Desert of My Real Life

{November 13, 2011}   Software Development and the User

I’ve been thinking about software usability a lot lately, mostly because I encounter so much software that isn’t particularly usable. There are two pieces of software that I use a lot right now which drive me crazy for their lack of usability. And yet, I still use them. Perhaps that’s why the usability doesn’t improve. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

The software development company that I worked for right out of college was The Geary Corporation, founded by Dave Geary in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It doesn’t exist anymore because Dave died of MS and not too long after, his family sold it to Keane, Inc. But while it was around, Geary was an awesome company to work for and one of the things that distinguished it from other companies at the time (and apparently, companies now) was its focus on the user. We did a lot of development for Fortune 500 companies, which have a lot of middle management type people. Dave would not deal with those folks as we developed our software and this is a lesson I learned well. He would make the contract with the folks at the top of the decision chain and then he would go straight to the users. We might deal some with the users’ direct supervisor but all decisions about how the software needed to work were passed by the users on the front line, tested by them and approved by them. I learned this lesson so well that it is a central tenant of the software engineering textbook that I co-wrote.

I think about this a lot when I’m using Facebook. It’s a great tool for social networking but as time has gone on, I think the folks at Facebook have forgotten the user. The latest example of this is their recent upgrade of the Newsfeed so that it is no longer presented chronologically. Instead, Facebook decides what to show you. The Facebook site explains that this is for people who don’t visit Facebook very often and so Facebook tries to predict what will be most interesting so they don’t have to wade through a lot of minutia. That’s fine but did Facebook test this out with folks who use Facebook every day or multiple times a day? Given the subsequent uproar, I would guess not. To their credit, Facebook recently announced that they’ll be rolling out another update to give users an option concerning how they want their Newsfeed to appear. I keep using Facebook because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages (so far) but I have installed a cool app that gives me more control over my experience with the site. The app is called Social Fixer (used to be Better Facebook) and although it doesn’t work perfectly, given that it’s created by one guy in his living room, it’s awesome.

The other piece of software that is giving me fits is the tool that we use at PSU to search for courses. It’s always been ugly and clunky and not easy to understand but we have such a shortage of IT folks to help fix these things that I’ve never officially complained about it. We recently decided to stop printing a paper list of our courses which forces everyone to use this search tool. And so someone recently decided to upgrade the tool. To do the same search now requires more clicks and more scrolling than before. That’s a sign to me that whoever did the upgrade didn’t talk to faculty about how they use it. I suspect that they also didn’t talk to students. What a horribly inefficient use of time–why would you spend time upgrading a tool so that the result is less usable? If someone had come to talk to me for ten minutes, I would have explained, for example, that searching for courses by department is not an “advanced” use of the software and so I don’t want to have to click an extra time to get to that option.

None of this probably seems like a huge deal. But when you think of the amount of time we spend developing software and then using that software, it seems crazy to me that we would not take a few minutes early on to get user input as to how the tool can be most efficient and effective.

{February 4, 2011}   Facebook Security

Robin pointed out an article about Facebook security today that made me think about some things that everyone who browses the web should know about but which the article unfortunately neglects to discuss.  The article is about the fact that, until today, Facebook has been available only through the hypertext transfer protocol (“HTTP”) and not through the encrypted hypertext transfer protocol secure (“HTTPS”).  That sounds a bit technical and boring but if you ever use Facebook on an open wireless network (in a cybercafe, for example), you probably want to pay attention to this particular issue.  If you don’t care about the details of how this works, at least read the next to the last paragraph where I explain all the steps (including one not mentioned in the orginal article) to keep yourself secure when using Facebook.

When you use your browser (Internet Explorer or Firefox are two of many, many examples) to browse the web, you are making connections from your computer to computers all over the world.  That is, when you put an address in the address box or you click a link on a page, you are sending a message from your computer to a computer out on the Internet, requesting some sort of service.  These computers all over the Internet come from many different hardware manufacturers and run many different operating systems.  To make sure that your computer can communciate with that computer out on the Internet, your browser must specify the protocol to use.  A protocol is simply a set of rules that specify a kind of language that the two computers agree to communicate in.  HTTP is one of these sets of rules while HTTPS is a different set of rules.  The difference between these two protocols has to do with security.  If your computer communicates using HTTP, every request for service is sent as plain text which means that if someone can listen to your request (by grabbing your messages from the wireless network, for example), that request can be read.  If, on the other hand, your computer communicates using HTTPS, your request is encrypted which means that someone listening to your request (other than the computer that you’re making the request of) will hear jibberish.

What do protocols have to do with you and Facebook?  Up until today, Facebook has only allowed communication to occur in plain text.  So if someone on the same wireless network as you listened in on your communication with the Facebook computers, they would be able to read everything that you sent, including your username and password.  So anytime you used a wireless network in a cybercafe to check your Facebook account, anyone else within that cafe (who had a bit of technical skill) would be able to capture your username and password.  This vulnerability is not something unusual within computing circles.  And the fact that Facebook has ignored it until now is pretty unconscionable.  A Seattle programmer named Eric Butler decided to push the issue and created a browser extension called Firesheep that made it extremely easy for anyone to capture HTTP messages on public networks.  In response, Facebook has finally allowed HTTPS (encrypted) communication to its computers. 

There are two things you need to do in order to use Facebook securely.  First, you need to change your account settings within Facebook.  The original article that Robin posted explains how to do this.  Go to Account Settings (under the Account menu in the upper right corner) and scroll down the third to the last item in the list, which is called Account Security.  Choose change and check the box that says “Browse Facebook on a secure connection (https) whenever possible.”  But it is really important that you also take a second step in order to be secure when you are browsing on an open network.  Up until today, whenever any of us has started to communicate with Facebook’s computers, we have typed in (or clicked a link to) the following address:  Notice the letters before the colon–HTTP.  We begin our communication with Facebook’s computers in an insecure way.  We then enter our usernames and passwords in an insecure way.  When Facebook then realizes that this is an account that has requested secure communication, it changes the way the two computers communicate with each to HTTPS.  The problem is that we have already sent our username and password in an insecure way.  So the second step you have to take is that when you type in Facebook’s address, you MUST type: so that the communication begins securely.  This second step is the one that the original article neglects to mention.

I set up my account to communicate securely with Facebook whenever possible.  Unfortunately, many applications on Facebook cannot use a secure connection.  That is, every time I play Scrabble or Go, for example, I have to change to an insecure connection.  So for now, I’m leaving my settings so that I communicate via HTTP rather than HTTPS.  I guess I’ll just have to remember to change my security settings before I leave home to use any computer (including my own) on an open public network.  That’s my only option because I’m definitely not going to stop playing my games.

{September 23, 2010}   New Definition of “Friend”

One of the ways that I first knew that Facebook was having a major impact on our society was that I heard my friends in the real world, many of whom are English professors, using the word “friend” as a verb.  Before Facebook, “friend” was a noun.  Before Facebook, the verb form of “friend” was “befriend.”  But now, it is common to use “friend” as a verb, as in “He wants to friend me” or “She friended me.”  Of course, this use of the word refers to the creation of a symmetrical relationship between two Facebook accounts in which each acknowledges the relationship in a way that allows the owner of each account to see the content posted by the owner of the other account.  At least, that has been how we Facebook users have used the word from 2004 (when Facebook was founded) until this week.

And that’s because Facebook is once again changing the definition of the word.  Until this week, when someone made a request to be my friend, that would appear on my Facebook page with two options.  I could either accept this friend request or I could ignore it.  I’m not sure why I wasn’t able to outright REJECT such requests but ignoring them certainly appealed to my ever-shrinking nice side.  In any case, in anticipation of the new Facebook movie (The Social Network) and the “real” Facebook movie (Catfish), Facebook has made a change.  We no longer get the options of accepting or ignoring friend requests.  Instead, we can either accept the friend request or we can say “Not Now.”

So what does “Not Now” mean?  When you click “Not Now,” you are putting that particular friend request into a pending state, indicating that you want to deal with it later.  While this friend request is in the pending state, the person who did the requesting, when looking at your profile, will see the “Awaiting Friend Confirmation” message that they would have previously seen before you dealt with their request at all.  In other words, they will have no idea that you have put them into this pending state. 

Meanwhile, if you look at the right side of your main Facebook page and scroll down, you’ll see a “Requests” section and the friend request will appear there.  If you then click on it, you will be given the option at that point to either confirm the friend request or delete it.  By the way, THIS is how you really say you don’t want to be friends with someone.

But there are some other important points to keep in mind.  First, remember that you have to pay attention to your privacy settings.   For example, I make the majority of my information available to “Friends Only,” which means that only my friends can see my information.  Another of the options is that “Everyone” can see your information.  If that is the choice you have made, you might be interested in this new change made by Facebook concerning Friend requests.  If you have some of your settings set to “Everyone,”  then any Friend requests that you have said “Not Now” to and have not yet deleted from your Requests menu will get your status updates in their Newsfeed.  As though they had been approved as your friend.  Even though you have put them into this “pending” status.

So I think there are a couple of important things to pay attention to here.  The first is that “Everyone” is always a dangerous setting for privacy.  So think carefully about whether you want something to be set to “Everyone.”  The only things I have set to “Everyone” are “Send me Friend Requests” and “Send me messages.”  In other words, everyone can request to be my friend.  And everyone can send me a message.  I set this to “Everyone” because I wanted people who were requesting to be my friends to send me a message about why I should accept their friend request.  But since I don’t have “Search for me on Facebook” set to “Everyone,” I feel pretty safe here.  I have that set to “Friends and Networks.”

Now that the logistics of these settings is out of the way, it might be interesting to consider why Facebook would be making these changes.  Why would Facebook be changing the way friend requests work?  I think Facebook wants to change the way we think about the word “friend” so that we will be prepared for some additional changes in the future.  Currently, I think most people think of a “friend” relationship as a reciprocal relationship, a two-way relationship between two people.  By allowing this “pending” state for friends, Facebook is trying to get us to believe that friendship may not be reciprocal, may not be two-way.  If you put someone in this pending state (and you haven’t set privacy settings correctly), then they will have things put in their newsfeed about you that “non-friends” won’t have.

Why would Facebook want to change the definition of “friend?”  I think it’s all about money.  More specifically, I think it’s all about advertising.  I think Facebook is trying to push the envelope in terms of the definition of “friend” so that we increasingly accept things from our “friends” (even those in a pending status) as somehow more valid than “real” advertising.  Somehow Facebook will make money from our acceptance of non-friends as friends of some type, even if that type is “pending.”  Facebook doesn’t want us to think too much about this.  They just want us to accept.  Or at least say “Not Now.”

{August 30, 2010}   Facebook Places

Here’s the status update of one of my friends on Facebook today (August 29): “IMPORTANT!!!   Facebook launched Facebook Places yesterday. Anyone can find out where you are when you are logged in. It gives the actual address & map location of where you are as you use Facebook. Make sure your kids know.  Go to ‘Account’, ‘Account Settings’, ‘Notifications’, then scroll down to ‘Places’ and uncheck the… 2 boxes. Make sure to SAVE changes and re-post this!”

I had heard something about this particular feature but, to be honest, until I saw this status update, I really hadn’t paid much attention to it.  But this status update felt so dire that I decided I really needed to check out what this feature is all about.  It turns out that this feature was released on August 18, nearly two weeks ago.

I checked the help section of Facebook and found that Places is a “feature that allows you to see where your friends are and share your location in the real world. When you use Places, you’ll be able to see if any of your friends are currently checked in nearby and connect with them easily. You can check into nearby Places to tell your friends where you are, tag your friends in the Places you visit, and view comments your friends have made about the Places you visit.”  So it seems that Facebook is trying to move its network into the real world in a new way.  In fact, they tell us that we can “Use Places to experience connecting with people on Facebook in a completely new way.”  They seem to see Places as a way to connect the real with the online in a way that hasn’t really been possible in the past.

Like many changes to the way Facebook works, this particular feature has raised privacy concerns.  People have worried that this feature can be used to track a Facebook user’s movements.  I think this is a valid concern but it’s one that is easily ameliorated.  The Places feature is currently only available to those users in the United States who access Facebook via their iPhone or via, which is Facebook’s website for touchscreen mobile devices.  Although I haven’t been able to confirm this, I think your mobile device would need to have GPS capabilities so those of us who use the iPod Touch don’t need to worry about this feature (at least, not yet).

Some of the privacy concerns seem to be a bit misplaced, however.  Although I haven’t checked it out, Facebook assures us that no user’s location would be shared unless that user “checks in” with their location.  In other words, the feature requires active participation on the part of the user.  Which is a good thing, it seems to me.  No location sharing happens without the user explicitly allowing it.  So maybe the feature isn’t as dangerous as my friend’s status update would lead us to believe.

In my opinion, privacy is about choice.  Privacy is not necessarily about secrecy.  Instead, it’s about giving the owner of information the choice as to whether and with whom she will share that information.  Although Facebook has made some problematic privacy decisions in the past, from what I can see so far, the Places feature does not jeopardize the privacy of Facebook users.  I don’t quite understand yet the feature where your friends can tag you at a location so perhaps that’s an area of concern.  I’ll be curious about whether anyone else knows more about that.

Regarding the instructions given in my friend’s status update that I reference in the first paragraph of this post–those instructions are about notifications.  They specify whether you will be notified if someone tags you at a place.  If you uncheck the box (as the instructions tell you to do), you will not be notified of such a tagging.  Unchecking the box does not prevent someone from tagging you.  So I think you probably don’t want to follow those instructions–especially if you are concerned about the information that is out there about you.

{June 1, 2010}   FaceBook Profile Pictures

The BBC is sponsoring a very cool project to get people excited about science.  It’s called So You Want To Be a Scientist.  Over 1300 people submitted ideas for scientific questions to be answered and a panel of experts reviewed the submissions, looking for the most interesting, promising ideas.  The selected finalists, with the help of a professional scientist in a related field, will now design an experiment to address their question and will then perform the experiment, collect data, and prepare the results for presentation at the British Science Festival in September.  Judges will then choose a winner.

There are four finalists.  The experiment that I found most interesting was submitted by Nina Jones, a 17-year-old high school student from England.  She hypothesizes that adults and teens use their Facebook profile pictures differently.  Adults seem to use a photo of a significant event from their lives as their profile picture while teens tend to use a photo that shows them having a good time with their friends.  Nina will examine profile photos to determine whether this hypothesis is true and if it is, why it occurs.  She’s looking for volunteers to allow their profile pictures to be examined–she needs permission because profile pictures are one of the last items on Facebook that are private by default.  Once she has a bunch of volunteers, she will use statistical sampling techniques to choose the pictures she will examine.  If you want to volunteer, go to the Facebook fan page for her experiment and “like” it.  She will choose from among the people who like the page.  Here’s a link:!/BBC.picture.experiment?v=info

I think it’s an interesting experiment but I’m not sure her hypotheses will hold up.  My anecdotal experience with my friends (who mostly fall into the “adult” category) doesn’t seem to indicate that they overwhelmingly use pictures from their significant life events.  What do you think?

{February 15, 2010}   Conspicuous Consumption

I’ve commented on this blog before about my love of the status update, both on FaceBook and Twitter.  I love reading about what my friends are currently doing and regularly use Twitter myself to update my FaceBook status.  A new website takes the status update to a whole new level. allows the user to link his or her credit card to a status updater.  So every time a credit card purchase is made, the purchaser’s followers are notified of the amount and the place of the purchase.  In addition, the purchase is itemized.  You can also link your Blippy account with your FaceBook account (so your purchases become your FaceBook status) and your Twitter account (ditto your Twitter status).  Then, when you make  a purchase, your status will be changed to something like: “Cathie spent $9.99 at” and the itemization would show you that I purchased the Kindle version of The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.  The site bills itself as: “Blippy is a fun and easy way to see and discuss the things people are buying.”

Ann brought this website to my attention after she read an article about it in Time Magazine.  It was an interesting article by Barbara Kiviat.  The interesting thing about that article is that Kiviat theorized that if people could see what she was spending, she would be shamed into spending less.  But her own behavior, and that of others, showed the opposite.  Instead, people wanted to spend more money to show their followers the cool places they were visiting and the cool things they were buying.  Conspicuous consumption, indeed.

{December 7, 2009}   Twitter Followers

My favorite part of FaceBook is the status update.  I love to see what my friends are saying about their activities.  As a result, I really like Twitter.  For me, the perfect use of both is to combine them.  So I use Twitter to update my FaceBook status on a regular basis. 

I’ve been noticing that I regularly get new Twitter followers and I’ve often wondered why and how those new followers have found me.  I got my answer yesterday.  A friend was hosting a poker party yesterday afternoon.  In anticipation, I changed my status (via Twitter) to “Cathie is ready for some poker.”  Within minutes, a new follower, called “CPL Poker Podcast”, appeared.  The only way this could have possibly happened is if CPL Poker Podcast was set up to automatically follow anyone who used the word “poker” in their Twitter updates.

So that explains it.  There must be a way to set up your Twitter account to automatically look for updates with certain key words in them and then automatically follow the users who are posting those updates.  The hope, of course, is that when followed, the user will become a follower of those that are following her.  Interesting strategy.

{October 13, 2009}   Arrested for Poking

A Tennessee woman was arrested after poking another woman on FaceBook.  What’s interesting to me about this story is that ABC News decided it was newsworthy.  It just doesn’t seem like it is to me.  The woman who was poked had a protective order against the poker.  A protective order means no contact.  Poking is a form of contact and so, yes, if the woman violated the protective order, she should be arrested.  Her lawyer, of course, is questioning whether she actually was the perpetrator of the poke and if she wasn’t, then she should not go to jail.  But if she did poke the woman in violation of the protective order, then she should face the same punishment as if she had called the woman or showed up at her house.  I think ABC News thinks this story is newsworthy because it involves what ABC News considers an unusual medium for communication.  I only wish they had made it clear that THAT was the reason the story was interesting to them.  As the story reads now, it seems like they think it’s ridiculous that a poke would be considered contact.  If it wasn’t contact, people wouldn’t poke their friends, right?

{September 14, 2009}   Patrick Swayze

At 8:05 tonight, the AP announced that Patrick Swayze had died.  By 8:25, my Aunt Ava had posted a FB status update that he had died of pancreatic cancer.   Within minutes of that, several more of my FB friends had notified me that he had died.  Information truly is instantaneous.  How would I have found out about his death otherwise?  Ah, social media.

{August 13, 2009}   Summer Play

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m chairing a panel at NeMLA in April about using Web 2.0 technologies to play.  Because of this panel, I’ve spent much of my summer playing and thinking about playing online.  Yes, I recognize that I have a great job!

The game that has captured my online attention this summer is Scrabble on FaceBook.  There are a few people (Liz, Scott, Ann) that I’m playing with regularly, multiple games at a time.  There are also a couple of people (Sally, Carrie) with whom I seem to constantly have one game going.  And then there are a few people (Gary, Cathrine, Kate) that I play with occasionally.  I even sometimes play with strangers, although I find those games less engaging, probably because the social aspect of the game, which I’ve also written about before, is lacking.

One of the things I really like about Scrabble on FaceBook is that it will not let you play an invalid word.  So the game is completely about pattern recognition.  When I play the game in person, nothing stops me from playing an invalid word and so I am unlikely to take a chance on a word that I am unsure about.  If my opponent challenges me in the real life game and I have played an invalid word, I lose a turn.  In the online version of Scrabble, I can’t lose a turn for playing an invalid word.  As a result, I’m likely to try letter combinations that I would never have tried in real life.  I’ve learned lots of new words by just trying out letter combinations.  What is “zax” for example?  Or “tranqs”?  And I’ve learned many, many two letter words whose meanings I’m sure I’ll never know.  Anyone know what “za” is?  Or “xu”?  Or “ka”?

Lots of other FaceBook games have come to my attention and not captured it this summer.  I’ve tried Farkle and Rummikub, both of which I love in the real world.  Many of my friends have been playing Farmtown and so I’ve created my own farm but I haven’t visited it for days.  And Mafia Wars.  And Bejeweled.  Well, to be honest, I won’t allow myself to really play Bejeweled because it is exactly the kind of game that I could become addicted to and I don’t really want to be addicted to a game right now.

But the kind of play I’ve been most interested in this summer has not been play that is associated with games.  I’m really interested in play as a way of practicing and expressing parts of one’s identity that is difficult to practice or express in the real world. 

My FaceBook friends seem to do a lot of quizzes.  They want to find out which philosopher most closely represents them and how well they know their Princess Bride quote trivia.  They want the rest of us to know five places they’ve lived and five jobs they’ve had and five cars they’ve owned.  For some reason, I have resisted these quizzes although I’ve been thinking a lot about what people get out of taking them.  And what I’ve come to realize is that these quizzes are a way to reveal one’s identity, either your real one or the one you wish you had.  This came to me the other night as I was engaging in non-gaming online play of my own.  I like to play with memes that come in the form of lists of questions that you answer in a note on your FaceBook profile.  A meme is a cultural idea that is transmitted from one mind to another, in this case, via FaceBook.  There are lots of memes running around FaceBook.  Most of these memes allow users to reveal things about themselves (or not), helping to construct a kind of online identity that supplements (or perhaps alters) one’s identity in the real world.

A few weeks ago, for example, I revealed to my friends the fifteen books that I’ve read that have stuck with me.  The idea is that you list these books without thinking too much about them, presumably so you can’t make yourself seem cooler than you actually are.  My list contained books that I’d talked recently with Ann about (Disgrace and The Road) as well as books that I’d seen on other people’s lists (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color Purple).  The list also really did contain books that popped into my head because they were memorable and important to me in some way (A Separate Peace, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Sing, Gone to Soldiers and The Mists of Avalon).  But I rejected a number of books from my list just because I didn’t think I’d want to reveal them (Valley of the Dolls, The Other and The Group).  And I rejected some just because they didn’t send the message that I wanted to send (Heart of Darkness and Carrie).  As I reflected afterward on the books that I put on my list, I started to think about identity management again, that is, how I present myself to the world, the FaceBook world in this case.

What does this have to do with play?  The other night, the two concepts merged for me.  I was playing with another of these memes, called My Life According to … .   The note contains a series of questions that you are supposed to answer using the song titles from one artist or band.  I chose the Indigo Girls so my note was called My Life According to the Indigo Girls.  Here’s what I wrote:

Several people have tagged me with this–I won’t tag anyone. Play if you want to. Using only song names from ONE ARTIST, cleverly answer these questions. Pass it on to 15 people you like and include me (presuming I’m someone you like). You can’t use the band I used. Try not to repeat a song title. Repost as “my life according to (band name)
Are you a male or female:
“The Girl With The Weight Of The World In Her Hands”
Describe yourself:
How do you feel:
“Closer To Fine”
Describe where you currently live:
“Get Out the Map”
If you could go anywhere, where would you go:
“Perfect World”
Your favorite form of transportation:
“Midnight Train to Georgia”
Your best friend?
“She’s Saving Me”
You and your best friends:
What’s the weather like:
Favorite time of day:
“I Don’t Wanna Know”
If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
“Lay My Head Down”
What is life to you:
Your relationship:
“Moment of Forgiveness”
Your fear:
“Kid Fears”
What is the best advice you have to give:
“Don’t Give that Girl a Gun”
Thought for the Day:
“I’ll Change”
How I would like to die:
My soul’s present condition:
“Cold Beer and Remote Control”
My motto:
“It’s Alright”
 The interesting thing to me about this particular meme isn’t the answers that I gave but the process I went through in deciding which artist to use and then which song titles to use for each question.  As I chose song titles, I tried to think about how that particular choice would be received by my potential audience. For example, I don’t drink beer but I thought the song title “Cold Beer and Remote Control” was a clever response to “My soul’s present condition:”.  So I clearly wasn’t trying just to reveal true things about my identity.  I was also trying to construct (or reinforce?) an image of myself that shows me to be funny and clever.
I’ve been searching for work that discusses how adults use play in identity management.  I have found lots of work that discusses these issues for children but not much about adults.  I’m just starting to read Brian Sutton-Smith’s Ambiguity of Play.  He identifies four categories into which play activities can be grouped.  One of those categories is “play as self” so I’m hopeful that his work can help to advance my thinking on this subject.

et cetera