Carpe diem: Travels without my phone

swimmingly

I had my phone snatched out of my hand on Monday morning as I was wandering along listening to some tunes and texting. To be absolutely fair, I have scalded my left hand (the hand I would normally text with) and it was mega cold, so I was holding the phone awkwardly in the wrong hand, numbly and higher than usual. Plus, I was completely distracted as I composed IMHO, a very funny text, the very thought of which was making me laugh out loud with my head thrown back. So, when a hand reached out and took the phone out of mine, I did not see that coming.

As my phone zoomed off the pavement and turned right at the traffic lights on the back of a moped in that very warm hand which had briefly touched mine, my first response was to phone someone to say I had been robbed. When, I realised I couldn’t, I felt its loss. And, for the following couple of days, anytime I reached for my phone, I was right back there in that moment, feeling the loss, like it was a new emotion, and feeling disconnected.

Here on this blog, I have written literally thousands of words thinking about social media, security and oversharing, being intimate online, being in the present moment or being elsewhere. I have even spent time offline and removed all my social media apps from my phone in order to see what difference it would make. Do I need to be online? Do I need to blog? Do I need to follow people?

Do I need social media?

The truth is no I don’t. I don’t need social media, I don’t need to respond to emails the minute they come in, I don’t even need to have a phone, the last couple of days have shown me that. I had no phone and nothing major happened and even if it had, people could have still reached me without a phone on my person. I would still show up if you asked me to, I don’t need a phone for that.

However, I love social media, I love email, I love having a phone because it augments me and the easiest way to augment a human is by connecting that human to another human who has the specific skill set that human needs. I am not in need of any skillset in particular, I just really enjoy walking about knowing that I can reach out to my favourite people with the touch of a button. I also really enjoy walking about listening to music, as if I have my own soundtrack to my life. Even the other day when I was seemingly inattentive to the moment in the street long enough to lose my phone, I was in an augmented moment on that street, in which life was enhanced and expanding – listening to music and laughing out loud whilst you chat to someone cool. What could be more present than that?

Little sips add up to a long cool drink of water

So, I disagree with Sherry Turkle more than ever when she says that social media is taking us to places we don’t want to go. I would disagree, it is reflecting us – all those cat pictures, and memes. All those lovely thoughts. We can also have proper conversations on Twitter, those little sips, as Turkle calls them, definitely add up to a long cool drink of water.

But, there is a lot of negativity online, you might say to me. And I wouldn’t disagree. It is, however, all a question of who you connect with, and how you want to spend your precious energy: Who refreshes you and who wears you out? It is the same question to ask yourself on or offline.  And, when you get caught out and have to spend time in a meaningless mean spirited interaction, whip out your phone and transport yourself elsewhere. Or if you are online, click away, don’t get poked or prodded if your needs are not being met.

We are apparently the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. Personally, I am an extremely lucky girl. So, if someone does come along again and take my phone off me, I will be ok, I am the average of some incredibly lovely people.

Web design (2): Get the picture

Orlando-Web-Design

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 2 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

The first picture ever uploaded onto the Internet was a photoshopped gif of a female comedy group at CERN called The Horrible Cernettes. Tim Berners-Lee uploaded the image to show that the Internet could be much more than physics laboratories sharing data worldwide.

The links above complain that it is a dreadful first image for making history, but I think that is in part because Berners-Lee wanted to make a point about what the Internet could be, so the content was the least of his worries. It wasn’t about the content. It was about the Internet being a place where we all meet. And, this is what is ultimately so liberating about our digital culture. We all get a say in what makes culture. And, perhaps physicists have different ideas about what is culturally important which, after all, is what makes The Big Bang Theory so brilliant and funny.

However, if we look at the ancient cave paintings found on the Island of Sulawesi, Indonesai, of hand prints and pig deer, we get a very different feeling. Archaeologists believe that they are at least 39,000 years ago and are among the oldest examples of figurative art, but cannot say for sure what they represent. They are beautiful and I look at them with awe, which is probably why some archaeologists speculate that they represent a belief system the artists held. Or perhaps, they are a world view, like the cave of swimmers, found in the Sahara. These paintings are only 8,000 years old, but have given rise to the theory that the Sahara was a place where people used to swim, before climate change turned it into a desert. We may never know.

I asked my girls what they thought the pictures of hands and beasts and swimmers meant. One said: This is me. Remember me. The other said: Spread my imagination. In other words, my girls think these images were drawn so that the artists could make their mark, record and share their worldview and be remembered, which I believe is why people create today whether it is images or words.

Science research website, Greater Good asked seven artists: Why do you make art? And they got the same response as the ones my junior school girls gave me with a couple of additions/variations:

Making art for fun and adventure; building bridges between themselves and the rest of humanity; reuniting and recording fragments of thought, feeling, and memory; and saying things that they can’t express in any other way.

When they asked Hip-hop artist, KRS-One, he said:

Put a writing utensil in any kid’s hand at age two or three. They will not write on a paper like they’ll later be socialized to do, they will write on the walls. They’re just playing. That’s human. Graffiti reminds you of your humanity, when you scrawl your self-expression on the wall.

Which is so true. The ancient images were drawn on the wall. They are self-expression and remind us of our humanity, which is why they are so moving. Interestingly, hurried scrawled graffiti has been found on ancient monuments, and on the walls in Pompeii. And, in Rome on a church wall, the first words of Italian graffiti, or Vulgar Latin, were written, written like a response, in the vernacular, representing the ordinary person’s thoughts. Today, graffiti is shorthand for unsolicited markings on a private or public property and is usually considered to be vandalism. Yet, some of it is breathtaking and elaborate. There are three categories of graffiti: Tourist graffiti (‘John wuz here’), inner-city graffiti (tagging and street art), and toilet graffiti (latrinalia) described in a fabulous Atlantic article. Graffiti is a way of people contributing to the conversation like when people leave their comments and links below.

As is painting, so is poetry

The Roman poet Horace ut pictura poesis (as is painting, so is poetry) made the link between word and image, which has kept the art world busy for centuries. Aristotle’s theory of drama considered the balance of lexis (speech) and opsis (spectacle) in tragedy. So we can see that ancient theories of memory use words and images, which no doubt inspired the more modern and controversial Dual Coding Theory, which says that when someone is learning a new word, if a meaningful picture is given alongside it, the learner will retain it more easily than if it didn’t have an accompanying picture. This is reminiscent of the ubiquitous meme: lovely quotation, lovely image, shared experience, which has a gestalt feel of something meaningful.

Hieroglyphics

The first written language was a language of images –  the Hieroglyphics. However, the appreciation of their meaning was lost until the decoding of The Rosetta Stone which took so long because the code breakers they thought they were decoding images. It was only when they realised that the Hieroglyphics were a language and needed to be treated as such, did they decode the stone.

Like all languages, Hieroglyphics are an organised form of communication because you can’t build something as grand as the Pyramids without communicating clearly and communication is a way of advancing humanity. However, Hieroglyphics began as decorative symbols for priests – a gift of sacred signs given from the God Thoth – and were used to record the meaning of life and religion and magic. These were too elaborate for merchants, who adopted a simpler version to preserve their transactions, until Hieroglyphics fell out of favour for the more practical cursive Coptic script, which gave way to Arabic and Latin, languages we recognise today, in which communication was preserved and recorded to enrich future generations.

Images reward us

Research, particularly in the field of neuroesthetics, which is how the visual brain appreciates visual art, shows us that art is a rewarding experience. It is not necessarily the message itself which the viewer finds rewarding, it is how it is delivered. That is to say, it is it is not what is painted, it is how it is painted that lights up the brain’s reward centre. And, we prefer images to photographs, because the brain is free to interpret meaning even though it ultimately prefers to see a representation of what is in nature. And why wouldn’t it?

The asethetics of nature

In nature we find so many pleasing patterns. We also are attracted to art and people who are asethetically pleasing. The golden ratio is a pattern which appears in nature and has been used in art, as has symmetry. The most beautiful people have symmetrical faces and the most average facial features. We are naturally attracted to beautiful people in paintings and real life.

And, we are also influenced by them, which marketers have long recognised. They use lovely images to wrap their products in knowing that us consumers will be more willing to consume something which looks beautiful. This is known as the art infusion effect.

It is the same for newspapers, pictures sell more copy. The Illustrated London News was created in 1842 and had 60,000 subscribers in that year alone, after someone realised that newspapers sold more copies when they had pictures in them, especially ones which showed a face or place. But it wasn’t until 1889 that photographs were used in newspapers.

Images online

And so it is online, Jakob Nielsen says that users pay close attention to photos and other images that contain relevant information but will ignore pictures used to jazz up web pages. Stock pictures of people in business situations get ignored but pictures of people who write the blogs or work in the companies get studied 10% longer than their written biographies which often accompany any photograph. If you are selling a product you need high quality photographs which users can inspect and compare.

Users want to be educated by the images and find out things which is ultimately why they are on your website. Edward Tufte has written extensively about excellence in statistical graphics and visualising data. His says that users are sophisticated individuals so:

Give them the greatest number of ideas, in the shortest time, with the least ink, in the smallest space.

There is no need to dumb down. When a graphic is well created, patterns can be seen and understood on different levels.

In a great talk for An Event Apart, Designer and Developer Advocate at Mozilla, Jen Simmons looks offline at magazines for inspiration and remembers how there was much experimentation and creativity online until everyone adopted grids and fell into a rut. She also outlines ways of using responsive images, for leaner, faster pics, and highlights new cool and practical uses of imagery with the latest tags from W3C.

Images are communications which have the power to change us. Here are some:

Content aside, the urls are precisely named to drive traffic via social media.

However, if all else fails, talk to your user and learn all about what they are looking for, before you share your beautiful art.

[Part 3:Web design: Getting to grips with your user’s experience]

Writing a blog series

the word blog typed on paper in typewriter

I have been blogging here for about eight years, but hadn’t ever written a blog series until recently. By this, I mean a series of blog posts, on one topic – in this case, five blog posts on web design, which I planned out in advance, and published weekly.

Outlining the blog series

I had written the outline of the blog series back in December 2013 because I was thinking about teaching a course on web design. However, the opportunity came and went as opportunities do sometimes, so, I left the outline up, as it works perfectly well by itself, with the intention to come back and revisit it some day.

In September of this year, I was invited to give a presentation with the title: A good website is not necessarily a pretty one. This got me thinking anew about my outline on web design. So, I wrote up the presentation as a blog post (and changed the clunky title to What’s the story?) which became the first in my web design series and I gave it to my audience as a handout.

I had originally conceived this first blog post as one about infographics and visualisation, which would build on a visualisation blog post I wrote a while ago called Visualisation: Information is power – just avoid drowning in data, but as my presentation preparation and blogging went on, and inspired by Berner’s-Lee’s first website, I realised that it doesn’t matter how many beautiful pictures or infographics you have, it is not enough unless you have a clear underlying message for your website. If you have a clear message, it can be described in words, perhaps even in two minutes like the Hollywood elevator pitch, which can be accessed by a screen-reader as well as illustrated visually and served easily to your various users because your site is built according to web standards.

However, storytelling, narratives and infographics are big subjects which I decided as I was writing that I will come back to, because I find them endlessly fascinating. So, I concentrated on the subject of having a clear message, leaving out the lovely visuals, in the first blog post and then once it was published, I wrote four more blogs on other aspects of web design.

Linking the blog posts

Thanks to the original outline, I had a specific topic to cover in each blog post:

On publishing the new blog post each week, I would link to it from the outline blog post and then at the top of the new blog post I would link to the introduction blog post (the same outline post as it really is an introduction) and the previous week’s blog post (e.g., in part 2, at the top I put links to the intro and part 1), and at the bottom, I put a link to the next week’s post (e.g., in part 2, at the bottom I put a link to part 3).

One at a time or all at once

At problogger.net, Darren Rowse recommends planning out the series by creating a draft of each blog post and then writing one a day. For him, this reflects his way of working, which contrasts with his colleague Eric’s approach of writing them all together before scheduling them for publishing, e.g,. one a day for a week.

Eric’s approach chimes with mine better, because in part one of my web design series called What’s the story? I had a section entitled No Lorum Ipsum about using a core information design approach described in a great article on AListApart.com by Ida Aalen. However, when I got to part three about content: Being content with your content, I realised that this section would fit better in this part so I cut it out and put it there instead, which would confuse anyone who was searching for it in part 1.

I would like to write a whole series and then publish it, but I know realistically that I would take months over it, and my site would not have any new content appearing until I had finished. At the moment I have a goal, which I rather like, of publishing something once a week, so even if I do have to go back and cut bits out because they fit better in another post, I still enjoy that sense of achievement of weekly publishing.

When is a series not a series

I have some other blog posts which I think of as a series, but I haven’t linked them because they were not written as such. Usually, when I write a blog post I do so because I want to think about a particular topic. For example, a while ago, I wanted to think about emerging technologies and so I wrote a blog post on the topic.  Once I had posted it, I realised that I wasn’t quite finished and wanted to think some more about emerging technologies and so I ended up writing two more blog posts. I have done the same with storytelling (three blogs) and also with social media (at least five posts and counting). Flicking back through these blogs, with a bit of shaping they could be linked together, but I like them as they are.

I tend to write super long blog posts like these: Digital Culture and Feeding the machine: the embodied user in a social media world because blogging is the best way for me to research a topic, think about it, and then, write it up. It is only once I have written a blog post that I feel I know what I am talking about. I guess at that point, before pressing publish, I should look at the text, turn it into a series, and schedule a series of posts like Eric, which would be good for me, as my site would then consist of smaller, easier to read blog posts. I definitely clarify my thinking while I type. Look out for my future smaller blog post series.

Writing a planned blog series was a bit of a different experience and a great one, which I enjoyed. I will definitely be doing it again and recommend it to all you bloggers out there.

How do you plan and write your blogs? Leave a comment below.

Web design (6): Sharing and caring on social media

 

desktopetc

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 6 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Nowhere is Berners-Lee’s vision of the World Wide Web more true than on social media. We all have access to as many conversations as we want. We can instigate new conversation, listen to other people talking, and dip in and out of art, music, video, and other amazing creations.

Most of the articles on social media for web design is about content marketing and content marketing strategy, which is a way for businesses to raise their profiles and create brand awareness, generate new sales, new customers, and keep customers loyal.

The main way to do this is by creating targeted content which is valuable and useful to the user/customer who then trusts a company and is more likely to buy from them. Content marketing is big business, and getting bigger every year according to i-scoop.eu.

Moz.com has published a best practices for social media marketing saying that before businesses promote their products and news, they must also build relationships with their customers so that they feel like they are part of a community. Sharing different types of content, not just information about their products and promotions, is one way of starting new conversation and creating new experiences with customers to encourage a trustworthy feeling.

Newspapers like the FT let their customers to do some of their marketing by providing tweetable quotes throughout their articles which link back to the news item on their website. This is a great way of using all the best content on your website.

A hierarchy of social media?

The types of information we share on social media fit nicely into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which I call Maslow’s hierarchy of social media.

Content marketers believe that the further down Maslow’s triangle you are, the more likely it is that you are fulfilling customers’ basic needs which may encourage customer loyalty. However, customer needs aside, the information type which is shared more than anything other on social media is surprising information in the form of stories, short videos, images. Apparently, we all seek that twist in the tale.

Alone together

Spiritual thinker Deepak Chopra believes we are connected and are raised up by social media. In contrast Sociologist Sherry Turkle feels that social media is changing us and not in a good way. Writers Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen both concur and believe that social media encourages the worst in us. Social media, of course, offers both experiences: enriching and depressing. It can be a feeding frenzy of attack but also an amazing way of augmenting humans with others’ talents and skills and knowledge.

Of course, the reality is that no one really knows how social media works, which is why companies spend billons each year trying to find better and faster ways of reaching their target market by tweeting, facebook, instagram and blogging.

A masterclass

One of the best brands online is OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network. During Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year TV series, she created a community. Her message was: You are not alone, by which, Oprah tapped into one of our deepest needs – we all want to feel that we matter. We want to be included a community and to be heard in conversation. We want to feel connected, so that we can be open and participate in life with others.

Since ending her award winning show, Oprah and her network OWN have reached out to its audience via social media to give information and courses and communitas. They have given us all a masterclass in how these tools should be used to satisfy both the customer and the business, and they continue to go from strength to strength.

Social media is an exciting way of instantly connecting to your customers and creating community in order to direct people to your website. Done well you users will happily co-create alongside you on your website, enriching you in ways only Tim Berners-Lee had the vision to see.

[Part 7]

Writing fast and slow

writing

I love writing and yoga, but for many years I just couldn’t seem to get it together to establish a daily practice for either, until I discovered yin yoga. Overnight, my yoga practice was transformed. Later, I watched long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Ted talk about achieving her lifetime goal aged 64 years, after she adopted her mantra: Find a way. It was then that I decided that I could find a way to a daily writing practice too.

Following the advice of Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K a day and Monica Loelle’s Write Better, Faster, I set up a spreadsheet and then, for six weeks, I tracked everything I wrote whilst noting down my location, my mood, what I was writing, how I was writing, and this is what I found worked for me:

Have an audience

The minute I started the spreadsheet, I had begun to watch myself, so I had created an audience. And with that came the need to add numbers to my spreadsheet. It was the same when I experimented with going to the library or a coffee shop. I had made such an effort to get my things together, get there, and then set it up, that I was that person working. Even if where I was got really loud and I was distracted, I would force myself to finish what I had set out to do.

Some writers on Twitter use the hashtag #amwriting. I haven’t tried it yet but it is quite nice to say out loud: I am writing, I want to finish this. NaNoWriMo, every November, encourages Twitter writing sprints, which can be both motivational and provide writing company, to encourage everyone to finish their 50,000 words.

Have a plan

If I was to keep another spreadsheet I would not allow myself to count the words I put in my journal. This is because I found that I would write away merrily, first thing on a morning, coffee to hand, and could rattle off 3k in under an hour, which was amazing, but then I would down tools once it had gone in the spreadsheet, as it felt like I had done my work for the day. I was producing words, but not finished writing.

When I kept a blog about my daughter being born with kidney failure, we had a lot to do each day with all the medical stuff. Often, people would ask me how I managed to be so prolific, but I found that writing it all down at the end of each day, didn’t take too long. It was cathartic and easy to do because I lived it and knew exactly what I was going to write. And, rather like the blogging I do now, it helped me make sense of things. That blog also had a specific audience of people who were expecting a new post, so that helped me get on, focus, and finish.

Knowing what to write when starting something new is a great way to avoid the blank page. Now, before I begin anything, especially a blog, I plan it out for at least 20 minutes. I then have something to type in and a structure to follow, and so I don’t waste time wondering where to start.

The other thing that helps me is having an external deadline. This ensures I have planned what I am going to say, how long I need to say it, and when I have to say it by.

Have a timer

I installed a timer on the bottom of my screen and set it to 20 minutes. This stopped a lot of the daydreaming and also ensured I was motivated to get writing as I had a break to look forward to at the end of each session. This approach gives me lots of words at the end of a day of sessions. A 20 minutes stint gives me around 1,000 words, which all make more sense than I thought possible and helps me get down a first blog draft quickly.

I can’t yet fit editing into the 20 minute-sprints. I have tried longer sessions but ended up noodling about. Editing and writing are very different skills. Perhaps, next time I will do an editing spreadsheet, as each time I edited work to make it better, I would fret about the lack of words in the spreadsheet, which is interesting, as I had nothing to proof to anyone except myself, but then taming your inner lizard is a life’s work.

Have a break

Writing this blog today has been very quick but that is because I have followed the three Haves above. I have had:

  1. An audience: Mainly myself because I found it fascinating to track myself and my inner lizard can take note and criticise me later with this new found knowledge.
  2. A plan: Partly because I took notes when I was tracking and journalled about it, so I didn’t need to research or think about it.
  3. A timer: I put the timer on because I wanted to make sure I finished this today. Sometimes, if I have been thinking about something for too long I have to fight the urge to feel that because I know what I think about it, I don’t need to write it up.

There have been days, however, even with the above three things, I have been unable to finish a blog or another piece of writing in the time I have set. And now thanks to the spreadsheet, I can see where I have banged my head against a piece of work to get it finished when I would have been better off just leaving it and giving myself a holiday, even a busman’s holiday, and writing something else.

Taking time to reflect on what I want to say seems to be part of my process, especially when writing a blog. My blogs on Sherry Turkle’s theory that social media is changing us and Maslow’s hierarchy of social media took a couple of weeks of thought. No timers, deadlines, or audiences could have changed that. First of all because I had a different opinion from anything else I had read anywhere else on these topics. And secondly, I didn’t even know what my opinion was until I gave myself permission to ruminate. So, I spent some time drinking coffee whilst thinking about these topics and reading around, and taking notes, before I was able to plan them out. And even then they didn’t go the way I had planned, because for me, writing is the surest way of getting clear about what I think.

Have a good time

Sometimes when I have spent a couple of weeks wondering what I am trying say, followed by saying it. I post it online and wonder why I put so much effort in. I blog because I like to and that is enough.

Today, I installed the Organize Series plugin for WordPress**. I have found that, once I begin a blog and post it, later I go back and want to add more, and so a series is quite a nice thing to do. Next on my list – after another blog on embodiment – are my old HCI lectures, which are a less old and more relevant today than I believed. Aside from what I believe though, they will be fun to write up.

And this is the most important rule I am now living by when writing fast and slow: Have a good time whether you are getting results or not, because having fun is what it is all about.

** I had to disactivate this plugin as it ate all my resources and gave me a 508 error! More investigation needed as having links to my series was very nice.