Tiny Tiny RSS not in my future!

So, having had a few spare cycles this evening I prepared to try Tiny Tiny RSS and I ran into a roadblock pretty early on by a prerequisite for Tiny Tiny: it requires a slightly newer version of PHP than my hosting provider uses.

At the moment (and, for many years) I’ve used Dreamhost … should I look at other hosting providers?

this rss thing is killing me!

Ever since Google announced the sunsetting of their Google Reader (GR) service this coming June I’ve been on a mad dash to find a replacement. I follow about 500 feeds daily and I do it from a variety of platforms and locations. Having a workable replacement that works cross-platform (Android and iOS, MacOSX and Windows), saves the list of feeds and the list of items read without regard to platform or device, and has an agreeable user interface (something like Google Reader-ish, as opposed to the magazine style that has become popular lately) before the shut down date has become important to me. Starting this task on the day following the announcement was probably foolish–there’s plenty of time for the ground to shift before the service is shut down on 1st June. I’ve looked at these services so far:

  • The Old Reader
  • Fever
  • Tiny Tiny RSS
  • Netvibes
  • Newsblur
  • Feedbin
  • Feedly

The Old Reader is exactly what it sounds like: it has the user interface and features of an older version of GR. Thing is: it is operated by a handful of people who wanted this for themselves and a few friends, so they weren’t prepared for the onslaught when Google made their announcement. It took them two weeks (!) to import the OPML with my subscriptions, and I couldn’t wait two weeks. When my subscriptions had finally imported I used it briefly and decided it wasn’t updating quickly enough for my taste.

I could happily use Netvibes if I had to. It has two basic modes: one of these modes resembles iGoogle (so those of you who miss that can get your fix here), and one which resembles GR, only more attractive. For me this is an almost perfect solution. The two gotchas are: there seems to be a bug (at least when used with Chrome) where a full article stops scrolling down after two screens-full and it doesn’t update as often as I’d like. The mobile client is also web-based and looks and works just fine!

I thought the idea behind Fever was interesting. Fever costs $30 (non-refundable–you get the source code because it’s written in PHP, so once you take delivery the cat is out of the bag). This is a fully-featured aggregator that you host on your own environment. For many people this is a deal-breaker, but it wasn’t for me. I found the idea to be mildly attractive: I’d have more control over many parameters of my experience, including how often updates to feeds were retrieved. Unfortunately, I have shared hosting and one of the parties with whom I was sharing was being unneighborly and this poor behavior made my Fever instance run poorly. There’s another problem with my shared hosting provider which is preventing Fever from getting updates consistently. On the other hand, it is super easy to set up (even if you don’t have experience with installing these kinds of things). The web interface works fine for me on both Chrome (any platform), but I didn’t like the “Sparks” and “Kindling” nonsense, and feeds which I had not incorporated into a group weren’t as easily accessible as those which were set up with groups.

Because my own shared hosting seemed to be not quite up to the task I haven’t yet evaluated Tiny Tiny RSS, which is another self-hosted solution. There is an article at Lifehacker which gets into details about setting up Tiny Tiny RSS and I’m sure I’ll check this out in the future. The Tiny Tiny folks claim to not support users on shared hosting, but the Lifehacker article claims to have set up on shared hosting just fine. The appeal of having a solution over which I have more control is undeniable, even if it costs me a bit of time and money.

Newsblur looks like it could be a contender, too. I didn’t spend much time with it because their “free trial” is basically a cost-free account on which you can read something like six feeds, and that doesn’t really come close to approximating what I want to do. After plunking down a modest amount of money for Fever I didn’t want to find myself buying into every possible trial situation just to find a reader I liked.

Feedbin is intriguing. Yet another one-man show, but one that seems to have his act in gear. The user interface (at least on the web version) seems to be appealing, and there are several clients for iOS along with one for Android. I haven’t tried this yet but I will give it a shot just because I get a good, professional vibe from the service’s blog. There’s a lot of under-promising and over-delivering, and I hope that my use of this service bears this out. $2/month or $20/year … not a bad deal.

And then … I heard that Feedly (a reader which many love but which I avoided because they were primarily a magazine-view reader) now had an option for GR-style reading, so I tried it … since the back end is still dependent on Google Reader it’s not clear how performance will change once GR is out of the picture but I could live with this if I had to. I’d like to cram more stuff onto a page, and I haven’t figured out certain keyboard shortcuts (like “show me the next *new* article”) yet, but it does what is expected and is nearly as speedy as GR so I’m ok for the moment … but as 1st June approaches there should be more readers out there and I may have gotten around to evaluating those listed above which I haven’t yet checked out.

So, at the moment, I’m using Feedly … but I’m not loving it. I plan to revisit this shortly after Google pulls the plug on Reader to see if the landscape is better …

Mobile and Geo-social? Sure … but …

no photographyRight off the top I have to say that Google Glass puts me off. A a potential user of the technology I’d want to use it everywhere, of course–it would be super convenient. As a bystander I would be concerned about privacy. I can easily see this technology possibly banned from certain public places like banks… and possibly libraries. Wouldn’t patrons want assurances of privacy while they’re working in a library? I think they would.

That said, it is clear that mobile and geo-social aspects of connectivity are the future for libraries and for society.  A Nielsen survey I quoted earlier in the semester shows dramatic growth with respect to smartphones in our population, and there’s no turning back. Mobile platforms offer many features that aren’t available on desktops and people have noticed. Librarians have noticed, too–there are unprecedented apps for the popular mobile platforms which bring library offerings to members. Over the past week I’ve been looking at an app for iOS called Browzine that presents journal articles in a browsable format collected by journal, volume and issue. This doesn’t, by itself, sound radical but since most researchers find articles through databases this technology restores browsability to the scholarly reading experience. Journals kept on your shelf will be populated with the latest issues which you can read on demand.

Like the Google Glass privacy issue I described earlier, geolocatability also presents privacy and safety issues. Sometimes it’s not as easy as turning off those features on your mobile device: your mobile phone company always has an idea where you are because your mobile phone’s signal is associated with a specific tower which connects your phone to the cellular network. Even if you turn off geolocation some services still know where you are. My carrier, AT&T, has a service which sends customers texts for selected deals from merchants in the area where your phone is connected to the network. Last week while in a taxi crossing from one neighborhood into another I received a text from AT&T offering me a deal on a restaurant in the neighborhood I was travelling into. My phone had associated with a tower in the destination so they knew to send me the offer.

While only AT&T had the information about my location to send me the offer, that changes the minute I want to take advantage of the offer. If I do take the offer then the merchant (potentially) also knows where I was during a specific time.

Can geolocation services help libraries bring improved services to their members? Probably … but the privacy and security issues almost certainly mean that the best way to approach this with specific opt-in from members. Libraries have, historically, been been champions of member’s privacy and these new technologies present new challenges which must be addressed before rolling out services based on the new technologies.

the annoying side of disruptive technology

Disruptive Behavior! by bdunnette on Flickr

It is often true that, when technology disrupts our existence, it starts subtly … when Facebook appeared on the scene it was limited to university undergraduates (and so its impact was limited to that population). When Twitter appeared many people were interested but didn’t quite know what to do with it. Lately, though, everyone knows when Facebook changes the timeline or when Twitter’s fail whale makes an appearance.

Sometimes more disruption comes from when an established technology leaves the scene for good. Often this comes with no notice: in 2001 an alternate DSL provider, NorthPoint Communications, ceased operations suddenly leaving tens of thousands of customers without notice and without service. At the time I was only without service for a few weeks, but my service was restored so quickly in part because I had friends at SBC (now a part of AT&T) who could track my installation closely. At the time it was quite annoying–I ran my own mail server at home, so I went without email for a few days while all the pointers were reset to point to more reliable systems and networks. Of course, this wasn’t the end of the world–the only remains of the event are my memory of the event and a red “NorthPoint” sticker on a biscuit (a “biscuit” is one of those wall-mount boxes where you connect a landline phone to the network).

Sometimes, however, you do get more notice that a technology on which you depend is going away. In this case, I’m talking about Google Reader. Just a few weeks ago Google announced the end of Google Reader from 1st July. While the advance notice is certainly welcome, it raised the question of how I would continue to enjoy this class (even though the class would be over by the time Reader would shut down). I started to scramble around for a replacement reader which would meet my needs. I follow about 500 RSS feeds through Google Reader, so I wanted a replacement that could deal with the volume of information i wanted to keep an eye on …

For the moment I’ve settled on Netvibes but I have no illusions that this is my last RSS reader: new services will come up when Google Reader leaves the stage and some of those may have a better feature set that will support all my usage scenarios.

It’s easy to see which scenario we would each personally prefer when a service we’ve come to rely on goes away. When implementing services in our libraries it is as important to think about winding down a new service (for any reason) as it is to think about implementing it. I think this relates directly to transparency (the understanding that these new services have dependencies on others, and those others don’t always work out the way we would like).

Social Media Policy

I was, initially, divided over which assignment to do for this requirement. Each assignment had plusses and minuses. At the end of the day, though, I find myself more and more interested in social media and so the social media policy became more appealing and so that is what I’ve done. I also liked the idea of librarians being able to directly foster the conversations their community might want to have. In doing this, librarians have a more direct link to the knowledge creation going on in their communities; I expect this would create more job satisfaction for the librarians.

For complicated reasons I have three different employers, and so my first impulse was to look for social media policies from my employers. The Department of Veterans Affairs, where my lab is located, has a very long, complicated social media policy (available as a PDF only). This document is about twenty pages long, and the documents included by reference would easily extend the document by that many more pages. While it covers the department’s needs, its length and wording pretty much ensure that anyone acting on the Department’s behalf on social media will not be in compliance with their policy. It will have a chilling effect and the Department’s social media presence will suffer.

Another employer, The University of California, San Francisco, has a more succinct policy expressed as a set of “best-practices” and a more explicit social media guidelines. These look like practices that are easy to work within yet have safeguards built in to protect the reputation and privacy of individuals and patients (important since UCSF is a medical school where patients go for treatment).

I won’t mention the last employer here (the employer which has no social media policy) because it’s clear they don’t want the engagement. They are in a position where they can count on the positive reputation of other institutions and individuals, so they don’t really need to take the risk that may come with social media presence. This employer provides back-office support to researchers and labs, so they may perceive the value of engaging with the public in this way to be low.

Ultimately, while I liked the approach that High Tech Dad took for its conciseness, I also liked the idea of having a bit more substance in my policy. People like to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, so my policy includes a bit more. It also discusses briefly potential new services. I’ve taken care to keep the discussion positive–it’s more useful to tell folks what they may do instead of telling them what they may not do.

Library Social Media Policy

Connecting to all members

Using Facebook for this purpose has a bunch of downsides … many related to the ownership and management of Facebook. Specifically, the Facebook discussion in the lecture made me think of my own usage of Facebook. I am probably an early adopter of Facebook for my age group although this is almost certainly an accident—Facebook was originally only open to undergraduates at colleges and universities and I was an undergraduate at RIT so I was eligible to join. Early on I didn’t use it for much because I didn’t have connections with my classmates—I was a distance student at RIT but being a distance student then (not even ten years ago—I graduated in 2006) was not nearly as connected as distance study now connects participants.

When Facebook was mentioned in the lecture I naturally went to my own Facebook page to look for San Francisco Public Library—this is a library which I use frequently (less frequently lately, as I explore the services I have access to through the University of California). I remembered adding them to my “Like” list early on but I couldn’t recall seeing anything from them on Facebook lately.

I had to search to find SFPL and, when I did find the page, there were items posted as recently as Friday. How did I miss this? I even missed out on a cool giveaway … and I’m pretty sure we all like free stuff. Eight of my Facebook friends had also liked the page: three were library people (and only one of them is a likely SFPL member) and two were journalists. Only one was actually in the service area of the library. Two aspects of their Facebook participation stood out: the number of “Likes” of their page (they were celebrating their 10,000th “Like”) and the entries themselves. Specifically, most entries weren’t particularly inviting.

Most of the items on their page were announcements—I understand that not every Facebook update will engage everyone, but most entries engaged a small fraction of one percent of the potential audience. It also seemed that, with more than ten thousand people watching the page, more people might interact with items posted there. Instead, at best most items had a few dozen likes and only a handful of replies were present on many items.

So … is this successful outreach? I’m not sure: while SFPL could be more inviting in the items it shares, Facebook also contributes to the problem. You see, at some point Facebook changed how it presents items from pages that were “Liked.” In the past the presentation of status items from liked pages was more egalitarian, but now liking a page isn’t enough: you have to have added the page to a personally-defined interest group and then have regular interactions with the page to see statuses from that page regularly. I have, at the moment, 477 pages that I’ve “Liked” but I’ve only listed a small fraction of those pages on interest lists, so I don’t see most of the updates on most of those pages. This may be a good thing for me (since it ensures that I see entries from pages that belong to people I know as well) but isn’t so good for those who own those pages, especially when Facebook changes the rules along the way.

What matters from all this? To reach all users a hyperlinked library has to be focused on each opportunity to engage members—falling into a rut can be costly. Librarians must also pay attention to the environment: new means of engagement become available regularly and librarians will need to go where their members are and existing avenues of engagement will change over time. Finally, to engage members broadly librarians will have to spread their effort across several channels … different channels will attract different parts of the membership and librarians will want to reach out to their entire communities.

On transparency …


While working through this week’s transparency readings I was struck by the tone of some of the work. It all felt very serious, “you must do this!” … very strident. Of course, this happens because transparency is really important for our institutions (not just for libraries but for most of the institutions that we interact with).

In the effort to drive home the importance of transparency I feel something important isn’t emphasized enough: transparency is liberating! If I recall correctly, Michael raised this possibility in an early lecture video: with transparency you get the freedom to innovate and your members get the certainty of knowing the circumstances under which their work is being completed.

I don’t think the business world will ever become significantly transparent because, as The See-through CEO shows us, it’s difficult to go half-naked. Perhaps the trend in transparency will shift slightly so that the business world will be clear about what it will be transparent about. Laws governing the behaviors of public companies and the information they may or may not disclose (and to whom) will drive some of this, and competitive advantage will drive this as well.

I’m not sure that libraries have these same concerns (or, at least to the same degree: Michael rightly cites certain instances of confidential information like personnel details), and this ought free libraries up to be significantly more transparent. The human issues remain: transparency is difficult because nobody wants to be wrong nor do they want to take an action which may fail (bringing the risk of failed reputation, disciplinary action, etc.)

These issues are probably the most difficult to crack. Oddly enough, I suspect the answer from this has to come from the top–leadership has to lead by example here. Only when people know that transparency is valued (and this value is backed up with actions) will people act according to the stated values.

Quick Response codes as technolust?


I think so. On the surface they seem like a great idea: they’re square images which have encoded information which can be easily captured with a smartphone’s camera. The encoded information is usually a URL but can also be an email address, a SMS destination, etc. The user snaps a photo of the quick response (QR) code image with their QR code app and then something happens (usually a web page opens). Sounds simple, right?

It turns out to be not so simple. Many smartphones don’t ship with an app that can read QR codes, so potential users have to chase down a QR code app … this isn’t difficult, but it’s the most important step and most users don’t realize they have to do this until they encounter a QR code they want to work with, and then it’s too late (so the first QR code interaction is often a failure).

Those who expect to use QR codes usually need  a smartphone with which to process the code but there are still a significant number of Americans who don’t have the use of a smartphone. Last year Nielsen (the consumer surveying organization) reported that nearly 50% of Americans have a smartphone. While they also reported substantial growth among smartphone users a significant number of people don’t yet have the technology with which to view QR codes.

QR codes are not the simplest, most transparent way to present information. A URL or email address can be used by many library users using technology already available in most libraries. It seems counterintuitive to use a technology that may keep users from participating in the library community.

Context book report: Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins


Immediately after announcing my choice for this report (Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins) I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. My personal relationship to popular culture is a bit outside the mainstream. I prefer live stage shows (live music, live dramatic performances, live musicals) over movies, I don’t read much fiction (choosing instead current events and the history to which those events lead), and when I do see a movie it is typically non-violent. When you go to the movies with me nobody dies; in my world Bambi’s mom is still out there! Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m a total recluse nor does it mean I’m very out of touch—it means I sometimes just don’t get what the big deal is with respect to, say, American Idol or Downton Abbey. I felt that perhaps I was at a natural disadvantage with this choice, but this sensation turns out to have been unfounded.

The full title to Jenkins’ work is Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and this is the key to the work. He presents several case studies showing how these cultures come together. The work was written in the mid-2000’s so it may seem a bit long in the tooth—phenomena like live tweeting an event may not have been possible here and today this is pretty much the default.

A few cases …

The first case study discusses the hit TV series Survivor and the knowledge communities which had sprung up around it despite the best efforts of the show’s producers. Fans developed their own networks and, within those networks, subgroups interested in the meta-problems which the series presents to viewers. Unlike later TV shows, Survivor didn’t expect to engage viewers to the depth which these fans drove matters and was concern that the spoilers (the fans who were engaged in this way) could lead to drops in the program’s ratings.

American Idol, on the other hand, is presented as a platform engineered for engagement at many levels. Elements of the show are prepared for all types of viewers: casual viewers who may not watch from week to week, viewers which may be outside the stated target audience, viewers who want to influence the outcome of the show, etc. Brands associated with the show also use the show to extend their influence over viewers by sponsoring and extending their branding to other events. Sometimes the cobranding experience backfires: problems with and questions about the voting process dampened the experience for viewers and tarnished both the producers of the show and AT&T, the telecommunications sponsor.

Another case study discusses the various outposts hosting Harry Potter fan fiction: while J. K. Rowling and her publisher initially welcomed this sort of participation by readers, the movie deal inked with the Warner Bros. movie studio complicated the intellectual property landscape for these participants. The movie studio began to send cease-and-desist letters to various web publishers which hosted Harry Potter fan fiction. Participants fought back in a number of ways, including publishing their cease-and-desist letters, working with the press, etc. The publicity generated by the participant-activists ultimately drove Warner Bros. to change their stance. Warner Bros. later worked to partner with these sites but many are still doubtful: the opportunity for good judgment on the issue had passed and the later stance is considered as a face-saving move by many. Since copyright law doesn’t especially protect authors of fan fiction, this sort of participation remains problematic.

The big takeaway

There are several lessons here for participatory librarianship. The Survivor experience lets us see that the public wants to engage and participate, and they will do so whether you want them to or not. The American Idol experience tells us that when we encourage participation then we should be prepared for it all the way through, complete with transparency in our processes.

The ultimate lesson? Participation: it’s here, so be ready for it.

(Yes: clicking on the book covers takes you to Amazon.)