OMG, ur not ROTFLOLing? [texting]

According to a recent Scientific American blog:

Some parents who RBTL are worried that text messaging is G4N and a WOTAM that has ruined their kids’ ability to engage in D&M conversations and has become a new tool for KPC. Other parents see texting as PANS and find NBIF to physicians’ and psychologists’ concerns that it may trigger “anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation,” as The New York Times reported earlier this week. …

ASAMOF more than half of 1,000 teens and tweens surveyed by LG and research firm Interpret LLC indicated that they value the privacy of the texts more than of  their e-mails and diary entries … 31 percent of the teens surveyed believe their parents check their texts. In fact, 47 percent of 1000-plus parents surveyed by LG/Interpret  said they had read their kids’ texts without their consent. The message is clear: EVRE1 text AYOR, IYKWIMAITYD.

The Times, citing a Nielsen Company survey, reports that American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages per month in the last quarter of 2008 (almost 80 messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier). Another report, this one by Nielsen Telecom Practice Group, indicates that  77 percent of wireless subscriber lines in the U.S. subscribe to or purchase text-message capability.

While Scientific American and Lifehacker both reported about LX’s new site DTXTR (though it wouldn’t load for me when I wrote this), I find the texting glossary provided by Netlingo to be by far the most comprehensive resource (though it would be helpful if the page was user-contributable as I’m sure new shortcuts are being invented every minute).

Let me decipher the text above by including the full phrases here (some I’ve used, others I intend to):

  • ASAMOF – As A Matter Of Fact
  • AYOR – At Your Own Risk
  • D&M – Deep & Meaningful
  • G4N – Good For Nothing
  • IYKWIMAITYD – If You Know What I Mean And I Think You Do
  • KPC – Keeping Parents Clueless
  • NBIF – No Basis In Fact
  • PANS – Pretty Awesome New Stuff
  • RBTL – Read Between The Lines
  • WOTAM – Waste Of Time And Money
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“How blogging almost got me fired” [remorse]

Today’s story is courtesy of a friend of mine – I will call him “Jack” to preserve his anonymity and spare him further problems. I’m going to tell you Jack’s story and lessons learned (sans details) as a caution about engaging in social media.

Let me start by giving some background about Jack and his situation. Jack is a smart guy. He’s been in his current field over a decade and is well-respected by his company, “Smart Guys, Inc.” and his clients. He maintains a professional blog on a network that is shared between a sort of consortium of  different organizations. The time he spends writing to this blog is directly tied to his client work and they in fact encourage him to blog (and cover his time to do so). He typically writes about his area of expertise in order to share his knowledge and insights with a large community of users. Due in part to his blog, Jack is known and respected among a large audience, most of whom he’s never met in person.

bart_chalkboardRecently, Jack got in hot water because of a post he wrote. Frustrated with two products from another organization (“Megacorp”), he wrote a post criticizing these products but omitting nearly (key word) all details. It is important at this point that you know that Megacorp provides client work to Smart Guys and that Smart Guys, Megacorp, their clients, and many others in the consortium can all read his blog.

In a writing style typical of many blogs (and reflective of his personality), Jack started with a punchy, sarcastic introduction, then laid out a logical and thoughtful critique along with his recommendations for a better solution. His post received many comments within the span of a couple of weeks.

Jack is a careful blogger with plenty of experience. He goes through a “best practices” checklist before posting a new article. This includes tests such as:

  • Would I say this to a person/people face-to-face? Check. Jack realized that while his sarcasm might be received differently in person, the objectivity and thoroughness of the post would demonstrate his intent to provide constructive criticism.
  • Am I being objective? Am I sticking to the facts? Check. While his post contained anecdotal, personal experiences as well as hypothetical data, the key points of his argument were objective.
  • Is what I have to say meaningful and constructive? Check. Jack addressed an issue of wasting people’s time and recommended alternative solutions, both of which were worthy of attention and input from the wide audience on the blogs.
  • Is this topic pertinent to my job/role/client? Check. The products Jack criticized were similar to those he creates for his clients. With his depth and breadth of experience, he is well-qualified to speak to the matter.

Author’s note: I had the opportunity to read Jack’s post in its entirety so I can speak first-hand of its contents.

Once past this personal blogging gauntlet, he felt confident publishing the post.

And so began his troubles. Ironically, the same transparency that helped him build his reputation also helped open a huge can of worms.

Megacorp – the organization set in the cross hairs of Jack’s criticism – happened upon the post nearly three weeks after it was published. Even though Jack had sanitized the details, enough details remained to lead someone at Megacorp to deduce that they were the subject of his post (Author’s note: Probably a guilty conscience and a bruised ego). Based on key phrases Jack used in the post, Megacorp concluded that the post – in and of itself – could be used as a basis to launch an investigation of their company (a major legal deal). And since his blog is tied to his user account, it took a minimum of detective work to piece together who he was and what his connection was to Megacorp.

There were not happy.

At some point as it shot up Megacorp’s chain of command, Jack’s leadership was contacted and a demand issued for his termination along with a threat of a lawsuit against Smart Guys.

Author’s note: This response is a testament to the game-changing nature of social software and a fundamental shift in paradigms that requires individuals and organizations to change. This change includes putting ego aside in favor of direct and candid feedback.

Within less than 24 hours, the following events then transpired:

  • Megacorp big-wig contacts Smart Guy big-wig.
  • Smart Guy big-wig sends emergency email down the chain to Jack’s supervisor.
  • Jack’s supervisor defends his intentions and integrity while agreeing that a mistake was made. According to Jack, the actions of his manager probably had the single greatest impact on the resolution of this incident.
  • Jack meets with his supervisor to discuss the gravity of the situation. They agree that the post should be removed and a letter of apology issued to the Megacorp big-wig.
  • Jack removes the post and drafts an apology which is reviewed by Smart Guy big-wigs before sending to Megacorp.
  • Megacorp acknowledges the measures taken and realizes that there was no malicious intent.

Jack knows this incident will impact his “hall file” (unwritten reputation) for a long time to come. This is unavoidable, but he hopes to restore his reputation through continued high quality service to his clients and by educating other Smart Guy staff about the “dos” and “don’ts” of engaging in social software platforms.

Lessons learned

  • Watch your tone. Blogging is an art form. It requires a writing style that is both entertaining and engaging, but it should also be authentic and respectful. Jack crossed the line in some of his comments.
  • Avoid inflammatory words. In a face-to-face conversation, sarcastically saying someone is a “fraud” might be seen as humorous (and there’s no official record). In a blog post, it could be seen as libel or defamatory. And it is a written record which, in some cases, could be used as evidence to support an official investigation of wrongdoing.
  • Do not use details if they are not necessary. Jack realized afterward that he could have made his argument with as much impact without including details that could implicate Megacorp.
  • Do not let your ego destroy your career. While Jack could have stuck to his guns, it would have cost him a job that he has enjoyed more than any previous jobs. By removing his ego and pride, Jack was quickly able to apologize and help resolve the situation.
  • Do not bite the hand that feeds you. In other words, unless it is over a ethical or legal issue, do not pick a fight with those cutting your paycheck. Jack might have been fine if his target was another company that Smart Guys did not do business with.
  • Learn from mistakes, but do not be afraid to make more. Another person might be tempted to abandon all forms of self-expression after experiencing this conflict. Jack is not one of them. He plans to continue blogging and following his new lessons learned.

As a blogger myself, I take these lessons to heart. There is definitely a balance to engaging in social software sites. That balance is even more critical when using enterprise (internal) social sites.

Do you think Jack made the right decision? Should he have blogged what he did in the first place? Should he have defended the assertions in his post? Do you know someone who has or could make a similar mistake? Please share stories and tips in the comments!

My opinions supported by MediaWiki research [vindication]

I am a user of a fairly large enterprise wiki based on MediaWiki. Recently, a colleague and I were discussing the merits of introducing a graphical editor to our wiki. There are not many options, and the best of these (FCKeditor) is good, but far from perfect. My colleague then referred me to a usability study being conducted by the Wikimedia Foundation (the not-for-profit that serves as the organizer for MediaWiki developers).

This study seems to be focusing on how easy it is for users to edit technically (i.e., using the tool itself). However, one of the results mentioned in a “sneak preview” post jumped out at me. If you’ve read my first few posts on this blog, you’ll know why:

All of our participants are Wikipedia readers, but had little or no experience with editing.  Generally the editing process was not a warm and welcoming one…they voiced concerns about the rules, proper etiquette, formatting, and were naturally conscientious of and inhibited by maintaining the community expectations.  When a few of them attempted to find answers to their questions about rules and etiquette, they were overwhelmed with the amount of information and documentation they encountered.

While I’m not “glad” that other infrequent and inexperienced users are encountering similar frustrations to those I had, I am encouraged to see official research documenting these shortcomings.

In defense of Wikipedia admins and rules [reconsideration]

I initially started mrmerlot.com to rant about injustices I felt I had received trying to edit articles on Wikipedia (see here and here). This was, in fact, only the catalyst as I’d intended to start a technology-related musings site for quite some time.

However, today’s Dilbert post makes a point about why careful tending of the Wikipedia garden is important to maintain its credibility…

Dilbert.com

See the comments for this strip at dilbert.com.

Are netbooks worth the hype? [rant/rave]

The recent netbook trend fascinates me. It simultaneously goes against all technology trends toward bigger/faster while reflecting the actual needs of most consumers. Unlike Apple execs who think these are a big waste of time and money, I think there’s some real value from these below entry-level notebooks (which, I might add, are far superior to the OLPC laptop I almost ordered around Christmas before thinking better).

To get a better insight into the appeal of these new low-powered computers, I decided to get some hands-on experience. My criteria were simple:

  1. Cost under $300. I know most reviewers say under $500, but for that kind of money, I can get a nicely equipped full-size refurbed laptop.
  2. Comfortable form factor. If I can’t type at least close to my normal speed, it isn’t going to work for me.
  3. Very portable. While this conflicts a bit with #2, there are subtle design differences that make some netbooks more portable than others.
  4. Fast boot and wake times. This requirement evolved after my experience with the Dell.
  5. Decent battery life. I’ve been disappointed in this area, but consistently so.

Contestant #1: Dell Inspirion Mini 9

dell_inspiron_mini_9_netbookSpecs: Atom 1GHz processor, 16 GB SSD, 1GB RAM, webcam, WinXP
$293 (dell.com)

After reading dozens of reviews online, I decided to start with the Dell Mini 9. This device seemed to have the best blend of features and at an incredible post-Christmas refurb price blitz that I couldn’t pass up. It’s compact size, lightning-fast boot and sleep recovery times were impressive. It handled Windows XP and typical tasks like word processing and web surfing with admirable aplomb.The 16GB onboard SSD was sufficient, especially when coupled with an additional 16GB SD card, off which I ran Portable Apps. And the 9″ screen seems, to me, to be the perfect size for maximal readability and maximal portability.

I took this to a tech conference to test it in a real life situation and was happy not to have to lug around my Thinkpad. I thought I’d use the built-in webcam to capture a couple sessions, but the resolution is terrible and since it’s fixed pointing at the user, I could not simultaneously type on the Mini and record a presneter.

However, the keyboard is the Dell’s fatal flaw. It’s misplaced apostrophe key increased my typo rate to an unacceptable level, never mind the number of tweets that were sent off mid-thought because I hit the return key by accident. While I could have tried remapping the keyboard, the limited screen rotation angle and stiff mouse buttons made me wonder if there weren’t better options out there. Before its value dropped below what I bought it for, I sold it on eBay…for a nice profit!

Next up…the Acer Aspire One

acer-aspire_one-440x330_1

Specs: Atom 1GHz processor, 8/8 GB SSD, 1GB RAM, webcam; WinXP
$257 (eBay)

The Acer gets rave reviews so once the price came down a bit, I was really looking forward to this being “the one” (pun intended). Out of the box, I could tell the build was slightly cheaper than the Dell, but it was still a good-looking machine. Then I booted it up. And waited. And waited. This thing took nearly three minutes to go from cold to being able to do anything in Windows and even then it was sluggish.

The keyboard was more comfortable to use (the One is a bit wider than the Dell) but there were a few poor design issues. For example, the One is stated to have a “16GB SSD,” but what it really has is an 8GB SSD and an external 8GB SD card. This was perhaps part of the slowness issue, as it worked between the two storage devices. An additional SD card slot was handy except, unlike the Dell which allowed the inserted SD card to be enclosed flush with the outside of the device, the SD card on the One stuck out an 1/8 inch. Lastly, and this is really getting picky, I didn’t like the three-pronged AC cord. What could I possibly not like about it? I wouldn’t have even thought about it had the Dell not come with a two-pronged cord which fit neatly into the dash of my Toyota Matrix. This lack of flexibility was a minor annoyance, but still annoying.

Due to the various design flaws, I didn’t use this long enough to test the battery capacity. Instead, I returned it and started to wonder if there was not yet a decent netbook on the market.

Third time’s a charm?: Asus EeePC 900A

asus-eeepc-900-in-hands

Specs: Atom 1GHz processor, 4 GB SSD (upgraded to 32GB, $71), 1GB RAM (upgraded to 2GB, $20); Linux
$180 + 71 + 20 = $271 total cost

There was something enjoyable about getting my hands on the netbook that started it all. After purchasing the 900 for $160 which came with a 900MHz processor and 512MB RAM, I came across a deal for the 900A for $170 which had the Intel Atom 1GHz processor and 1GB of RAM for just $30 more.

Since the prices were so low, I ordered a 2GB RAM module and 32GB SSD from newegg and put both in the 900A. I then put the 1GB RAM in the 900 (and I put it on eBay). This involved simply removing a two screws for a panel on the bottom, popping out the existing components and plugging in the new ones.

The ease at which any user can mod this netbook indicates Asus designed the EeePC for what it is: a low-cost machine that can be upgraded up with very little money or effort. This is in stark contrast to the other netbooks on the market which requires a high level of technical skill and accepting a huge degree of risk as you immediately void your warranty. I’ve read a few how-tos which seem to indicate adding a $50 touch screen to the Asus is a fairly easy procedure as well so I’m seriously considering that mod!

This was my first foray with Linux (which partly explained the low price – no Windows license). Even though I had no prior experience with Linux, based on several resources and recommendations I decided to replace the default Xanadu with Eeebuntu (an Ubuntu build specifically for the EeePC) on both machines. This was a piece of cake as well: after downloading the image file and using a free utility to load it on a USB drive, I booted off the USB drive and the installation process took care of itself. The Eeebuntu interface is much nicer to use and seems to work much faster than the original OS. In addition, it’s based on Ubuntu and, since Ubuntu recently released an upgrade, I was happy to see that the core OS was upgradable while retaining the specific EeePC modules that make Ubuntu run smoothly on this machine.

The keyboard on the Asus is smaller than either the Dell or Acer but still usable. One startling issue I noticed with the 900 was the heat produced by it. The 900A does not seem to have this same problem.

One fantastic feature is the multi-touch touchpad (similar to Macbooks) which accepts two- and three-finger gestures to scroll and activate context-sensitive menus (like right-clicking). Linux does not provide as much support for this feature as Windows, but it’s still very cool.

Bottom Line: Wait for now

Of all the options, I’m most pleased with the EeePC for a couple of reasons: 1) the low base price means that I could try out a netbook with minimal investment. The ability to easily upgrade the memory and SDD is a huge benefit to me.

So why wait? While the overall design is satisfactory, the keyboard could be improved. The price, while low, didn’t include Windows. While I’m still getting used to Linux, I’m enjoying it so far. The Gnome interface isn’t very different from Windows and the OS runs very quickly on the EeePC. Since nearly every application that I typically use is either available for Linux or has a free alternative, I’m very satisfied with it so far. But…most buyers will still want to opt for Windows since it’s familiar.

I realize that I didn’t test every netbook on the market, mostly since others fail to meet one or more of my criteria. For example, the HP netbook has unacceptable design features like an integrated microphone/headphone jack and the Samsung and MSI Wind are still too expensive for me to seriously consider them “low cost” notebooks. Others include a 10″ screen, which makes the keyboard easier to use but also makes the device a bit too bulky for me to consider it “ultra portable.”

I think the perfect design is still lurking out there and I would encourage anyone who isn’t an “early adopter” to hold off until the market matures a bit.