Category Archives: Technology

Feature Request: The Netflix Channel

netflix-sees-swarm-of-returning-users-video--ee8efa4b31For over a year now, we’ve gone without having a cable or satellite subscription at our house.  I don’t miss it at all.  In fact, spending over $60 a month for something that shows ads half of the time seems antiquated enough already.  That, plus it makes absolutely no sense to pay that much a month when you’re only watching a few channels anyways.  For me, there would be only a few channels I’d watch regularly anyways.  AMC, Discovery Channel, TBS, ESPN, maybe a few others, and that’s about it.

The one thing that I do miss about having a subscription is the ease of just turning on one of my favorite channels and knowing that a lot of episodes of my favorite shows will be on for as long as I’d like.  The way that Netflix lets you handpick episodes of shows and movies is great, but I’d still like to see it become that kind of experience where I know I can just easily leave it on throughout the day.  Subscription services still allow for that, but I do think that Netflix could easily do it in two different ways.

1. Netflix Playlists – I’ve advocated for this for a while, and I’m still not so sure why Netflix hasn’t done it yet.  In this option, you could make a playlist of your favorites, either by show or by individual episodes.  Maybe even by movie if you’re planning a marathon.  Make a list once, hit play, and Netflix will go through the entire list.

2. Netflix Shuffle – This would be somewhat like a playlist, but would mix up episodes of your favorite TV shows.  It would be great if you could just tell Netflix that a specific list of a dozen or so shows are your favorite then just have a Netflix “channel” that plays random progressive lists of those shows.  For example, lets say that I’ve added Star Trek: The Next Generation and King of the Hill.  It would play the current episode of each of those in that order (or within a mix) and then play the next episodes once they’re both finished.

The only realistic barrier that I can see that’s holding Netflix back from doing either of the above are bandwidth concerns on their end.  Though I’m not sure why Netflix would release a feature that automatically plays next episodes if it was a big one.

I’m submitting this post to all of the public feedback channels that Netflix typically interacts with customers on.  If you’d like to see these features on their service, I’d appreciate your thoughts and your help in making this request of them too.


SXSW 2012 Review

For the second year in a row, I was lucky enough to attend South by Southwest in Austin Texas.  Just like last year, I wanted to review my adventures there and take notes on some of the coolest things I heard while I was there.  Below are some of my summaries and notes of the conference this year, followed by some general details and observations from my time in Austin this year.

Panels

Learn to Code and Make the Software You Want

I knew ahead of time that this was the panel that I stood to learn the most from.  The speakers at this session were formerly the “idea guys” behind their respective start ups.  They spoke about how they found out early on that they’d need to learn to code in order to make their ideas for products a reality.  They had great suggestions for a crash course on learning coding, including a weeklong cram session.  They said that the first few days, you would still have no idea what you’re doing, but by the end of the last day you would have a grasp enough to be confident in your work.

They also had great suggestions for learning platforms, including sites like railstutorial.com and railscasts.com.

Google: Why Didn’t I Think of That

This was actually an unofficial panel held off campus at one of the houses that Google had rented out for the week.  In addition to the best breakfast I’ve had in a long time, they also put together a fantastic panel where investors and developers talked about the best products they had seen launch at SXSW.  The consensus was definately that Highlight was the winner of the conference, but they also brought into question why that was.  If it weren’t for the high usage rate that Highlight found at SXSW, it was entirely possible that it was only talked about so much because sites like Mashable and TechCrunch said so.

I was also very impressed with how Google used the Hangout feature of Google+ to facilitate this panel.  They had four panelists live on the patio it was held, but also brought in four others via their Hangout software.  Hangout still looks like a beta product, but this was the best use case I’ve seen of it so far.  I think there’s a ton of potential in putting it into more use in the classroom and in other settings at UAHuntsville where I work.

Design, Build, Transform

This was probably the most inspirational session that I sat in on.  The speaker at this session had designed a mobile classroom initiative called “Project H.”  This one really hit home with me because the rural southern town that she brought it to reminded me so much of my hometown in Franklin County, Alabama.  She uses the web as an inspirational tool to have low income and underprivileged middle school kids come up with their own designs for chicken coops.

They were able to spark their own creativity, but it was also the best use case for why it’s imperative for rural areas like this to have equal and fair broadband web access.  Her solution was to bring about the results so that lawmakers could see the benefits of that web access before they spent the first dime on it.

Social Media for Nonprofits

This was probably the most applicable panel that I went to over the whole conference.  The speakers of this session had recently written a book detailing some of the best methods for encouraging community engagement for non-profits through social media, and they had an excellent summary of some of the best ideas in this session.

One of the best ideas they mentioned was that of holding more meet ups with the people you’ve already engaged online.  Online interaction is great, but can quickly fade and become lost in the crowd unless you’re able to meet people and put faces and voices with names.  Other ideas included creating what they called a “listening board.”  The way they showed how to do this was by creating an iGoogle page that included applets and RSS feeds from all of the social networks that focused on mentions and things like Google Alerts.  In this way, it’s easy to become very time efficient and effective in keeping on top of the conversation surrounding your organisation.  Another tip I wouldn’t have thought of was using Pinterest as an interest board.  Using it to showcase items you would like to add to a public collection can be a great way to solicit donations for a non-profit.

Evolution of the New York Times

This panel hit on some of my personal interests, but I was also interested in hearing it in the context of how I post university news stories online.  The editor of the Times talked about how social really is the new newspaper of the web, to the extent that the New York Times has a policy to break news on Twitter fist.  They’re still formulating that, as they don’t have a policy on whether or not a tweet breaking news should have a link to the full story or not.  There was a lot to get out of this panel, but it made me recognize more and more that users and the public that we connect with will look to social outlets first before looking to more traditional news sources when something breaks.

Other Fun and the Trade Show

I also hit up a few panels for fun, the most noteworthy of which was one of Kevin Smith’s Q&A’s.  Say what you want about him and his movies, but he’s a master storyteller and can captivate audiences with tales of even the most mundane details of his life.

On Sunday afternoon, I also attended the SXSW Screenburn show.  This was unlike anything else at the conference.  It’s a video game showcase that I attended in hopes of making a lot of new connections for the UAH LAN Party that we hold twice a year.  I’m glad to report that I hit a grand slam in this area, making awesome connections with companies like Intel and Alienware.  Our gaming community has grown tremendously in the past year, it was extremely gratifying to hear some of the top companies in this industry get excited about what we’re doing.

Also while I was at SXSW, I got to see the trade show.  I didn’t get to do this last year, and I really felt like I missed out.  It turns out, I did.  The trade show was immensely vast, with tons of different companies and organisations showcasing.  I was able to meet people from a film co-operative in Oklahoma, to music promoters in Memphis, the creators of WordPress, the editor of Make Magazine, and a few other universities.  I still have a pile of business cards I’m working on replying to.

The Hot App of SXSW 2012

Clearly, the winner this year is Highlight.  Last year, group messaging seemed to be all the rage, but I could never quite understand the hype.  This time around, Highlight was a uniquely wonderful discovery.  I was able to make a ton of connections just by nature of being physically close to someone.

Proximity based apps like this are exciting because you’re able to actually make a real life connection with someone by letting the software do the work of matching you with someone that you share interests with.  I was able to meet people at other universities and people working in video games just because we were all using Highlight.  Since I’ve returned home, I’ve only been able to match up with one person in Alabama, but I’m really excited to see this app catch on and gain traction.

I was also really impressed with a web app that Google was showcasing called Schemer.  This is a great way to make plans with your peers, and I think that it could be really useful on college campuses as sort of an “inverse Foursquare” if that makes any sense.

The rain tried to really put a damper on things in the first few days of SXSW this year, but things really kicked into gear late Saturday.  By that time, everyone was back out on the closed streets and the air in Austin started to smell of BBQ again.  In the same way that the weather improved, the quality of the panels got significantly better this year.  Not only that, but the trade show and an insanely great killer app made this an even better SXSW for me than last year.  These things are always a big productivity boost for me, as I’m so pumped to help people connect and build better things when I get home.

Here’s looking forward to SXSW 2013!


My Tech Prediction for 2012: The Year Hyperlocal Takes Off

If you haven’t been able to tell, one of my goals for 2012 is to write more.  I had a lot of things on my mind lately, and one of them was the evolution of the kind of work I’m in for the upcoming year.  I

Initially when I started college, I had seen myself as a web designer.  I was interested in helping to make the web work and contributing to the content on it.  But more and more, I’m more fascinated with web communication.  I manage the social media presence of my university at my job, which is a big part of that.  However, I don’t think the base feature set of Twitter, Facebook, and their variant cousins are the entirety of what we can do with communication on the web.  Sometimes the best examples of connecting people are new ideas that spring from their platforms.  For example, hashtags are something that the users of Twitter created, not Twitter itself.

One of my favorite examples of how people can become connected on the web is a Facebook page that has become popular in Northwest Alabama over the past year, the Shoals Sale Barn.  It’s a very simple idea, it’s just a Facebook forum where people can buy and sell anything and everything.  But it’s gotten to the point where it’s unfair to only consider it a Facebook Page at this point, it’s virtually a platform and economy of it’s own.

It also doesn’t exist solely within bits, because it’s connecting people in real life too.  Sellers and buyers are meeting one another and becoming friends.  You could do this through Craigslist for years, but stripping that anonymity and associating items with photos, names and hometowns is awesome because it curates a sense of community.

The Shoals Sale Barn has started a number of  pages for specific types of products as well as its share of copy-cats, and I’ve started to consider testing out a spin-off of my own.  Instead of sharing what’s for sale, what if a specific locally serving platform like this shared information?  I’ve joked that something like a “Shoals Gossip Barn” would be really popular, but I think something with a better name really would.  If as many people were a member of this platform, they could quickly and easily share news and information.  For example, a quick check of this page might show that a traffic light is out at a certain intersection.  Or perhaps that a public city council meeting has changed times.  If it were used just as much as the Sale Barn, this kind of venue could even usurp the local TV news as the best source of local information.  I think TV media is aware and scared of this, both WAFF and WHNT in our local market have recently launched community-specific features on their sites.

This type of specific catering is what us web nerds have been referring to as “hyperlocal” for a few years now.  It’s supposed to deliver information and the sharing of information to someone on a ridiculously local level, even down to the street level if there are enough people creating content or participating in it.  The Shoals Sale Barn is one of the best examples I’ve seen, but there are also great examples to be had at the university I work at.  In handling social media, my job is to communicate with as many people as possible.  But there are also campus clubs or dorm floors who communicate with a very specific set of people.  Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags are useful here too, but I’ve also seen things like Google Groups and uStream videos used well for these purposes too.  For example, our Starcraft 2 club on campus streams their meetings online for members who can’t make it.  It’s not a stream for thousands of people, it’s just something specific for about twenty at most.

I think content curators are quickly realizing that attempting to reach a mass audience dilutes the message.  Leo Laporte has recently said on his TWiT network that he doesn’t want to grow his video business any further, he just wants to cater better to the niche audience he already serves.  I think that’s right on the money.  This is true too when it comes to all web communication, and is what I’m thinking 2012 will bring us.  Existing platforms like Twitter and Facebook will bring us better ways to communicate with our neighbors right down the street instead of some person far away you vaguely care about.   Hopefully, new tools will realize this as well and provide even better ways to connect us in local ways we haven’t considered yet.

 


Using Google+ In Higher Ed

Most of everyone that I’m following in tech and higher ed circles has been really excited about Google+ in the past few days.  Google has had their real try at social networking and sharing in the works for a long while now.  Google Circles was rumored to have been shown to a few at South By Southwest in March, but it turns out that Circles was only one integral part of a larger Google+ experience.

What is Google+?

First of all, a primer for those who haven’t been following this:  Google released a +1 button a month and change ago that allowed users to “plus one” a link or page.  This was Google’s version of liking a link on Facebook.  The only big difference is that the plus ones that your friends hit make an impact on your search results.  Instead of a default list of links, you’ll now find the ones relevant to you based on your social graph.  (I’m really amused at how this is a big setback for the snake oil salesmen otherwise known as “SEO Experts.”)  Google opened up the +1 button to all users and implemented a button that can be embedded on a site’s front page recently, which made the sharing functionality a lot more relevant and useful.

Now, let’s fast forward to about 48 hours ago when Google opened up the entire +1 project to a private beta.  It turns out that the search relevance feature was only a small part of a larger social network that’s both similar and a step ahead of Facebook.


Adding Friends in Circles

One of Facebook’s major problems is that it doesn’t really offer a realistic way of separating your friends into groups.  Google essentially does that for you by placing your followers and followees into “circles.”  For instance, you might have one for work friends, one for family, one for internet friends, and so on.  With those circles, you can share specific content with specific circles.  This is a huge improvement upon existing platforms when it comes to contextual sharing, and more important, privacy.

How can it work in Higher Ed?

The circles function allows for what I’m hoping will be a much better social platform for sharing and collaborating in a higher ed context.  Of course, it’s going to be easier for university staff and faculty to add one another in a circle specific to that.  It’s also going to be ideal for students to add one another in a circle just for them.  It might even be great for them to create circles specific to each of their classes.  This way, the information relevant to those circles doesn’t become lost in the shuffle, and they will be able to hold online study groups in a manner that doesn’t require responsibilities in time or location.


The +1 feed looks like Facebook, but there’s a feed for each circle.

There are also a few other aspects of +1 that are light years beyond what Facebook currently offers.  The one I am most excited about is called Hangout.  It rethinks group video chat in a new way that makes it far more casual than what Skype currently shoehorns users in to.  Vic Gundotra, the Senior VP of Social at Google, explained how it works in a great metaphor on TWiT’s This Week In Google yesterday.  If someone is inside their house at 8pm, they probably would be annoyed if you came in for a visit.  But if they are sitting on their front porch, it would be almost rude for you to not at least wave if you walked by.  In a nutshell, that’s Hangout’s approach to video chat.

Hangout is what I’m most excited about when it comes to applicability at a university.  Students often need to collaborate after hours on group projects, and typically like to share notes (or talk about the instructor behind their back) outside of class.  Hangout allows a group of students to meet and ignite discussion in a way far more analogous to “real life” than any other online collaborative tool so far.  There’s no need to schedule anything or place anyone in a socially awkward situation.  They can just meet online as they are working in a way that’s more like bumping into one another in the University Center.  I’ll be teaching a First Year Experience class this Fall, and it frustrates me that I probably won’t be able to encourage the use of this because it likely won’t be public yet.

What are the challenges?

As anyone who has followed Google’s attempts into social knows, they don’t have a great track record.  They’ve yet to fully commit to a project like this beyond the attention spans of users who often don’t really grasp it.  However, as Gina Tripani points out, this seems as if it’s the culmination of those mistakes.

Another possible challenge to this is Google delaying deployment of this into their university offering.  UAH has used Google Apps for Universities for about a year and a half now, and it seems to be stuck in 2009.  None of Google’s new projects, even those out of beta, have been deployed there for some time.  Google+ seems like such a perfect tool for universities to collaborate with, it would be a shame if it were to suffer the same fate.

The most important challenge to Google+ is going to be adoption.  This has to be at least as widely used as Twitter in order to succeed.  The tools are in place, but they really have no worth if there aren’t enough users there to take advantage of them.  College students are typically a crowd of early adopters, so I am hopeful in that area.  I do think that we will think a lot more highly of Google+ in around a year than we did about Wave and Buzz.


Web Design (As We Know It) Is Dead

From the title, you can see where I’m going with this.  And you’re probably thinking that I’ll really have to back that assertion up, which I think I can do.  In effect, the idea that we’ve had for the past decade of what web design is, is dead.  There is still a lot of value in aesthetically pleasing design on the web, but it doesn’t hold nearly as much importance or meaning as it once did.  If you can get over that wild idea, read on to find out why I think why.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, a sole web site hosted on a server and delivered to a browser was the one and only way of massively communicating.  Early on in the web, sites that functioned like glorified print publications only allowed for one way communication from the messenger to the reader of it.  We would put up email links to allow for some limited discussion, but that was mainly it.  Things like message boards and Usenet have existed for a long time, but those have been fringe venues that have never caught on with mainstream users.

Now lets go forward a few years more to where blogs became prevalent on the web.  This was early on in the 2000’s before the time of Twitter and Facebook.  At this point, more mainstream and “normal” web users have a more efficient way of publishing their own content via outlets like Blogger.  It also facilitated an easier way of communication, with readers of blogs being able to quickly and easily comment on each post.  Authors and readers of blogs began to form communities by creating link rolls on each of their sites.  Eventually, larger organizations such as colleges and companies started adopting blogs and joined in on the kind of community and discussion that it enabled.

As we go forward a bit more, things like Facebook and Twitter have made that kind of simple point to point communication even more simple.  By following or liking a page or product, information and updates are aggregated and delivered to the reader.  Now information comes directly to a reader instead of them having to seek out a site each time.  This kind of aggregation also gives groups and brands a level playing field by giving each one just as much space in a tweet or Facebook update.

As this kind of simple point-to-point communication becomes more accepted and widespread, I feel that the value of a web site as we’ve come to think of it has been greatly lessened.  There will always be a need for a web site to exist so that interested readers can find a collection of information curated in a more specific way for them, but the modern web isn’t really about lengthy or involved reading.  Aside from areas within academia, modern web readers aren’t going to become that involved.

There will still certainly be a place for web development.  There will always be more ways to expand how we can use the web to communicate, and it will take more talented developers to enhance what we already have and create what we don’t.  And there is certainly still a place for design on the web.  Devices like Android tablets and iPads provide for almost physical real estate that beg for print-like design.  But as those kind of devices become more prevalent, they make traditional computers the “trucks” of computing that fewer readers will use.  How people view content online has changed and is continuing to change very quickly.  As a designer, I feel it’s important for me to rethink what it is I’m publishing because of that.  If I’m writing and designing content all day long, does it really matter if everyone is just on Facebook and Twitter all day and aren’t actually visiting my site?

I originally wanted to title this article simple “Web Design Is Dead,” but I realized that isn’t true.  What we’ve come to expect from it and what we’ve assumed of it has just changed drastically in the past few years.  How people use the web is now different, so it’s time to re-evaluate how we design and publish for it.  Do we care more about what something looks like, or how effectively people are effectively communicating and being communicated to?


My SXSW 2011 Adventures

Now that I’m back from Austin and have covered my bases as far as getting back in touch with all of the contacts I made there, I wanted to sit down and review everything that I got to see and learn while I was at South by Southwest this past weekend.  First off, this was my first SXSW and it was absolutely amazing.  That word is overused lately, but it’s very applicable here.  It was a lot of fun, but it felt like I was being extremely productive at the same time.  I met a lot of great people working on really exciting products, and getting in on that community was one of the most professionally rewarding things I’ve ever done.

I’ll talk about some of the great services I learned about in a bit, but first I wanted to cover some of the awesome panels I got to sit in on.  I had a bit of pride in myself for earning the “Panel Nerd” badge on Foursquare for having attended so many of them.  It was true that I was there to learn, and SXSW was the perfect place for me to do it.  I sat in on around a dozen different panels in my three days there, but I wanted to go over some of the most informative ones in detail here.

Google’s Marissa Mayer Presents – From the description of this keynote, I thought it was going to mostly pertain to Marissa Mayer talking about her career experiences at Google, but that was dead wrong.  This was a full blown Google keynote with product launches, and it was the best event I attended during the conference.  Google showed off some new mobile products they’re working on, most notably of which was Google Hotpot.  It’s kind of a cross between location check-ins and Twitter trends, which I think is the next evolution of those services.  I also got to speak with Marissa directly about how she thinks mobile services like this might intersect with higher ed institutions like UAHuntsville, she says that this is definitely something that they’re looking at in terms of student engagement.

How Print Design is the Future of Interaction I’m mostly a visual designer in my work, so this was a great way to learn about how the two areas I mostly work in intersect.  The speaker at this event was one of the main UI designers at Microsoft who had his hands very dirty in the design of their Windows phones, and I was very surprised to learn how much influence print design had on their work.  This made me realize how much print design can and should play into the web and new interfaces, and I was able to get a lot of creative ideas of things to use in the future.

Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation Most of the events I attended were mostly about theory, but this was the most technical.  There were representatives from all of the major browsers here, all of whom are on the W3C Working Group.  This felt like one of my local web group meetups in Huntsville, and there were a lot of specifics I was able to jot down about CSS implementation that should help me in the future.  I was also really pleased to see that they were all taking suggestions from the crowd in terms of what standards they should set in the future for CSS.

Other panels I attended included sessions about iPad design, the “death” of Flash, inclusive design, and much of the same.  I get the feeling that there were even more panels I could have gotten a lot out of, but SXSW is a lot like visiting a major theme park or city.  There’s so much to do, there’s no way you could do everything you want.

However, I wasn’t that surprised to discover that most of the value of this trip was also outside of the conference center.  Just on the shuttle on the way to Downtown Austin, I met the CEO of a new Bay Area based service called Kullect.  Kullect is an upcoming resource that will allow you to crowdsource questions and tips in a way that will let specific users of services or residents of locales become gurus of their areas.

Crowdsourcing questions and answers seemed to be the theme of new services this year, as Localmind is already doing the same thing.  I met a few of their reps there, and was really happy to find out that the service was already being widely used at SXSW.  I got a lot of great tips on where to find things around Austin using it.  If I got a vote, Kullect and Localmind would be mine for best startups at SXSW.

I was also there to make connections for our LAN Party at UAH, and I was able to hit a lot of home runs in that area.  Companies like Revision 3 and Twisted Pixel are going to be supporting us in the future, which is something I never could have achieved without attending.  I even got the chance to try out a Nintendo 3DS before it’s released to market.  (It wasn’t really that impressive, but that’s another blog post altogether. ) I was also able to talk with Brian Brushwood and start scheduling him to come do his tech / magic act at UAHuntsville this Fall sometime.

As for other things to do in Austin at this part of the year, there’s of course plenty to do.  My favorite event of the weekend was the Digg Meetup and Diggnation party on Saturday night.  Digg hosted a nice dinner at Parkside in Downtown Austin, where those of us who were invited got to speak with their CEO and bounce around ideas for the future of the site.

The Diggnation party was of course a blast with some great music and awesome new friends.  If you haven’t heard of it, Diggnation is a tech podcast that’s just as much about inside jokes and a lot of fun as it is about technology news.  It may sound boring, but the hosts practically put on a rock concert around it.

If you even remotely work in tech or design, South by Southwest is an absolute must.  After meeting so many other people who are doing awesome things in my field, I feel more pumped up than ever to be in the kind of work that I am.  SXSW is a place to go to make connections and meet people, but it’s also a place to go to get insanely inspired.  I will absolutely be back in Austin for SXSW 2012, I can’t wait.


Live from SXSW

I’ve just gotten into the Austin Convention Center, and have already gone through a somewhat painless badge pick up process. I actually got in here a bit earlier than I anticipated and I’m in Ballroom D now waiting to hear from Jason Calicanis and Tim O’Rielley. I’m hoping to hear Google’s Marissa Meyer just after this in the same ballroom, so we’ll see how it goes.

The panel I’m about to sit in on should be about instructional technology textbooks, so this fits in pretty well to the stuff we’re doing at UAH. I’ll update as the afternoon goes along, luckily the convention center has great WiFi here.
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Okay, I decided that I actually wanted to listen to all of that stuff instead of type out everything that was said. The first panel yesterday wasn’t too informative and was mostly tech gossip, so I didn’t stick around too long. What was awesome was the Marissa Meyer / Google keynote, which showed a lot of new Google Mobile features and solicited a lot of feedback. I even got to ask Marissa a question and asked how Mobile might crossover with Higher Ed. She said this is something they are absolutely looking into, I hope my question spurs some growth in that area.

The first panel I’m at today is about print design, which is something I’ve been working a lot with the past few years. I’ve got a lot of great panels coming up later today, I’ll update on them later if I get the chance.

Final update: So Twitter and Foursquare were far better options for covering this than using WordPress on my iPad.  I’ll have a full detailed post of everything I learned and all my adventures up soon.