community, flock

Knoxville Blogger’s Meetup Post Mortem

Tonight, I attended the blogger meetup that Mike organized. Counting Mike’s brother and girlfriend (both of whom were mostly absent but were warm bodies in occasional attendance, so I’ll count them provisionally), there were eight of us, all tied to Mike through past or current jobs or the aforementioned relationships. One guy was an apparently random acquaintance of Mike’s who since connecting with him has gotten a job at Mike’s place of work through no help from Mike (more or less at random, that is). Weird. Anyway, so we had a pretty decent crowd for a first meetup, though I hope that for future meetings, we can expand our network a bit and bring in some new folk. (Which let me say is a strange thing for me to hope because I’m generally pretty reclusive and not interested in adding more people to the list of those I feel obligated to remember or communicate with. Let’s keep that our little secret.)

We had discussion of three items on the agenda: photo manipulation/hosting tools, Flock as the blogger’s browser, and video blogging.

First, Mike gave an overview of Google’s Picassa, which includes a desktop client for photo manipulation and a (beta) web service for display of photos in albums. The client looks pretty nice, with basic and pretty easy-to-use tools for manipulating photos. Want to bring out highlights in a picture? Just hit the highlights button and adjust the levels (or something like that). It seems like a great lightweight tool for doing the sort of basic operations that those of us who’re intimidated by Photosho or The Gimp are likely to want to do. As for uploading and displaying, there are some weak points. You can’t upload one-off photos, for example — they all have to go into an album. For most users, this is probably fine, but it’s nice to be able to post a one-off screen shot as well. The web display itself seems pretty weak. There’s a concept of favorites or friends, and there are settings to be able to publicly list albums, but there seems to be no interface for searching for photos or friends. If I happen to know Mike’s gmail username and know the base url for the photo service, I can assemble a url that will show me his albums, but that’s not user-friendly to say the least. I imagine the service will be expanded to fix these problems. All of this is basically moot for me, as the client isn’t available for linux, but it was interesting nevertheless.

Next, Mike gave a demonstration of Flickr’s capabilities. I hadn’t expected to learn much here, but he showed me some things I hadn’t looked into before, most of the details of which I’ve forgotten by now but will delve back into as need arises. There’s more you can do with Flickr’s organizer tool than I had ever discovered; I had always thought of it as merely a way to organize sets, but you can batch add tags, set privacy, etc., and with some of the gaps in Flock’s ability to batch edit photos, these things are very useful. There are also some neat views of photos and tags that I hadn’t looked into. My impression of Flickr in recent months has been a better one than previously. Things seem more discoverable since some features were added to the site. Between that and Mike’s demo, I may find myself actually using the site more than I’ve been accustomed to doing in the past.

At this point in the evening, after a late start, we’re more than an hour into the evening and it’s my turn to present. Mid-presentation (baby’s bed-time), I get a call from my wife that I dismiss. The moral of the story is that we need to plan less stuff for these meetings and trust the power of gab to carry us through to a sufficiently lengthy time. I thought at this point about suggesting that we push either Perry’s vlogging segment or my segment off to a future session, but I wimped out, not wanting to hijack the meeting.

As I result, I rushed through my segment, for which I’m a little embarrassed to admit I wasn’t terribly well prepared. It was clear that Mike had spent some time thinking about what he was going to demo. I had run through doing a blog post in Flock’s editor but hadn’t really scripted anything out, and I think that between that and my being in a rush, I probably did a pretty poor job of showcasing Flock’s capabilities. We’ll be releasing a new version of the software before too long, and there’ll be big changes then, so perhaps I can get some more time then and do a better job. The 30-second version of my presentation is roughly as follows: Hey, there’s an html rich editor, so you don’t have to code html anymore. There’s also this little shelf thing at the bottom that you can drag pictures and text into and then back out of to construct rich blog posts. And there’s this photobar that shows your Flickr photos (and those of others) for easy dragging into blog posts. And you can easily drag/drop upload photos straight from within your browser and get notifications when your friends post their photos. (Not covered in my presentation but important is the fact that this uploader tool works in linux and thus has caused me to upgrade to a pro Flickr account and actually bother to snap photos.)

Now Perry stepped up to the plate to talk about screencasting. A screencast is basically a movie of somebody’s desktop as they use software and explain the process. He reviewed several tools that I was interested in seeing but that were sort of dead ends for me because they can’t be used on linux. (Side note: A week or two ago, I briefly evaluated something called xvidcap for linux; after hacking the config so that it would compile on my system, I wound up finding the software difficult to use, but probably about as good as it gets for this type of software on linux.) In one case, Perry used a piece of screencasting software to do a screencast of the software itself. (It was during this window that my future self came back to visit me and prevented my future untimely demise by suggesting that I take an alternate route home; it was strange.) I found myself thinking during Perry’s presentation that the perfect synthesis of our evening would be Perry’s doing a screencast of Picassa and posting it to his blog using Flock. (My future self had nothing to say about whether this would actually happen, though I did press for an answer.) (Ahem. It’s late and I’m tired.)

After Perry’s talk, we briefly discussed finding a mechanism for publishing events. Orkut (which several of us had signed up for) sucks for this sort of thing, and who wants to pay meetup.com for this? We discussed using Gmail’s calendar, which we should be able to syndicate for publication on a web site if we ever build one. We also discussed finding a plugin for WordPress and just having a blog site. I think we finally concluded to not worry too much about web infrastructure until the core group’s a little more established and we have any hope of attracting a broader audience.

And so concluded our meetup. I think Mike briefly proposed discussing next time (probably a month or so from now) some of the options for hosting your blog. All in all, it was a good meeting, and I’m frankly a little surprised to report (see note above about my being nearly pathologically anti-social) that I look forward to the next one.

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community, flock

Knoxville Blogger’s Meetup

A couple of weeks ago, I was in the driver’s seat for a Flock meetup here in Knoxville. My pal Mike has since begun organizing a Knoxville bloggers meetup to discuss blog tools more generally. Details (straight from Mike’s blog):


When:
Wednesday, August 23rd 7:00pm
Where: Mike’s Place (directions when you RSVP)
What: Knoxville’s local bloggers get together to talk about tools and services that help bloggers.
Who: Anyone who has a blog, wants a blog, or wants to learn about blogs.
Why: We don’t need a why!

You can RSVP to me or go over to Mike’s site to RSVP. Mike’ll give a little presentation on some image hosting/manipulation tools, I’ll give a half-assed demonstration of some of Flock’s features, and Perry will talk a bit about video blogging tools. From there, we’ll talk amongst ourselves about the tools presented and figure out where to go from here with the meetup group.

If you’re already a blogger or are just curious about what all this blogging stuff is all about, this first meetup should provide a good introduction to some of the tools and services available to you.

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flock, ui

Down (err, Up?) with Bottom Bars

Flock’s usability guru, Will Tschumy, posted the other day about topbars and how useful they are. Just last week, I was thinking about the usefulness of topbars and was going to do a blog post, but other priorities slid in front of it, and I put the post aside. Since one of Will’s proposals is to use bottombars instead of topbars and I’m wildly, passionately opposed to that, I thought I should go ahead and post my feedback.

First, let me take a moment to revel in the past. Once upon a time, we had a thing called the shelf that lived in a happy little sidebar. This was way before Flock was even Flock. (Disclosure: I wrote that version of the shelf and so may have an overzealous fondness for it, though I’ll say right now that many of the things in the current version of the shelf are hands-down better than in the first version; it’s just the user interaction that I find unpalatable.) We later moved the shelf into a popup window, and then into a topbar and ultimately into the bottombar that it currently occupies. Although I like the core functionality of the shelf (seriously, I gushed here about how it helped me to blog more and be more productive), I find it unusable because it’s a bottombar. There are two key issues that make its being a bottombar a big problem for me.

  1. It doesn’t display horizontal content in a useful way. Only a few items can fit in the bottombar, and it’s difficult for me to differentiate among them if they’re mostly text. As my habit had been to use the shelf (web snippets, whatever) primarily as a scratchpad for blog post ideas, it became unwieldy for me to stick blurbs — even short ones — down in the bottombar with any hope of being able to see at a glance what they were about (I talk about this in more detail here). Earlier versions of the shelf allowed me to preview more of the text at a glance (two or three lines), which made for a more efficient workflow. A vertical orientation of items (as in a sidebar) with the potential for horizontal display of text makes more sense for anything into which text can be dragged.
  2. I use a laptop, and bottombars are physically painful to use. My hand and wrist muscles are accustomed to the motions associated with darting upward on my trackpad to press application buttons and menus. I do this casually thousands of times a day with no pain. Tracking downward to a small area at the bottom of the screen seems to require different muscles, a greater rigidity of my fingers. It’s difficult for me, and it sort of hurts me to do it. It makes my wrist ache. So moving many of the things I like about Flock into a bottombar will cumulatively cause me enough pain to disincline me to use the browser. Which is a real shame, because I’ve decided I like our photo functionality enough that I’ve started taking more pictures and have signed up for a Flickr pro account. (Also, as an employee, I sort of have to use the browser, so Flock’ll have to invest in some wrist braces for me if we switch to a bottombar-exclusive UI.)

Add to these things the fact that moving topbars to the bottom doesn’t solve the problems Will enumerated with topbars:

  1. Notifications of new photos
  2.  Being able to see a group of photos (and not just public photos on Flickr or Photobucket)

and I’m dead-set against the move.

So, now we know that bottombars don’t appeal to me, and in the post I never finished the other day, I was going to propose that even topbars weren’t terribly useful. When Flock was starting out, one of our goals was to mix up the browsing experience a bit, and that meant experimenting with things like topbars. They seemed neat at first, but we found some cases (e.g. the shelf) for which they weren’t ideal (well, that’s my opinion, at least), and I’ve begun to wonder if the topbar (and the bottombar) isn’t something we’ve hung onto for the sake of its invention rather than for its actual usefulness in real life.

I’ll admit that for photo viewing, the topbar works pretty nicely because with photos, there tends to be a sense of graphical chronology. The topbar shows photos in what amounts to a timeline, and it’s really a good fit. Arguably, showing avatars of people in a topbar can make sense if you’re showing them either in order of recently-added content or of addition to your people list. And showing thumbnails of videos or saved locations for a mapping program might work fairly well in a horizontal view.

On the other hand, chronology display isn’t limited to the X-axis. Blogs display their most recent content at the top of the page, and nobody’s confused by that. So a sidebar listing your people in descending order of content produced or of addition to your queue stands to work as well as a topbar or bottombar listing. Further, with a sidebar, there’s room for a thumbnail and a narrow column of meta information or for meta information in a couple of lines underneath the thumbnail. Or, if your gripe is that a sidebar can’t show as many photo thumbnails as a horizontal one, there’s always the option of allowing a two-column view within the sidebar (an option we already allow to be toggled in the news reader). Further, sidebars are a user interaction paradigm that everybody understands. If you read email, you’re comfortable using sidebars.

In reading feedback to Will’s post, I see that opinions are pretty mixed. Some love the idea of moving topbars to the bottom. Others think it’d be awful. Still others want photos on the bottom and snippets on the side so that both are accessible at once. I’m leaning toward a sidebar view of everything with optional horizontal displays of some types of info.

Flock, we’ve often said, is about choice. We let you choose Flickr or Photobucket, Shadows or Delicious, whatever blog platform you want that uses one of several standards. It can be bad to offer too much choice (you know the old sketch comedy gag wherein the waiter unfolds tiered set of choices upon tiered set of choices for the diner who simply wants a glass of water or a cup of coffee). Providing too many ways to access your people-centric content stands to make it very hard to create discoverable features and to support them. Applications like Photoshop and The Gimp can be confusing with all
their palettes, and we should avoid that sort of experience for simple
web browsing and basic people management.

Still, I wish there were a way to let users define their experience to a degree, perhaps with sensible default placements of content views but with the option to move them around and dock/pin them as you see fit. I think I would keep photos anchored at the top (toggleable with an access key, of course) and snippets on the side (where I’d actually start using them again to jot down quick notes). A view of people I would probably also keep on the side because I’m accustomed to my vertical GAIM listing of people.

What kind of workspace would you set up? Will, is anything akin to what I’ve proposed even remotely possible if it seems to appeal to people?

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community, flock

Meetup Followup

I’m getting tired of posting things with “Meetup” in the title, and I’m sure you’re tired of reading them. Lucky for us, I held the Knoxville meetup last night, so this should be the last meetup post for at least a couple of months. There were five of us total, and for Knoxville, that really doesn’t seem too bad at all. Of course, one was a long-time Flock user, two were connections from past jobs, and the other was one of my good friends, so we weren’t exactly branching out to whole new markets in the area, but we’re nevertheless maintaining a small community interested in the browser.

Of the five of us, three of us are using Flock regularly. Perry‘s been with us through thick and thin since our first release in October, and my friend Dave became a user after the release of Cardinal. He says he’ll be switching his wife over soon, and he’s especially pleased that Flock has better support for unconverted Firefox extensions now. Mike and Gabriel I know from past jobs, and they both remain skeptical, firing the browser up mostly when I bug them about it. Mike cites a list of issues with the news reader that he sees as roadblocks (things that bloglines handles for him in ways he finds more useful). Gabriel doesn’t use many of the services that Flock is designed to make easier, and so there’s no compelling reason for him to use Flock. He has it installed and running but continues to default to Firefox.

Some of Mike’s beefs with the news reader seem legitimate, and some of our other discussion around feeds resulted in the following list of things that we thought could be improved in that area:

  • We should cap the number of items imported; some sites like digg apparently have massive feeds, and you have to wait while hundreds of items download.
  • If there are saved articles, the interface should indicate as much and possibly show how many have been saved. Else you forget they’re down there.
  • It’d be nice if Flock could poll an external OPML file for its list of feeds. Mike, for example, uses his OPML file from bloglines to build a blogroll. Obviously, you can’t use your local Flock data store to automatically populate a blogroll on your web site. Accordingly, Mike has incentive to continue using bloglines, which serves the dual purpose of reader and aggregator for his site. If Flock could ping his bloglines OPML file periodically, he could read his feeds right there in the browser without losing the blogroll functionality. My guess is that not terribly many people care about this, but it’s worth thinking about. If we’ve already got OPML import, how much harder can it really be to ping an external OPML file periodically? An obvious problem area, of course, would be maintaining read state between your local items and the items in the external aggregator.
  • In bloglines, you can opt to “keep” an article. This marks it as unread until you explicitly mark it read, and it overrides the automatic “mark all read” behavior. That is, if you keep something unread, even when all other items are batch marked read, it stays unread. This allows you to get back to it easily.  Arguably, our save feature provides similar functionality. In Mike’s case, our save feature is like the clippings feature in bloglines, which works independently of read state. I suspect Mike’s use case is marginal, but it is, again, something worth consideration.

Another topic we hit on for a few minutes was the search box. Of course, everybody wants the search box to be able to search all things (not just places you’ve been), and I believe that’s something we’re looking into for our next big release. But something we universally found problematic was the way the search box works when you actually want to search one of the engines. In Firefox, if you change the engine using the icon selector in the searchbox, your searches stay with that engine until you change it again. So if you’re doing a bunch of wikipedia searches, you just select the wikipedia engine and keep typing searches in the box. It makes for streamlined searching. In Flock, your search always defaults to your default engine, and to search another, you always have to scroll down and select the engine you want. This makes doing many searches within one engine cumbersome because you either have to change your default in the options (nobody wants to do that) or you have to add the scroll step for every search. I believe the search box is being reengineered in Firefox 2.0, and I don’t know how that’ll affect its functionality. And I suspect that we eliminated the default functionality at least in part because it conflicted with the nifty flyout we’ve added. So it may wind up just being a tradeoff, but it’s certainly something worth bringing up.

In preparation for the meetup, I looked through a high-level feature specification document, and I made a list of topics to touch on. One of them was media. We already have photos in the browser, and it makes sense, with the proliferation in recent months of video content, that we should do some diligence on the video front. But I don’t remember seeing anything in the feature document about podcasts, which have been hot for even longer than video. As we talked about media, our little group seemed to agree that a view of podcasts or other media similar to the feeds view might work well. Most importantly, of course, you should get updates of new content and have an easy way to view it (presumably with a player embedded in the viewing area).

We talked a bit about people in the browser, and everybody agreed that having a unified view of your contacts along with notifications of their updated content would be a very good thing. People in the browser is really what all these other sharing features ultimately center on. Content doesn’t generally create itself, after all.

I was either preoccupied or brain-dead and neglected to snap any photos of the meetup, but Perry came through with the photo above (and another in which you get a nice look at my gams but I otherwise look like a zombie, so you’ll have to hunt that one down yourself). Those who wanted them got tee-shirts and buttons, and feedback I’ve gotten so far indicates that it was a good event. I definitely look forward to holding another one when we release our next big milestone, if not before. If you’re in the Knoxville area, I hope you’ll stay tuned and maybe join us. I really appreciate the willingness of my partners in crime last night to spend an evening talking about Flock.

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community, flock

Knoxville meetup confirmed

It’s confirmed — Knoxville’s second Flock meetup will take place at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday (tomorrow) at the Barne’s and Noble on Kingston Pike (yes, we do know about books here in the south). We’ll gather in the cafe area. We’re a small group so far (but bigger than last time), and anybody in the area is welcome to stop by. I’ve got some nifty buttons to give out and, FedEx willing, I’ll have one or two tee-shirts that people can fight over. Other than that, we’ll just talk Flock. I hope to have a chance to give an overview of things to come and to answer any questions I’m able to about where we are with the software. Admittedly, since I’m on the web end of things now rather than the client side, my knowledge on that front is more limited than in the past. In any case, it should be a good event. Naturally, unless it’s a real snoozer, I’ll report on how it went. Consider this an invitation to other community members to hold meetups and to do status reports afterward. You’ll have to check this with Community Ambassador Will Pate, but I gather we’re getting much closer now to being ready for spread-like campaigns, and meetups seem to me like as good a way as any to participate.

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community, flock

Knoxville Meetup

Back in March, I more or less presided over a small Flock meetup in Knoxville. We’ve come a long way since March, and given the recent releases, I thought it might be a good time to hold another meetup event, this time with hopefully a slightly broader reach. Including myself, I can count on four participants this time and may be able to garner a fifth. If I break six, I’ll be pretty happy; Knoxville isn’t exactly browseropolis, you know. If you happen to be in the Knoxville area and are interested in meeting some other Flock users or just want to find out more, please let me know by email (daryl at flock dot com), and I’ll fill you in on the details as I firm up plans. Tentatively, I’m looking at finding a book store or coffee shop with wifi on Wednesday or Thursday evening next week.

There’s no set agenda, but I imagine we’ll talk some about where the browser’s been, where it’s come, and where it’s going. I fully anticipate the airing of some beefs with the browser, and I hope we’ve also given reason for some kudos to be awarded as well.

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flock, Personal

Flockupcake

FlockupcakeOn June 24, my daughter turned two years old. We had an extended-family party for her, and my wife baked star cupcakes. As party favors for the kids, she had made some blue and green tie-dyed tee shirts, and one of the kids’ activities was going to be making tie-dyed sock puppets.  It was pretty nifty. (Yes, you turn into a weirdo when you have kids.) I mentioned that since she was going to have blue star cupcakes to match the shirts anyway, we should shoot a picture of one for me to post as a flockstar. She went the extra mile and added the Flock logo on her own, and here it is. As far as I know, this is the first Flock baked good.

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