Why I like some social networks

From a publishing industry information service:

"Many people of a certain age (ahem) enjoy playing around with Facebook – but come away unsatisfied. Not everyone they know is in the network, and not everyone they know in the network relies on it to any large extent for communications with friends. Their college-age and 20-something children and nieces and nephews don't have that problem, because participation is almost universal. For that younger generation, Facebook is a one-stop shop for communicating and keeping up with all their friends, because everyone's in the network."

I agree. Everyone who is at school or college seems to be on Facebook; they use it to coordinate their entire social lives (as well as do various recreational, jokey things from what I can hear). It is cheaper than organising events or staying in touch by mobile phone when you don't have any disposable income. It isn't particularly my cup of tea, though I do have an account there, export my blog posts to my profile, and enjoy it when I connect up with a friend or colleague. (But I really don't "get" all these fans and pokes, and what do the groups actually "do"?)

Social networks for people older than teens or 20s are more challenging because most of us are in the "e-mail generation". (Richard Akerman has made this point also.) In the main, we aren't used to hanging out in a communal internet space. Even those of us who have had blogs for a while are somewhat hung up on traffic, comments etc to our blogs. A social network is a dedicated conversation space for exchange and discussion of ideas in a more open-ended, participatory way than a conversation on a particular blog.

I very much enjoy two social networks (as you may have noticed), Nature Network and FriendFeed. The former is a social network for scientists and for the hangers-on of science (like me). There are blogs, forums and lots of interesting and/or funny conversations, often with a scientific theme, but often not. It is free and anyone can join. Similarly, Friend Feed (a Google application) is free. It allows you to share anything onto your page or into a "room" there: a link, a message, an rss feed, your blog posts, your Flickr photos, Twitter, Tumblr, Delicious, and goodness knows what else. What's more, you can comment and converse on these links with your friends (you are allowed longer comments than Twitter, thankfully). You can easily set up a "room" for people who share similar interests. The people and rooms I have found there so far are mainly scientist-types, but I have set up a crime&mystery fiction room (please join!) and found a rather quiet book group room (please join!). Friend Feed is an easy place to exchange ideas and comments in a quiet, non-"shouty" environment, simple and clean. I hope to see you there sometime. My account is here. 

If you haven't tried FriendFeed before, you can sign up and then connect with people, who can in turn connect with you. You can join "rooms" (groups) according to your interests. There are tabs along the top of your home page so you can choose to view your own page, a page with all your friends' links and conversations, or your "rooms". Worth a look. 

Correction via Richard Akerman: "FriendFeed is from former Google engineers, but I don't think it's owned by Google". Thanks, Richard.

In praise of crime fiction

A Taste for Death -Times Online.

This leader (link above) in today's Times is a paean of praise for the novels of P. D. James. Whether or not one finds these particular novels the pinnacle of crime fiction, one cannot disagree (well, I can't) with the sentiments expressed in the editorial. Surely this article marks a turning point, in which crime fiction is truly out of the genre box and can stand up to be considered on its own merits (as its aficionados already knew). From the article:

In negotiating his way through the pathways of human destructiveness, Dalgliesh is also a guide to our times. Lady James is a perceptive chronicler of the changing landscape of London; the flux of urban development and the housing market; the corrosive culture of sink estates; the ruthless politics of the professions; and even the use of the internet for hedonistic purposes…….it is her literally forensic insight into crime that remains her most distinctive fictional device. Like Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, she has looked at the darkness of the human psyche, and created from it not just entertainment but literature.

Chutzpah in reciprocal space


So you decide to start a blog. What do you decide upon for the title of your first-ever post? "I hate blogs, bloggers and blogging" is the considered decision of Professor Stephen Curry in his inaugural post on his new blog Reciprocal Space. (He's a protein crystallographer.) And it worked. Twenty-eight comments in the first half day. And he gets featured on the Nature Network home page – or rather his blog title does. All that apart, do read it – it is going to be a good one.


Acknowledgement: thanks to Jenny Irving for showing me how to get screenshots into a blog post.

E-readers: adapting to niches

There has been so much reported in newspapers, blogs et al. about the e-reader, which has finally hit the UK in a form that people feel they could actually use (only 2 sold on the first day according to the Guardian, 50 in the first day according to the Bookseller, and " a six-figure number" bought or on order by day 1 according to the Digitalist – Waterstones has an exclusive on the Sony e-reader for a short time). I'm not going to summarize all the articles I have seen, skimmed or read here, because I am sure plenty of other blogs will be doing the same, much better than I could. But I would like to share a couple of perspectives that seemed to me a bit more interesting than the standard "love it/hate it" response.

Janet Reid writes "what is the most oft-repeated phrase among people urging someone else to read something, be they agent, editor, telephone order taker, bookstore handseller, or your mom? 'Just read the first chapter and you'll see'. " The ability to download just one chapter of a book that you would not want to read, but need to have to deal with a question of some kind, is a decided benefit of Kindle (which Amazon has set up to allow free downloads of sample content), as she describes.

And Laura Benedict, in a comment to that post, writes: "My husband imports his students' manuscripts and comments on them from the Kindle–he also was able to read my WIP in a book-like format. So much more convenient than a bulky ream of paper."

Annie Mole of London Underground blog went to an event on "The Future of the Book": "When I saw the newer Sony Ebook reader for the first time last week…. I had that sort of shuddery instant recoil response as to me it just didn't look or feel like a book. Yet the guys with me had a major "nerdgasm" over it. There was a similar response last night. People could see the potential and loved that you could carry 100 books around at once and it's handy for London Underground commutes or holiday travel." Author Kate Pullinger's reaction: "it was cold looking with no colour. In spite of the moleskin cover it didn't feel like a book to her".

Another view is that of Diane Shipley on the Picador blog: "Five years ago, we were all sceptical about the idea of swapping an entire CD collection for one tiny gadget, but now MP3 players are commonplace. IPods began as luxury items that only a few people could afford, but quickly progressed to become more affordable and to offer better functionality. There's no reason to suppose that e-readers won't do the same. There are even rumours that Amazon might launch the Kindle in the UK next year. The Kindle is even more exciting that the Sony Reader, as it offers the ability to wirelessly download a book from Amazon's website in seconds, as well as the chance to download popular blogs and news websites." John Self, in the comments to that blog post, disagrees: "This is not an iPod equivalent. When I bought my iPod, if I had 200 albums on CD, I could immediately (or after a few days of importing them to iTunes) have 200 albums on my iPod. The equivalent does not apply to books. None of the paper books I have on my shelves can be transferred to the Sony Reader – if I wanted to take them on holiday with me on the Reader, I would have to buy them again."

Where I was the other weekend

ScibloggingM@, supercool editor of Nature Network London, has posted his report of the meeting which I attended a week and a couple of days ago.

"The internet spilled out into the real world last Saturday, when 130 science bloggers, communicators, and scientists assembled at the revamped Royal Institution on 30 August for Science Blogging 2008: London, organized by Nature Network. The conference had a unique hybrid format, in which part of the programme was left open for attendees to fill in that day with 'unconference' sessions proposed and voted on in the morning. Nine ideas were proposed before the conference got started and were voted on by the delegates during the first morning break. This was Europe's first science blogging conference, and it couldn't have found a better venue than the Royal Institution within whose laboratories 10 chemical elements were discovered and 14 Nobel Prizes earned. Speakers took to a stage previously occupied by such luminaries as Michael Faraday and William Bragg.

Keynote speaker Ben Goldacre is probably the most famous scientific blogger in the UK, tackling pseudoscience and quackery in his Bad Science blog and weekly Guardian column. His eloquent, entertaining and expletive-filled intro provided a strong set of examples in which the traditional press have been hoodwinked by claims of 'miracle cures', whereas specialised elements of the blogosphere successfully scrutinised, attacked and demolished such bogus assertions. Ben, and bloggers like him, are increasingly discrediting peddlers of dubious products, filling holes of accountability that mainstream media lacks the time or expertise to address." (see more here.)

The meeting was also "live blogged" over at the Friend Feed group set up for the purpose. It is quite scary to moderate a session and have people typing it up onto the internet as you go, and ask questions that are beamed in from Australia and all points inbetween (luckily I did not realize this was all going on until the next day, Sunday, when I checked out my web subscriptions, or I probably would have fainted). More than 300 pictures have been uploaded to Flickr (tag, sciblog) and the sciblogosphere has been reverberating with excitement. There is a lovely set of four posts (starting here) over at Clare Dudman's Keeper of the Snails blog.  There is also a very nice meeting-report post here, on Nature Network, by librarian Frank Norman.

(Photo credit: Lisushi.)

Sunday Salon: three satisfying books

TSSbadge3 My reviews of three books have been posted at Euro Crime in the past couple of weeks. As usual for me these days, owing to the excellent recommendations I receive essentially via blogs, I thoroughly enjoyed all three of these excellent titles, two of which are newly published books and one is an old one.

One of the new books, Stratton's War by Laura Wilson, has been out for a few months. From my review: "a fully rounded novel of London in the Blitz in the summer of 1940. There are two main protagonists, both outsiders as far as the Establishment is concerned – one is a professional policeman from the 'working' classes; and the other, of a socially higher class, is a woman. Each of these characters is the centre of their own story, and it is not until about two-thirds of the way through the book that they meet – and although they instinctively like each other, it is not until the end that they share a mutual awareness of their similarities, far stronger than their superficial differences, which bind them together." Great stuff, full of atmosphere and period detail, as well as a good plot.

The other new book was published a few days ago: The Slaughter Pavilion by Catherine Sampson. Thanks to the kindness of Macmillan, I received a review copy. I think Catherine Sampson is one of the best writers of the genre today, and highly recommend trying her books if you haven't already. Her first two books featured an investigative journalist whose personal problems, including struggling as a single parent with twin babies, essentially formed the basis for the plots. The second two books (The Slaughter Pavilion is the fourth) reduce the emphasis on this character (almost completely in the newest title) and focus instead on a nascent detective agency in China (where the author lives), with lots of local politics and social issues. Brilliant stuff.  From my review: "THE SLAUGHTER PAVILION opens with Song refusing to take on the case of a peasant who tries to hire him to investigate why his petition, about the death of his young daughter, has been ignored by the authorities. Terrified at having his business closed down, Song refuses to help – and tragedy rapidly ensues. In an attempt to avoid being interrogated by the police as a witness, Song finds himself investigating the case further, as his ex-father-in-law, the awful Chief Chen Delai, seems inescapably to be involved. Soon Song is sought out, and then accompanied on his quest, by an attractive human-rights lawyer, Jin Dao, a development that increases Song's terror at being discovered by the authorities as well as causing him massive internal conflict because of his attraction to Jin."

My third review is of a classic, The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. From my review: "I loved this book. With each book in the series, the detectives in the team are gradually taking on more clearly defined personalities as their (often hilarious) idiosyncrasies become familiar. The reader can begin to predict who Martin Beck will assign to each task, and how each one might contribute to the investigation. As well as this core story, the snapshots of the various witnesses, suspects and other people associated with the case provide a telling view of the wider society, without hype. Yet the story is by no means cold: the authors understand too well the loss of humanity that is experienced as people live year after year in an environment that is stifling them, as reflected by the detectives' attitudes to their superiors and to the "values" they are supposed to uphold, as well as to the microcosms of their personal lives.."

Written more than 40 years ago, The Laughing Policeman remains fresh and relevant. It is my instinct that Laura Wilson's and Catherine Sampson's books, likewise, will not date.

Being technically nice to commenters

If you are a blogger, no doubt you've read plenty of those helpful articles on building online communities, how to attract comments to your blog, how to manage comment discussions, etc. The aspect I'd like to highlight here is very simple: make it technically easy for people to comment (if you want them to comment).

I've been blogging for some years, and because I like reading certain blog posts and because I like it when people comment here, I make an effort to comment on a post on someone else's blog if I have enjoyed reading a post. I know that other bloggers are like me and like people to comment on their blogs. So I think it is worth bloggers paying a bit of thought to their readers and making it easy for them to comment. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Do you really want people to have to log in to your blog in order to comment? If you don't have a good reason for this, don't do it. It is just one more barrier between the commenter and the comment they want to leave and it will have no effect on spam. (Sometimes people will not comment on a blog that requires a login as they don't want to provide personal data, whatever the disclaimer.)

  • You don't need to have log in AND a spam catcher. Anyone who can get through the log in is not a machine. If they are one of those "paid spammers" they will get through the captcha (or other spam catcher) anyway and plug their product.

  • Have a search box on your blog, high up enough for readers to find it without having to scroll down too much. Sometimes readers want to refer to one of your earlier posts on the same topic when they comment, and the best (sometimes only) way to find that post is via a search unique to your blog (not via the dreaded Technorati). There are lots of free Google search widgets out there (eg via Google itself or Widgetbox).

  • Check your settings in your blog dashboard so that it is easy for people to comment. Some blog platforms have defaults, eg only people with Google accounts can comment, anonymous comments are not allowed, only registered users can comment, etc. Check that these settings are as you want them, don't just leave settings at manufacturer's defaults.

  • Do a usability test every now and again: access your blog from a different computer from the one you usually use, and leave a test comment. Similarly, if you find it frustrating to comment on someone else's blog for a technical reason, or you think there may be a technical fault, the blogger will probably very much appreciate it if you drop them a line to tell them. People have done this favour for me before and I have been very grateful.

    Nowadays, a lot of people are reading blogs in RSS readers, rather than at the blog itself, and click through to the blog only if they want to comment on a post. Services like the excellent Friend Feed are simple to use and have really, really great user interfaces that provide no barrier to comments and conversation among your group. It is much easier, technically, to read a blog post in an RSS reader, "share" it to Friend Feed and comment there, than to go to the blog and wade through the various thorns and thistles in order to comment on the post itself. I will always make an effort to comment at the blog if I read a post that interests me, because I know the blogger is likely to prefer that than a discussion of their post at Friend Feed or elsewhere, but the growth of these lovely-to-use "conversation platforms" is something that bloggers need to bear in mind!

    There are some blogs on which I will not even attempt to comment, because I've had to provide a username and password, which the system doesn't remember from my previous visit and nor do I, also provide name/address details, and then go through spam filters. By which time I have forgotten what I was going to say, or it has stopped mattering. There are therefore strong incentives for bloggers to make their blogs as comment-friendly as is consistent with being spam free.

  • Essay on Darwin’s London

    Essay on Darwin's London from General London Forum forum on Nature Network London.

    Nature Network London's editor Matt Brown draws attention to "a beautifully written piece [from Atlantic.com] describing the London of Charles Darwin. It nicely complements the Darwin map we posted on Nature Network a few months back." From the article:

    One afternoon I went out walking with Joe Cain, a senior lecturer in the history of biology at University College London. We headed to 2 Bedford Place, a few minutes from the college, where the geologist Leonard Horner used to live with his five highly educated daughters. Darwin was a frequent visitor. But his father steered him instead toward Emma Wedgwood, a first cousin, good-natured and with a handsome dowry. The two were soon looking for their own first home in the same Bloomsbury neighborhood, though Emma prudently advised against living too close to “the Horneritas.”

    They moved to a rented brick row house on Upper Gower Street, which they nicknamed “Macaw Cottage” for the gaudy decor. The house was destroyed during World War II, Cain said, and pointed out similar houses across the street that had survived. But what really interested him was the location. From the back garden, Darwin would have looked out on the college’s main building, where his onetime mentor Robert Grant had become a professor of zoology. Grant had taught him basic field biology. But Darwin managed to avoid him for the three years he lived on Gower Street; apparently he didn’t want his career tainted by Grant’s radical beliefs—including an early brand of evolutionary thinking.

    Ann Cleeves is the real deal

    Ann Cleeves, author of many books including Raven Black and White Nights, set on the Shetland Islands, has been guest- blogging this week at Minotaur St Martins Moments in Crime blog. In her last post, Moments In Crime: The real deal, Ann writes:

    "At the end of the month I'll be coming to the US to talk about WHITE NIGHTS, meet readers and take part in Bouchercon.  One of the events – at Port Washington Library, Long Island – is a traditional Shetland tea.  I'll show some images of the islands and explain about the places that have appeared in or have inspired the books.  For those who can't make it, and because this is my last post, I thought I'd share some of the images with you now.  If you click on the pictures they should become larger and clearer."

    The rest of the post features some lovely pictures – including puffins! – which make me very keen to visit those remote parts of Britain. But apart from that, Ann's posts this past week show perfectly how to "guest blog" – she has written about what interests her, shared her opinions and other thoughts with readers, and has not assumed that everyone is interested to read about her "just because she is a well-known author". Thanks, Ann, for a lovely set of posts this week, and I hope the tour of the USA is successful.

    Authomony aims to tap wisdom of crowds

    After more than three months running in private beta, authonomy.com  finally went live yesterday (3 Sept) and is open to all. The site describes itself as a community site for writers, readers and publishers, conceived and developed by book editors at HarperCollins:

    "If you’re a writer, authonomy is the place to show your face – and show off your work on the web. Whether you’re unpublished, self-published or just getting started, all you need is a few chapters to start building your profile online, and start connecting with the authonomy community. And if you’re a reader, blogger publisher or agent, authonomy is for you too. The book world is kept alive by those who search out, digest and spread the word about the best new books – authonomy invites you to join our community, champion the best new writing and build a personal profile that really reflects your tastes, opinions and talent-spotting skills."

    Top-ranked book when I looked at the site is by "Sylvia", and is called Spammer. "Ever wanted to retaliate against a spammer? Judy did, and made herself the target for the hideous fury of a Mafia boss. (Complete at 79,000 words)." So runs the blurb. I read the first page (online) but had no wish to read more of the extremely over-heated prose.

    Apparently, the aim is for the publisher to harness "the wisdom of the crowds" (a.k.a. you and me) to go through its slush pile. Time will tell if the aforementioned crowds are a substitute for editor and agents, and hence an economy for the publisher at this end of their market. So far, the site is said to receive more than 50 new books a week; the publisher's promise is that someone on staff will read the ten top-rated submissions each month.