Ding Dong! Who is it? The next Snapchat.

Ding Dong!

Ding Dong!

In some ways I’m not very well qualified to write this post, since I don’t actually use Snapchat. You see, I just don’t “get” it. No one has been able to explain to me what it’s “for”. As far as I can tell it’s an inferior form of picture messaging, and it’s unclear to me why the fact that the message disappears is a good thing as opposed to a design fault. Oh!  But the creativity this short-lived medium has inspired! Really?  As far as I can tell the prospect that the recipient only has a few seconds to view and assess your offering leads to a marked downgrade in the quality of the messages sent. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

And then along came Ding Dong.  It’s an instant gratification photo messaging app. It encourages the sending of selfies and other random and probably pointless messages to your friends around the world. Sound familiar? But wait! It’s not just that the photos don’t disappear, which is a major improvement in my book, it’s that the app generates a a neat little map connecting your little blue dot to the location of the recipient. You don’t just know when they saw it, you know where they were when they viewed your message.

I didn’t have any friends on the app when I first downloaded it so I sent my first message to the app makers themselves (a bit sad, I know).  They viewed my picture and sent me a welcome message back. From Berlin. 932km away, apparently. I then got the option to respond with a series of emoticons. I went for the classic: thumbs up.

There’s something cool about overlaying the messages projected out into the ether onto a map of the real world. It makes it feel like a real interaction, in a way that Snapchat never will. It will be even cooler when I’m not messaging randoms in Berlin…

The app has been released in beta in the Apple store, so they’re still working out the kinks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes viral very quickly because I can already see that it’s going to be addictive.

I have 10 access codes so you can try the Ding Dong app for yourself.  Make sure to add me and send me a message, so I can see for myself where in the world you are these days.

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A video is worth a thousand pictures

Alex recording our wedding ceremony / Kitchener Photography

Alex recording our wedding ceremony / Kitchener Photography

I’ve recently noticed that while people are eager to capture every little detail of what they have done, where they have been and what they have eaten in photos that are subsequently shared fairly indiscriminately with the world, people do not show the same enthusiasm for videos.  I have yet to go to a restaurant and see someone videoing their food being served or eaten, whereas the “big bite of burger” photo has taken on an almost iconic status on Facebook.

It is pretty remarkable to think that even the most basic phones available on the market are capable of taking photographs that can often rival those of the professionals (that mine rarely live up to this standard can hardly be blamed on my tools!).  This is doubly true for videos, where even the top-end phones a few years ago used to be capable only of stilted and grainy images, often with out-of-sync audio.  The not-so-new iPhone 5 on the other hand gives you 1080p HD video and bags of memory so you can record flawless videos at the press of a button.

Despite having this technology at our fingertips, people save taking videos for “special occasions”.  Birthdays, weddings – although interestingly not necessarily funerals.  This is the case even though 10 seconds of video of everyday activities – a day in the park, a walk on the beach, or an evening out to dinner with friends – can record so much more than hundreds of photos of the same events.  Videos capture the sounds – conversation, singing, cheering, laughing – but also, perhaps more importantly, the background buzz and the atmosphere of a place or moment.

Something about video makes it more authentic than photos, more truthful.  My parents, I’m sure wholly unwittingly, have kept only the happy, smiley, joyful photographs of my siblings and I, carousing in the garden, running after pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and playing on the swings.  But the home videos tell the true story.  They show my sister’s tears as I blow out her birthday candles, and my brother’s shrieks as my sister hits him over the head with a plastic tea set.  It’s classic footage.  And it wouldn’t have occurred to my parents, nor would they have had the technology, to cut the offending frames and preserve only the “good” memories.

My biggest regret after our big adventure through Africa in 2010 was the dearth of videos we took  compared to the overwhelming abundance of photographs (who really needs that many pictures of giraffes?).  One of my favourite memories from our trip is of coming across a group of village women in a remote part of Senegal who were walking home from the fields, drunk on palm wine.  They began to sing an undulating tune in haunting harmonies, swaying as the sun set.  I wish I had a video of that.  I also wish I had videos of the everyday experiences of our journey: us hauling our backpacks across the continent and piling into 7 seater cars along with 10 other people.  The photos just don’t do it justice.

When my best friends Matt & Paddy got married last weekend I had the privilege of being an usher and the Very Important Responsibility of filming the day (although I will admit that, in a slight dereliction of duty, I may have left the videocamera in the back seat of the cab on the way home – thank god for honest cabbies!!).  What I noticed as I went round to gather messages from each of the guests during the reception was that people will gladly pose for a photograph but really do not like to be filmed.  Otherwise outgoing guests would physically hide behing their other halves or sometimes their own hands.  A group of people would stop talking as I approached and then nominate a single spokesperson, the rest looking visibly uncomfortable.

The infrequency with which we shoot videos and the unease people feel with being on camera are two sides of the same coin.  Video is a much more demanding medium than photo.  Perhaps because photographs by their nature capture only a single moment, a nanosecond in time, viewers are willing to use their imagination to fill in the context, the story behind the moment.  By contrast viewers take a much more passive role when watching a video; they expect the story to be told for them.  This puts demands on both the person behind and the person in front of the lens.  Hence the profusion of videos of babies and pets – they are completely oblivious of the pressure placed on them to entertain and almost everything they do is funny or endearing.

Maybe we just haven’t had the same level of practice and therefore haven’t developed the skills to shoot good movies.  Portable cameras were commonplace even before you had one that was also a phone.  Videocameras were more of a luxury, the purview of Japanese tourists travelling the world and viewing it only through the lens.  The kit was expensive.  It was cumbersome.  The footage was often trapped on the videocamera itself, only to be watched once hooked up to the TV (assuming you could untangle the nest of  leads round the back of the set without toppling it over).

Now most of us have a videocamera with us everywhere we go and it couldn’t be easier to save and share the footage.  Instagram turned everyone into an amateur photographer, but now there are services like Vine, from the makers of Twitter, encouraging us to take a stab at producing 6 second looped micro-films.  With iMovie, you can make anything from a stop-motion music video to a cinematic masterpiece with nothing more than a basic model camera and your Mac.  The tools are all there.  Time to get those cameras rolling.

Tipping Point

80s-90s Recording / José Ramón de Lothlórien from flickr

80s-90s Recording / José Ramón de Lothlórien from flickr

I don’t have many hobbies and this can often lead to a slightly awkward patch in conversation when I meet new people and have already run through the usual ‘what do you do?’, ‘where do you live?’, and ‘isn’t London sooo expensive?’.  They start talking about the latest triathlon they have done or a recent sailing trip, and I smile and nod and pretend that I also have a serious, ‘worthwhile’ pursuit outside of work, without really saying what it is.  

If pushed though I would say my hobby, or my fascination, is with technology, and specifically with the internet (it should be immediately obvious why I do not mention this on first introduction, for the same reason people don’t say ‘watching tv’ or ‘reading’ – it sounds lame).  On my internet travels I come across many startlingly creative ideas (and have many ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moments).  Perhaps because I feel a slight sense of embarrassment I do not tend to tout my loot of digital ephemera on social networks.  Which is why I get really excited when I can legitimately, in polite conversation, contribute a recommendation of a new app or online service, that in other circumstances would be too geeky to bring up, with my only claim being that I knew about it ‘first’.

Being an early-adopter of new technologies has its drawbacks.  Firstly, choosing between technologies is not completely costless for the user, even if the app or service is free.  You may end up investing time in something on the basis of promising signs of potential that do not materialise.  Second, you may choose unwisely – you may unwittingly opt for the losing side in a battle of technology standards.

I have a personal example of having wasted time and effort on a dud app.  Dan’s family sends a lot of family photos via email.  I looked for a service offering simple photo  sharing functionality but that was completely private and unconnected to Facebook (many of the pictures are of Dan’s young cousins and there was an express requirement that these should remain within the family).  After researching the field and trying many apps I chose to go with the brand new (read: untested) EveryMe app (“the private social network”), where you share to “circles” of your friends and family.  Over the course of two weeks I got each member of the family to join EveryMe and get sharing, which involved individual instruction emails and follow-ups.  There was muted enthusiasm at first – people don’t like change.  I convinced them the benefits would be worth it, and slowly they migrated.  

The result?  The (welcome) flood of photos and updates dried up to a trickle and then to nothing.  Turns out EveryMe is slow, unreliable, and clunky – for now, anyway.  It’s quicker to text or email than to load to the app, particularly when travelling.  I may have been better off getting everyone to join Whatsapp or similar, but it’s too late now, I doubt the family is up for another experiment.  The real shame is that the photos that have been shared on EveryMe are now stuck in the app and can’t be exported out.  

The second problem with being among the first to try a technology arises from the widespread phenomenon of network effects.  Many online services and apps benefit from network effects, which is to say the value of using the service increases with the number of users.  The classic example is the telephone – it’s pretty useless if you’re the only one with a phone because you can’t call anyone, but the value increases as more and more people adopt the technology.

Social networks clearly operate this way – and it is one of the reasons I haven’t yet gotten into Google+, because very few of the people I know have joined.  But it is also true, although less obviously so, for non-networked products and services.  It doesn’t really matter to me, as a customer, how many people use Blu-ray discs versus HD DVDs but it matters to the manufacturers of DVD players and to the distributors for Hollywood movie studios.  We see the same force at work when app developers design apps for the iPhone and Android but not for Windows phones.

Where two different products and services are competing for users in a market where one but not both can survive there often reaches a tipping point beyond which it is safe to declare an indisputable winner.  One service triumphs (VHS, Blu-ray, Facebook) and the other suffers an irreversible decline (Betamax, HD DVD, Myspace) (although note the recent redesign and refocus of myspace).

Experts refer to the “first mover advantage”, the idea being that the first on the scene will be the first to gather momentum in the race to the tipping point.  There’s also an element of luck.  Products can become redundant overnight as technology outstrips the acquisition of users.  Customers can get caught out just as technology flips from one standard to another.  Personally I am sitting on a pile of obsolete Mini Discs, several portable Mini Disc players and a Mini Disc stereo system, having transitioned from CDs just before MP3s came on the scene.  This is no great loss as I am no longer into puerile and angsty SoCal pop-punk rock, but still.

I remember feeling almost betrayed when Sony stopped producing recordable Mini Discs (although I now see that this was for my own good – they were preventing me from piling more favourite songs onto a soon-to-be-redundant medium).  I felt that way again more recently when Google announced that it was shutting down its Google Reader service on 1st July 2013.

Google Reader is (was) an integral part of my online routine.  I used it to suscribe to a carefully selected list of blogs.  And now its gone.  All that time spent curating my subscription list, potentially gone to waste.

But of course, nothing really disappears online.  One technology builds on another, replacing the obsolete and going a little bit further.  I use the fantastic Newsify app in conjunction with Google Reader.  Blog posts are presented in an easily skimmable  format, and all articles (and their pictures) are available for offline reading.  Newsify announced that it would automatically migrate all Google Reader subscriptions to Feedly.  Aces.

There is a valid concern as we put more and more of our photos, documents and content online and in the cloud that these services may not be future-proof, that the market may tip away from the new app you are using, that Facebook may shut down one day and take all your memories with it into a black hole of captured content and unreadable formats.  The reality is more subtle.  Feedly saved my Google reader bacon, and if Facebook went down there would probably be a sea of contenders vying for the social network throne promising to reinstate my years of memories.  But the issue remains that much of our digital content – and the average user generates a lot of digital content – is not protected from obsolescence if we reach a tipping point away from current technologies.  And I’m not convinced that the cross-your-fingers strategy is going to cut it.

Links:

EveryMe – the private social network

Myspace redesign @ TechCrunch

Newsify RSS reader

Feedly

Information Overload

Morning tube / modenadude from flickr

Morning tube / modenadude from flickr

Looking up from my iphone on the crowded morning tube, people were listening to music, reading their kindles, staring into space and not making eye contact. No one was seeing what I was seeing.  I was slightly hunched over, holding the screen quite close to my face, and I had just finished watching the most amazing Ted talk, having for once had the forethought to download a playlist of videos before leaving wifi at home.  It was a talk by the clinical psychologist Meg Jay on Why 30 is not the new 20.  It is a slightly disturbing but inspirational call to action for twenty-somethings everywhere to not put their lives on hold but to transform their futures in the ways only twenty-somethings have the energy and freedom to do.

My first, lingering thought was: oh crap.  I’m a hair’s breadth from 30 – do I have enough time to turn things around?  Is it too late?  But the tube is no place to think about such momentous things, so I put that to one side.  My second thought was, I have to tell people about this.  I have to warn them!  But that’s a bit tricky.  Most of my friends are over 30 and wouldn’t appreciate the reminder.

Finally, I tried to figure out what to do with this video; how to save it so I don’t lose it’s wisdom and slip back into my pre-Ted talk state of apathy and inaction.  I felt like that guy off Memento, scrabbling around for a way to get this stuff down before it floats away into the ether and I forget that I even saw it.  Find a pen!  Find a pen!  Now…where was I?

I notice the bookmark function in the Ted app, so I bookmark the viedo.  But that only helps me if I have the app open, and what if I lose the app in one of those traumatising iOS updates?  I send the link to my Pocket account, although only the titles are searchable in that app so I’m not 100% sure I’ll be able to find it again.  I also send it to my Evernote account, which is actually a redundant move because everything sent to my Pocket automatically gets added to my Evernote via a very clever ifttt function.  I email the link to myself for good measure (incidentally, I would not be surprised if I am my own most frequent correspondent on gmail – like my Top 20 played tracks on itunes, it’s best not thought about).  That done, I am now fairly certain that I would be able to find the link again.  Assuming of course that I think to search for it.

You see, this sequence of events has led to a recurring dilemma for me.  There’s so much good content out there, people are doing, writing and filming such incredible things, and I want to be able to remember it, or at least some of it.  I bookmark and self-email, but I can count on one hand the number of web articles, videos or other digital content that are familiar enough that I remember to recommend them to friends even years later.  Maybe this is a good thing.  With our online and offline worlds completely saturated with information with an availability and immediacy that would have stunned and confused our own backwards selves 10 years ago, perhaps the selectivity of our ability to recall the stream of data with which we are presented is a blessing.  But the sad part, the regretful part, is that some of what I’ve seen online in the last 10 years has been motivational and moving, and could even have been life-changing.  If only I could remember it.