October 31, 20141 Comment

The trouble with Twitter

The Problem with Facebook is well explained in this video by science communicator Derek Muller. Basically they algorithmically filter your news feed in such a way that you probably won't see most of what your friends post. This is contrary to what users expect to happen, but they are none the wiser because they don't know about what they don't see.

Of course it's all about this button, the heart of Facebook's business model:


Once you give them cash they'll show your post to all your friends / followers and of course a load of other people who don't know you too. Fine: they have to make money. I just happen to hate it because it feels dishonest to actively hide things like that.

Facebook would argue that they're trying to make my new feed "relevant" and "manageable", something which Twitter does not do.

I've always greatly preferred Twitter's follow model to Facebook's friend model because I'm not socially obliged to follow my friends and family. I might be related to you but I'm not necessarily interested in your town's local politics, or whatever. On Twitter it is left up to me to curate my feed by following the accounts I find interesting.

However, it's changed. I joined Twitter early when it felt like a close-knit little network. For ages I followed about 40 people, most of whom I knew personally (early adopter web industry-types) plus a handful of other interesting people. Posting a Tweet was like putting something up on the village noticeboard. Most if not all of your followers would see it. And I would see all of my followers’ posts; in fact at first I received an SMS message whenever one of them tweeted. My feed was a mix of industry stuff and <= 140 character witticisms.However—grumble grumble—Stephen Fry joined and got stuck in a lift then it went mainstream. Soon those 'brand' things got in on the action and it became a marketing and news platform, all about driving clicks to websites.This has driven real human users away. I'd say 80% of the people I used to connect with on Twitter no longer use it. Or if they do they're completely silent and passive. "Last tweet: July".The trouble is that now when I post a tweet it feels like I'm standing at Oxford Circus during the morning rush hour. And most of the people surrounding me in the crowd are announcing things through megaphones. If I'm lucky perhaps I'll glimpse a familiar face but – to continue the urbanisation analogy – most of my friends don't come this way any more because they find it unpleasantly busy and they've moved out to the country.Evidence of this data overload symptom is the regular appearance now of ICYMI tweets. Often re-posting something a few hours later I'll get a number of people commenting on it that I would have hoped to have seen it the first time but it's now a mile down their timeline.

Solutions do exist: Using Twitter lists or TweetDeck, and the act of curating your following list by unfollowing non-human accounts. Sadly what's left when you take away the noise is a bit of a ghost town.

For me Twitter was most interesting as a system for connecting human minds in real-time, not unlike Conjoiner technology in Alastair Reynolds’ fictional universe. That was genuinely exciting. Sadly, real-time is only usable up to a certain tweets-per-hour threshold. I don't want to be connected in real-time to machines.

Here are two hypothetical experiments (that of course would be completely at odds with Twitter's business model) that would make it very different but to me more interesting:

  1. Limiting the number of people you anyone can follow to 100
  2. Not allowing any links or media in tweets*.

A third experiment would be the option of following things that ONLY appear in a list and / or making a list your default timeline view, which would have the same effect.

But maybe it's too late for all that. Or maybe I'm just being a sentimental Old Web guy.

*Yes, I tweeted a link to this blog post.

September 17, 20142 Comments

Introducing Milk

Milk is an application suite for schools and colleges designed to be used by students, teachers and parents. It is a student self-management tool. Milk comprises an iOS and Android mobile app for students, as well as the Milk Web Portal which is open to all users.

I was honoured to be invited to join the Milk team at the end of December 2013 and I have been heading up its development since January. Milk is being piloted in a number of schools across the UK this term. It's been a lot of hard work but it's immensely satisfying to see it now coming to fruition.

To find out more about Milk visit our website.

Introducing Milk

April 23, 20142 Comments

New Twitter.com features

Twitter finally updated my profile to the new display format - several weeks after they upgraded my cat. Here's an almost pointless blog post about what I like and dislike about the new profile design:

  • Overall appearance: Like
  • Massive font size for just certain tweets apparently selected at random: Dislike
  • Front-end build details, particularly the way the profile photo slides up out of the way as you scroll down, to be replaced by the compact in-nav-bar version: Like
  • Pinned tweets: Dislike (because it reduces the beautiful simplicity of Twitter... but I'll probably use it to promote something)
  • Not showing replies by default: Like
  • Showing non-tweet-based activity in my timeline such as who I followed: Dislike (I think).

That's it. You don't care. Good.

April 22, 2014No Comments

On big smartphones

Apple are rumoured to be creating an iPhone 6 option with a 5.5-inch display.

Regardless of whether that's true, it seems odd to me that such large devices (I won't use the word ph****t) are proving so popular. I've recently been using an LG / Google Nexus 5 intermittently in place of my iPhone 5. While I like many (but certainly not all) things about it, its size is not one of them.

Its 5" display makes it:

  • Uncomfortable to hold in one hand while operating the keyboard with your thumb
  • Slightly too big for a trouser pocket (OK, it goes in but can be uncomfortable when sitting down)
  • Make you look a bit Dom Joly when talking on the phone.

And I think one of the popular Samsung devices is even bigger!

What reasons are there for wanting such a large display on a mobile? Presumably it's reading and watching video. Is that right? I do very little of either on my phone which might explain my failure to understand this trend.

For me the iPhone 5 is the perfect form-factor for a mobile phone. A tablet has a different set of functions. Trying to merge the two feels like folly, akin to Microsoft's attempt to design an OS interface that works on both tablets and desktops.

March 25, 20141 Comment

Farewell Windows XP?


Microsoft is ending support for Windows XP and will no longer be selling it. But according to this Independent article XP is still installed on a third of all PCs worldwide. Vista sits at just 4% and around 50% are running Windows 7.

I'm the kind of person who feels a low level sense of unease if I've not installed all of the available updates to whatever software I'm using – past the point of reason in all honesty. But I'm in the minority here, most normal people just aren't interested. And they don't like change.

I was "a PC guy" for many years, having built a few of my own PCs in the late 90s. I was running Windows as my primary OS until February 2005 when I bought a Mac Mini out of curiosity, and found myself directly in the crosshairs of Apple's business plan (actually it started when they released iTunes for Windows, which I liked and which lead to me buying an iPod).

In the case of Apple they have an agenda to keep selling new hardware, so although their OS updates are improvements there is that accidental-on-purpose creep of hardware demand that means that a given device gets slower over time. And if you don't upgrade then third party software eventually stops supporting your OS. This cycle is hard to avoid in a commercial world where, for example, a designer running an old version of the Adobe suite will eventually start being sent files they cannot open. So they upgrade their OS and soon feel they need to buy a new Mac. It's no surprise that OS X Mavericks was free.

But in an isolated environment, such as within a corporation, a given computer will in theory run as well today as it did ten years ago except for failures in hard drives, which are replaceable. A friend told me that his dad is still using an iPhone 3GS running iOS 5 and it's as fast as the day it was bought. He can't run many 3rd party apps but he can use email, SMS and make and receive phone calls so why should he upgrade?

Are we early adopters fools for playing the upgrade game? I'd say no, because new software to us is interesting and useful which is justification enough. As for everyone else, getting the long tail to play catch up is likely to give Microsoft headaches for years to come.

Other than avoiding the Vista car crash, how could they have played it differently?

December 4, 2013No Comments

How Bitcoin Works

Fascinating and more than a bit clever, if you'll excuse the pun.

October 27, 20134 Comments

No signal

I’m writing this in the notes app on my phone because I’ve got no signal so cannot log into my blog, or download and set up the WordPress app (which itself wouldn't be able to connect to my blog anyway, and I can't remember whether it works offline). Actually, worse than having no signal, I've got a patchy 2 bars and a GPRS connection that occasionally steps up to Edge but then drops out completely and the process starts over again. The tease.

I’m at my in-laws’ house and they don’t “have the Internet” here, and actually don’t particularly want it either. Oddly there are no neighbours’ WiFi networks in range; I just tried in the hope of finding a BT Openzone (or Fon) I could latch onto. Nope. Not even any private ones. A luddite neighbourhood?

I remember (of course) not having the Internet. Other than games, in those days PCs were more or less devoid of distractions. The 1996 equivalent of scrolling through Vines for 10 minutes was playing a game of Minesweeper on the big setting.

I remember my dad having Compuserve, and it seeming a bit boring. Then, later, I remember picking up a Freeserve disc from Dixons in Stockport and being fairly excited about getting on the World Wide Web – but not being exactly sure what the web was or whether I’d be that into it. I think I assumed it’d be a novelty for a while – I liked the idea of email – but had no idea quite how big a deal it would turn out to be. “Quite”, you might say.

By 1997 I had made my own website complete, of course, with a visible hit counter and a Java plugin ripple effect. The future.

At university in 1998 we had an internet connection at our student house in Leeds but only on one of our PCs at a time, depending on which room we ran the phone extension and modem to. “Are you going to be long on the Web? Can you give me a shout when you're finished so I can use the phone?”

We played 2-player Warcraft II and Starcraft between the bedrooms on floors 2 and 3 by way of daisy-chaining parallel printer cables (remember LPT1?) and putting a Laplink cable on one end to reverse the gender and pin-out. I always lost.

And Unreal Tournament through a 56k ‘v90’ was unseen assailant frag hell. Though it’s impressive that it was playable at all.


None of this was that long ago. It’s remarkable how quickly we’ve come to expect connectivity to the Internet, wirelessly everywhere, such that now (trips into the wilderness aside) being offline is the exception rather than the norm.

The Internet has become a kind of magical Higgs-Field-like property that pervades the very air we breathe... Until we lose signal and the spell is broken.

“Oh for God’s sake, why won’t it just load?!”

So, keeping in mind that famous Louis C.K. clip, I won’t complain. That such a thing as a wireless Internet connection exists at all is little short of a miracle (well that and the culmination of decades of work by scientists, mathematicians and engineers).

Instead I'll write this offline on my phone to kill some time until I’m tired enough to fall asleep. Which is, conveniently, now.

July 30, 20139 Comments

On the digital divide

Google Chrome Unified Search

If you work in, around and underneath websites for a living it's likely (and indeed desirable) that you'll become acclimatised to using a lot of technical terminology and acronyms. But it's easy to lose touch with how much of that people outside the industry actually understand.

Jargon has its place but I'll actively try to avoid using any terms that I think might be lost on my audience in any given situation. I've always hated it when 'techies' appear to be trying to impress people by blinding them with science, and I never want to be that guy. So when talking to clients I often find myself treading that fine line between confusing and patronising them, constantly tweaking the tech-level to ensure that they're still with me.

This of course means I have to make some assumptions: "They'll probably know what X is, but I'd better briefly explain Y". But occasionally I'm way off, as happened the other day.

I recently made a site for a work acquaintance of my wife – just a small job for a local business. I knew it was likely that this client would be near at the non-technical end of the spectrum but I wasn't prepared for one phone conversation in particular, and it took me a while to figure out what they were doing wrong.

The site has a very simple and stripped back CMS content management system that allows them to add, edit or remove products, and I'd given them printed instructions for getting into the system, which went along the lines of:

  • Sign in by going to: http://www.site.com/admin-area
  • Enter your username: XXXXXX
  • Enter your password: YYYYYY (case sensitive)
  • Click the 'Enter' button

And I'd done a face-to-face demo.

A week after handing over the instructions I received a message asking me to call urgently because they couldn't get into the admin system. Digging for a more specifics I asked them what browser they were using, though judging from the 'Umm...' response I may as well have asked them what their subnet mask was.

OK, no problem. I think I recall they have IE9 on their laptop. That should be fine.

And then they said "The admin page isn't showing up, nor is the contact page actually". That was weird. I fired up a Windows / IE9 image in VirtualBox and loaded up the site. Sure enough, 'Contact us' was there on the menu and it linked correctly to the 'Contact us' page (of course there wasn't supposed to be a public link the admin area but hey we'd get to that).

"Really? You mean you can't see the contact page at all?"

"No, it's only showing home and the about us page."

Then the penny dropped – they were going to a search engine instead of typing the address in. They were talking about which pages were showing up in the search results.

I explained that they needed to type in the link exactly as I had printed it into the address bar, but the term 'Address bar' was apparently unfamiliar technical jargon to them.

Finally, after advising that they include "...the 'http' bit. Yes, with the colon, and yes the two slashes as well", we got there and they were away.


Now I'm a big fan of the unified search and address bar that's been adopted across all the major desktop browsers. But thinking about it, it appeared first in Chrome and what Google wants is obviously more traffic to Google.com. The unified search bar surely delivers this. Increasingly people get to places via search even if they already know the URL because Google is so fast that it's still quicker than typing in the full address. That's fine, I do it myself.

But this has also dumbed down the user experience to the point that that I fear the notion of a website's address – for some – may never register on their jargon chart. "You just go to Google".

It worries me that there are people who frequently use the web yet do not know what a URL is. And that there's a real confusion around what Google (et al) actually is and what it does. Near enough all of us use it so we really ought to know – at least at some basic level – what is going on.

And – it wasn't the point of the post but as a side-note – ignorance affects the likelihood of certain Government schemes getting the green light. A recent Daily Mail front page (which must have been in the print edition-only as I can't find it online) declared in intentionally loose language words to the effect of 'Google refuses to remove child porn from the internet'. I believe that a not insignificant amount of people actually think that because you go to Google and then it shows you a list of websites, when you click on one of the results the website comes back to you in some way from or through Google. This failure to grasp even the basics is worrying and dangerous given what a powerful political and social tool the web has become.

July 3, 2013No Comments

‘Retina’ images tool

As part of a project I'm working on I made a little JavaScript utility that swaps images in an HTML page with high resolution equivalents if it detects a high-resolution 'Retina' display and a window over a certain size.

This is useful in a responsive layout because a medium-sized image will look sharp if scaled down (e.g. high res mobile display) but won't look so great when scaled up (e.g. Retina Display Macbook Pro). In my case I wanted to swap a large header image only if the window size was over 1023 (CSS) pixels wide and it was a 'Retina' display.

I thought I'd share it in the hope that it saves someone else the hour it took me to write it.

Here on GitHub: https://github.com/aderowbotham/resina.js

It's called 'resina.js' because there's already a retina.js, which works differently.

June 26, 20131 Comment

Elon Musk on the Future of Energy and Transport

Interesting lecture and Q&A from ‘21st century Brunel’ Elon Musk. Predictably he covers SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX, though the Q&A is more interesting, covering energy storage, rocket airframe construction, reusability and manned flights to Mars. He also briefly mentions his tantalising Hyperloop concept.


© 2020 Ade Rowbotham Ltd