience community, FatDUX Prague is subsidising 20 registrations for residents of the Czech Republic to the upcoming EuroIA conference. The conference is possibly the most important event of its kind in Europe. We are honoured that this year, it will be held right here in Prague on September 22-24.

Rather than the normal registration fee of EUR 430, with our discount code, you will only pay EUR 150. We will take care of the rest. For details and your personal code information, please write to me directly: stepan (at)

Rádi bychom oznámili oficiální otevření pražské pobočky dánské designové agentury FatDUX. Naše kanceláře se nachází na okraji historického centra Prahy. Díky spolupráci s agenturou ExperienceU, respektovanou zejména v oblasti testování použitelnosti, dodáváme celé spektrum služeb v oblasti UX, přes strategii a design po audit použitelnosti a SEO.

Abychom oslavili oficiální vznik nové pobočky a zároveň podpořili místní UX komunitu, FatDUX Praha sponzoruje registraci 20 zájemců z České republiky o nadcházející konferenci EuroIA. Tato konference, která se řadí mezi nejvýznamnější svého druhu v Evropě, se bude konat v Praze 22 – 24. září.

Místo plné ceny 430 Euro zaplatíte pouze 150 Euro a FatDUX doplatí zbytek. Případní zájemci, neváhejte mne prosím kontaktovat na: stepan (at)

Wall of Tweets

08.07.2010 | Author: Jeff Parks

Download MP3

I recently had the pleasure of connecting with colleagues in Croatia Vibor Cipan and Darko Čengija about Wall of Tweets.

My first experience with Wall of Tweets was while watching talks at the TEDxMälaren event in June; and I really enjoyed the interaction!

Context is easily lost, and often misunderstood on Twitter. Live tweeting is another popular process, but unless one is sitting in on the presentation it is very difficult to convert the value of the ideas into meaningful actions in only 140 characters.

At the TEDxMälaren event I was able to watch the presentation (from Ottawa, Canada) and connect with others around the world simultaneously.

As TechCrunch recently published:
While current solutions like Twitterfall are free, they don’t look as nice and end up showing some of the tweets late, due to a limit on the API calls from the centralized Twitterfall server. Wall of Tweets is a paid service, so they do guarantee it will work, as well as letting you host it on your own server if you really want to.

As a special promotion, Wall of Tweets is offering all UX, IA and design-related conferences worldwide with free licenses – both online HTML versions and rich, venue-based versions. All you need to do is to send Vibor an email and ask for a free license. You can reach him at vcATfatduxDOTcom

Recent examples of Wall of Tweets:




52 reasons to follow @elreiss on Twitter

31.01.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
I just came across an article suggesting no fewer than 60 ways to attract Twitter followers ( It comes from @technotip (who is worth following).

I'm completely jazzed. I want followers. I crave followers. Followers are now my raison d'etre. Follow me @elreiss. My ego is suffering from hunger pains. FEED IT NOW!

Oops. Did I get carried away? (must remember to Tweet about this - check it out @elreiss)

Penis envy in cyberspace
You really have to laugh at some of these tactics. Number of Twitter followers seems to have become the social media equivalent of penis envy. And some of these scams are clearly the cyber-equivalent of a penis-extender. Henceforth, anyone who even considers running a Twitter contest will be added to my personal blacklist.

Why the tasteless self-promotion, @elreiss?
This is an experiment. OK?

In addition to retweeting stuff from folks smarter than I am and recommending articles, I occasionally have original thoughts. Looking through some of the past year’s tweets, I found around 50 that seemed to stand the test of time better than most.

WTF, @elreiss? Get to the point!
I’m not really out to build a huge follower base, but I would like to experiment a bit with the “content is king” notion. So please remember to “unfollow” if my tweets don’t contribute in some useful way to your own life and work. I'm keeping track of follower stats from day to day. Read 'em and weep-or-whatever.

52 tweets I (@elreiss) wrote and like
Will the iPon be a brand extension of the iPad?

Why follow your Twitter followers if you don't care what folks say?

This is a day for avoiding real work. Which is why I've been pondering cross-dressers who wear burkas. How would anyone know?

I wish it was as big a crime to be dumb as it is to be dishonest.

The more time I spend on social media (Twitter and beyond), the more I'm convinced our society is in deep shit.

Not all pithy thoughts can be compressed to 140 characters no matter how hard you try.

If the meek inherit our earth, it’s because the strong have abandoned them.

I'm more convinced than ever that "unwired" has become the new "organic".

TV news interviews are great reality programming. There's nothing as dumb as an "expert" if you get them off their area of expertise.

If it's dangerous to talk to yourself, it's probably even more dangerous to listen.

Good design can never rescue bad strategy. When did pretty uniforms last win a war?

If your competition sells cheaper, it's called "dumping". If you sell cheaper, it's called "supply side optimization".

America's infatuation with reality TV suggests that many viewers can no longer differentiate between talent and celebrity. Scary!

False friendships are the emotional downside of most current social media offerings.

I love teaching. I learn so much.

Do arbitrary rules really deserve more than arbitrary compliance?

Ahh. What would the world be like without rhetorical questions?

Packaging designers should be forced to clean and organize a larder once in a while. Valuable lessons to be learned.

If I always knew what I was doing, I'd never learn anything. A little adversity can be a really good thing.

Changing the world is easy. Changing it for the positive is the real challenge. That's because no one agrees on what's good.

If you think you can, you can. If you think you can't, you're right.

Still trying to change the world, but I'm more and more convinced that the world would prefer that I just butt out.

Pitting UX against IA is like having your toolbox pick a fight with your wrench. UX is a cognitive container for a variety of skills.

How come "altruistic" is never a value word for companies? Sometimes you've gotta do stuff simply because it's the right thing to do.

Words of wisdom: Don't burn your bridges before you come to them.

Looking for statistics to confirm my fear that the idiots now officially outnumber those of us who know what we're doing.

I'm frustrated that there are so many folks in the UX business who are famous just for being famous, not for any work they've ever done.

Call yourself an expert? Do you really have 10,000 hours of experience, or just one hour, repeated 10,000 times?

Are you passionate or provocative? Passion comes from the heart. But most provocation seems to stem from ego.

Rules are created when people take advantage of that which is unwritten.

If content is king, is context the kingdom?

Bailouts have become the back-button of the financial industries.

How long is "new media" new? Are we now working with "middle-aged media"?

Jakob Nielsen talks about designing his tweets: This is what most people call "editing".

The blogosphere is the Gong Show of Generation Y.

“Thought leadership” means thinking about a community of practice, not thinking about leadership.

No discernable correlation between your popular searches and your popular pages? You have a serious information architecture issue to solve.

Never judge a book by the taste of the binding.

If you want to be a thought leader, it’s best to start your career by fine-tuning your thinking, not your PR.

"Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer." But does that really mean you have to put up with their silly twitter-chatter?

Words to live by: be nice to the people you meet on the way up. They're often the same ones you meet on the way down.

The biggest threat to the future of the web is the neighbor's kid, who is programming crap sites for legit businesses using FrontPage.

Maybe we designers ask too many questions. Maybe we threaten potential clients. Maybe folks don't care if their website contributes to their business.

I'm seeing incredibly incompetent shops getting web work while really talented folks are out of work. What are the idiots doing right?

Responses to yesterday's Twitter denial of service attack lead me to believe that some folks have serious addiction problems.

Ultimately, insistence on formalized processes and standardized deliverables strives not to collect answers but to obliterate questions.

The sooner our pitches reflect the fact that most business decisions are made emotionally and not rationally, the sooner we will get rich.

Political correctness is just another way to hide prejudice behind euphemism. I far prefer straight talk and honesty.

UX certification? Reminds me of Groucho Marx’s comment: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of a club that would accept me as a member.”

Gonna take flak from the American consultants...but...IMO ”It depends” is just an unnecessary click in the verbal clickstream.

Mashups can be SOOOO ugly. Here’s a new acronym: TIDE (Tight Integration of Diverse Experiences) Goes nicely with AJAX.

Amateurish SEO drives me mad. Keyword density is the worst fairydust of all time. Fact: you cannot bore people into buying something.

Again, if you like these, please follow me for a couple of weeks @elreiss and see if I continue to live up to expectations. If not, that’s cool – I’m not really out to build a huge follower base, but to experiment a bit with the “content is king” notion. And please remember to “unfollow” if my tweets don’t contribute in some useful way to your own life and work.

Hey, you can also comment right here! Let me know what YOU think about Twitter.

Microblogging: the graffiti of cyberspace?

13.05.2009 | Author: Eric Reiss
The FatDUX site is overdue for an overhaul. Microblogging will be one of the new features. Our Duckmaster, Andrea Resmini, has asked that I work out some guidelines for the FatDUX family.

As practiced today, I think microblogging is being abused by self-promoters and debased by people who have absolutely nothing worthwhile to say. This is a shame - microblogging has great potential as a communicative concept.

What is microblogging?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with “microblogging,” it’s based on short (max. 140 character) text messages, sent to a group of predetermined subscribers, often via a mobile phone. Twitter is the application of choice (but Jaiku, Qaiku, and Plurk are also popular). Facebook and other social networking sites have similar functionality, generally termed “status updates.”

“Eric doesn’t get it”
I’ve been accused of not understanding the value of Twitter. And perhaps my critics are justified. On the other hand, let’s not confuse my personal dislike for the way Twitter is used and for the application itself, which I think is great.

Here’s my situation – I generally keep pretty busy and don't need microblogging to combat boredom. But most “tweets” add little value to my life. For example, travel is stressful enough without having to hear folks on Twitter announce “In a taxi on the way to the airport.”, “TSA folks can be such pricks” or “My flight is delayed”.

I’m not very interested in the doings of one’s brood either: “What’s suddenly wrong with Cheerios for breakfast?” “Just picked up the kids from school”, “Little Sarah won’t go to bed.”

On the other hand, I enjoy the backchat (backchannel chatter – and I don't necessarily mean negative remarks) at conferences. This is the kind of stuff that does provide me with vicarious value. The blow-by-blow reporting from presentations-in-progress is particularly useful. (Even so, I dislike the behind-your-back sniping, “This panel just crashed and burned. I’m outta here.”)

I realize these are my own views and that other folks probably love gossipy tweets. (Hmm…did Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” just get reduced to 15 seconds?) But please give me better mechanisms to filter out the chirpchaff and give me the warblewheat. Happily, Qaiku is doing this by encouraging thread-based conversations. Twitter lags sadly behind in this regard.

Signal to noise
Let’s face it, some folks take pride in posting 5,000 - 20,000 updates (tweets) a year. But do you really want to receive all of them? Some come from twitterholics who feel the urge to make noise. Others are incorrigible self-promoters who think noise somehow equates with thought leadership. Please, work to improve your signal-to-noise ratio. The medium is NOT the message - don’t confuse the two.

There are also the self-promoters who are merely people collectors, such as actor Ashton Kutcher (first to gain a million Twitter followers). But with fairly little to say, I can’t imagine his following will last; if there is any long-term impact, it will probably be because he was able to get new users to sign up for the Twitter service. Oprah Winfrey falls kind of in the same category - I guess followers get a lift from Oprah's deep philosophical missives like "Hey tweeters, hope you're loving your Sunday as much as I am."

Twitter as a debate forum?
The news media, CNN in particular, have been good about using microblogging as a debate forum. Since many full-scale blogs are also debate fora, this activity would seem to be part of a natural evolution. (CNN competed with Kutcher in the race to 1 million followers).

The problem is that like all politically heated environments, microbloggers are already subject to bullying, online threats – and offline violence. The debate rages as to whether user-based moderation of such discussions works.

In the recent South African election, the ANC used Twitter fairly effectively as a debate forum – a good gimmick in a country where text messaging has exploded in recent years. For an excellent account of the election activities and some good discussion of the pros and cons of political twittering, check out the superb Voice Of Africa blog.

One of the more interesting points related to the limits to message size:
“But, does [Twitter] add value in this case?  Most people in South Africa are probably familiar with the ANC’s policy positions already.  A 140 character recap of the standard positions (140 characters is about 1 sentence) can’t really tell you anything deeper.”

Nevertheless, the medium does seem to lend itself nicely to discussions of current events – even on a very local level (a conference, for example).

Keep it short
Keeping messages to under 140 characters does have one key advantage: it forces people to get to the point. This assumes they actually have something to say.

The French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (of triangle fame) once remarked, “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” (I made this letter longer than usual because I didn’t have time to make it shorter.)

If people want to be true thought leaders, my advice would be to tweet less and think more.

So, when the FatDUXlings start to microblog, our guidelines will be simple: say something relevant to our fields of interest, say it gracefully, say it in as few words as possible. And stop.

Don’t tweet when you’re mad or drunk or…
At a conference recently, someone Twittered “I think Eric Reiss just lied to me during his presentation.” Since I hadn’t lied, I was momentarily offended by this tweetshot until I realized it was juvenile self-promotion. But, I’m both thick-skinned and ethical, which helps me ignore the slings and arrows of outrageous Twitterers.

Rule Number One of Twittering: Don’t tweet when you’re mad, drunk, or under the influence of your own ego. Stupid comments live forever. And although microblogging can be fantastic, reducing this elegant concept to that of mere electronic graffiti is truly a waste.

Diamonds…and tweets…are forever
Here are some publicly available musings:

“On April 19th, I made bread.”

“XX got me pregnant.”

Today, almost identical comments can be found in two places: on Twitter and the walls of Pompeii. (the name of the purported father-to-be changed from Atimetus to Dave.)

Caveat Twitterati: you never know when or by whom your musings will be seen. So say something worthwhile.


Graffiti at Pompeii.

A visit to the Reichstag in Berlin
Sir Norman Foster, the British architect, reworked the Reichstag (parliament) in Berlin, which reopened in 1999. It had been abandoned since 1933 - the Nazis burned it as an excuse to arrest Communists and other political opponents.

After the Battle of Berlin in April/May 1945, Soviet soldiers “decorated” the surviving walls of the burned and bombed hulk. Sir Norman felt the graffiti was significant in terms of the building’s history and preserved it (after translators censored the obscene comments).

Twitteren erwachen: do you want to go down in history as a social commentator or as a vandal? Stealing my time is vandalism.


Graffiti at the Reichstag.

A visit to Charlottenlund Station outside Copenhagen
The train station in Charlottenlund, Denmark, just north of Copenhagen, features a lot of graffiti. Not gang-tags or spray-painted innertube script. Rather, these are names and dates written in pencil, which have surprisingly survived for many decades.

Charlottenlund Station in Denmark, built in 1895.


Graffiti at Charlottenlund Station


Ms. Nielsen's message has survived an entire century.

In the last photo, you’ll see a young lady’s tag from October 1909. It is slightly obscured by a modern billboard. In a few weeks, the advertisement will have changed. But Ms. Nielsen’s tag will live on. I wonder if she could have imagined that her spontaneous scrawl would survive an entire century? Or be blogbeamed around the world?

Twitter-folk: if you want your name to live forever, choose a resilient medium. Although pencil on brick sometimes works, ideas are truly immortal.

More ideas, please.


The new voice of oral tradition?

24.09.2008 | Author: Eric Reiss
I recently joined Facebook out of professional interest. To be frank, my social network is plenty active without inviting a lot of strangers to the party. That’s why I’ve avoided the Facebook community for so long. But last week in Oslo, persuadability guru BJ Fogg of Stanford University explained that Facebook was one of the most important instruments of social change on the planet. I figured I’d better take a closer look.

Once I became “official,” I naturally surfed a bit. Then, out of bored curiosity, I googled the names of Facebook members who seemed to be active in multiple groups.

It’s shocking how much you can learn about folks – including individuals who should probably remain anonymous. I discovered lots of noise but astonishingly little information of lasting value (although the entertainment aspect was sometimes considerable). From an ethical standpoint, I wonder how much information I’m entitled to know; I frequently found myself uncomfortably close to someone else’s private life.

Personally, I can live without Facebook – but may others cannot. Clearly, there’s an incredible need these days for people to assert their individuality – perhaps because those in political and social authority often seem so out of touch with the societies they serve. But whatever the reason, the opportunity to quickly and easily create an online profile seems quite compelling.

Social spam and cyberirrelevancies
As social networking tools go, Twitter takes the prize when it comes to disseminating the irrelevant details of ones life. For those of you who don’t “twitter,” this particular tool lets you broadcast short messages to your friends, usually from your phone, to let them know what you are doing at that precise moment.

The English word “twitter” is related to “chirping.” This is what birds do – making noise just to let the world know they are there. Old maiden aunts “twitter;” Aunt Pittypat in “Gone With the Wind” is a classic example.

Today, if you Google the name of someone who “twitters,” you’ll find pages of mindless missives, including such classics as “Watching TV with the kids.” Or “I think 6 cans of Mountain Dew is enough for one day” – which is as uninteresting as it is ungrammatical. How fascinating that we complain of information overload while sanctifying personal spam.

Why should I care about someone’s consumption of a sickly green soda pop? Why should anyone care? And now that Facebook and Twitter work together, it’s even easier to spread these cyberirrelevancies. One of the few useful scenaria I can envision for Twitter would be at the end of an event of some sort: “Where is everyone going for drinks?”

For the most part, the functions of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter et al. emphasize “here and now” activities. Twitter is not meant to create an historic record – even though it does. Facebook and MySpace provide an easy way to create an online presence for people who don’t have enough to say to maintain a blog. Facebook, in particular, features hundreds of “groups” that appear to represent no more than the half-dozen people who showed up at a frat party. (search for “boobs” or “beer” to get off to a quick start)

Capturing the unique facets of common stories 
Then again, I’m probably being too quick to condemn. As anthropologists and sociologists will explain, everybody has an important story to tell. And people are clearly eager for their place in the sun. So why haven’t we created the tools by which we can continue our “oral tradition” in the digital age?

In the past, we have been quick to embrace new technologies to help us capture the present and the past. Some of the world’s first newsreel footage is of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. We can hear now-forgotten Native American songs because Frances Densmore preserved these on wax cylinders from 1893 onwards. Samuel Charters did the same for itinerant jazz and folk musicians a few decades later.

Flickr, the online photo album, is creating a record of social experiences. It will be a treasure trove 30 or 40 years hence. YouTube will undoubtedly enjoy a similar function. Granted, this isn’t what Flickr set out to do, but history will clearly benefit. Maybe it’s time to figure out how we can do this intentionally.

So, let us create a digital place where those who are older can record fading memories before they are lost forever. Where those who are younger can learn from the mistakes of the past. Where all of us can share our individual slices of life in a way that creates synergy and long-term value.

Social software is missing a tremendous opportunity. Just think – all of us could literally write history.