New Delicious – sweet eye candy but a bitter aftertaste

As if by magic, Delicious has relaunched. I had that sinking feeling when I powered up my laptop this morning and noticed that the Delicious add-on that I use to navigate the web wasn’t loading properly.

It didn’t take long to figure out that there are some fairly radical changes going on. Superficially it looks like a more user-friendly site, but I think there are deep changes afoot that mean they’ve switched off some of the most useful features. Here’s my take on the changes.

They’ve made Delicious much more of a front-end. I said this a while back, on this very blog: that Delicious kind of had a similar problem to Twitter, in that a lot of it worked in the background without any screen estate to hand over to advertising or social networking. So Twitter is finding ways to fix this, including acquiring Tweetdeck. It might seem strange that Twitter buys a client-side application (ie not a cloud-based app such as Hootsuite) but I’m thinking this could be a smart move designed to keep the strain off its servers. Delicious probably doesn’t have the massive bandwidth demands of Twitter, so it’s opted for its own web-based front end (note: this is just my theory). It looks nice, and you can see a good summary of these Delicious changes over at GigaOM which, at the time of writing, seems to be one of the first posts about new Delicious.

They’ve switched off some of the back-end features and broken others. This probably doesn’t bother most people, and I do appreciate that they need to address the fat end of the long tail and concentrate on core features, but I just spent all morning doing the following:

  • Rebuilding my local bookmarks because the add-on no longer works. I used the add-on Bundles view to access my work-related pages, resource pages, and so on. It was great because if I changed something on one machine or browser, I could just work on any of my others and see those changes reflected. Now, I have to store them all manually, per-browser, per-machine. What a pain.
  • Figuring out that RSS no longer works. This was, for me, the single most useful feature of Delicious after bookmarking. You could pull an RSS feed off a tag, or off a tag search. Today, you cannot. So this means I can’t pump this RSS feed out to, say, Google Reader for aggregating, or Netvibes for aggregating and displaying, or Feedburner for daily email delivery of feeds. In other words, I’ve suddenly lost a lot of flexibility and power. So could it be that Delicious is joining the effort to kill RSS because it’s so useful but earns them no money? Seems that way right now.
  • Logging in several times. The bookmarklet still works – praise be – but I, and several of my clients, have had to log in several times to get this to work.
  • Noticing strange anomalies with tags. If I look at my Delicious home page, I see that the counts are missing next to tags, so I don’t know which are the most popular. Whenever I bookmark something now, the tag does not auto-complete so I’m going to start getting inconsistent with them. Sometimes I know I’ve only saved a bookmark once, but it says ‘2 saves’ next to it, which gives me no confidence. And I’m pretty much certain that when I list some tags, all I’m seeing is the first page of them without any ‘next’ or ‘previous’ pagination, so now I can’t actually get to see the vast majority of my bookmarks any more. Unless, of course, they’ve been deleted?
  • Noticing other random stuff. No more bundles, now we have stacks. Why change the name? And bundles were really useful, so why remove them? If they’re going to change the name, why not just change the name but keep the functionality instead of replacing it with something that seems virtually identical but doesn’t use the same mechanism? Also, we need to call these things ‘Links’ now, rather than bookmarks. And we follow people now, rather than have them in our community. Links and follows – sounds very like Likes and, well, followers, right?
  • Advising clients on the changes. I have clients who love Delicious too, and I’ve had to flag this to them. Facebook is annoying enough when it changes on the spur of the moment, and Delicious has done the same.

It does seem to me that whenever something becomes massively useful, it disappears. Yahoo Pipes is a similar case in point, supposedly recently fixed but within minutes it broke again in its old inimitable way, so I just forgot all about it once more.

Could it be that Avos, the new proprietors of Delicious, are joining in the effort to kill the freedom of information that Tim Berners-Lee held so dear?

I said, years ago, that the social web would change radically when big money moved in. If it’s freedom out, money in, then that would account for a lot of these changes.

Of course, it could also be that Avos plan to reintroduce these features as they roll out a wonderful new solution that everyone loves. Problem is, we already loved it.

The Universal Process™. Or: the Gartner Hype Cycle of Life

Life. Work. Birth. Death. And everything in between. Read on.

I wrote some time ago about the process of writing. Unless I’m writing for myself – that is, when I had time for ‘recreational writing’, or even blogging for that matter – I tend to procrastinate. I sit in front of the monitor surrounded by swathes of research, I huff and I puff, I put my head in my hands, I wander off, stroke the cats, make a cup of tea, sit in the garden staring at a bush. I repeat this a few times, then, after the first paragraph or two, it’s there, in my head. I totally know where it’s going and what I’m doing and before I know it, the piece is written.

But then it needs redrafting, often several times, off my own bat and following feedback. In the end I’m heartily sick of it and I’m happy to dispatch it, but everyone seems happy with it. Then, some time later, I go through my own stuff and think “That’s pretty good. Did I really write that? I must have been intelligent back then. Perhaps I’m destroying my brain with too much TV/Guinness/social media.”

This hasn’t changed, and it’s telling me that it’s an essential part of the process. You need that time to fulminate. To ruminate. To think. People don’t pay you to think, but it is necessary. Then you become so familiar with something you just want rid of it. Then you look back on it a few weeks or months or years later, and you’re pretty pleased with what you did. It was all worth it in the end.

The more I work in other fields, the more I think this is a universal process. I’m going to call it the UP™.

An example: I used to be into home-based music production. It was a phase, albeit a fairly long one (about 8 years – you can hear the results here). The same would happen. I’d noodle a fair amount, then suddenly latch onto it and off I went. Then I would spend a very, very long time with the production. In the end, same thing: I had enough. But it had to be finished. So I would end up finishing it without really knowing if it was finished. And sometimes I listen to it even now and I quite like it. Does that make sense?

Another example: today, I put together a Facebook page for a client. I’ve done this before, but every client is different, and you pretty much find yourself starting from scratch every time. At first I was fairly overwhelmed. There were so many wrong ways to go about it, and I had to find the right way. So I looked through all the content I had – several times – then did some research about best practice, looked at what other people had done, etc etc. There was huffing and there was puffing, there was head in hands. There were cats stroked. Bushes were looked at. Tea was drunk.

About two hours later I was absolutely heading in the right direction. And now I’m really getting into it. And I thoroughly expect that, after we launch and promote it (and keep promoting it for the next few months) I will have had enough of it, and want to do something else instead. But I’m hoping the client will like it. And I’m hoping I’ll look back on it and like it too.

Copywriting, music, social media (and, for that matter, design and code, which is what I’m doing with the FB page). They all follow this pattern. Even research. I hate starting a social media audit. I love it when the figures come out. I hate having to keep plugging away and updating it. I love it when I look back and think I did a good job.

This process needs a model.

I like the Gartner Hype Cycle. I like its categories: the Trigger, the Peak of Inflated Expectations, the Trough of Disillusionment, the Slope of Enlightenment and finally the Plateau of Productivity. See below.

I think that applies to work, too, but with a different shape. My new categories? The Commission, the Trough of Despond, the upward Slope of Encouragement, the Peak of Productivity, the downward Slope of Dudgeon and finally, the Plateau of Reality. It’s the UP™. See below.

Let’s be philosophical. I wonder if life is like this? In which case The Commission is when mummy and daddy got friendly, the Trough of Despond is when you realise you’re probably not going to get that Ferrari (or in my case a Morgan, although my Spitfire is seeing me alright), the Upward Slope of Encouragement is when you think “Well, that’s ok, let’s focus on what’s important”, the Peak of Productivity is after you climb up (or my case, up a bit, across a bit, down a bit) the career ladder and start really enjoying life, the Downward Slope of Dudgeon is when you start confusing your grandchildren’s names with the cats and hoovering the garden, and the Plateau of Reality is… well, I don’t think I’m there yet. I’ll post you when I am.

Once upon a time…

… I was a copywriter.

Then I became a social media planner. Then I became a digital PR senior account manager. Then I was a social media strategist. Then I decided to jack it all in and become a copywriter again.

Now, I’m finding I’m sort of all of those at the same time. Confusing, isn’t it?

Copywriting

One the one hand, I’m most definitely a content creator. I write stuff. I can’t help it. I’ve always written stuff.

There’s a typewriter next to me in my office which was owned by my grandfather, and I used to type stuff on it when I was young. Anything. Everthing. Mostly ridiculous poems.

It’s got huge, black, bakelite keys that you can really punch down, and when you do the hammers hit the paper and don’t so much type as emboss.

When you get to the end of a line the whole carriage whacks across and nearly carries the typewriter across the room with it.

It’s got a fantastic bell that, if you recorded it and slowed it down, would probably give Big Ben a run for its money.

And, best of all, it has a large stain across the front, probably caused by some correction fluid. Now my grandfather liked things to be ‘just so’. He cleaned records thoroughly before he put them on ‘the gram’. He would spend hours cleaning his pipe. He did 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzles. So I cannot imagine the brouhaha that ensued when he spilled all that over his typewriter. The air must have been blue. He probably went out to shoot some rabbits just to get it out of his system. Fantastic.

Digital

It started with a ZX81 and went on from there.

People think I’m a geek, or a techy, but I’m not really. I just like dicking around with these things. Mostly I like them for the creativity they facilitate nowadays.

I have a home studio based around an old PC and it’s great fun. I should add that it’s the third PC I’ve used for this, because I trod on my first one and cracked the motherboard, then I blew the second one up about a week ago. I have a tragic combination of curiosity and technical ineptitude.

Social media

I’ll never forget when I first posted on this blog, subscribed to it to see what would happen, and then a few minutes later saw it appear on Google Reader. I was hooked. Have been ever since.

Now, as a freelancer, talking to people who really need to get themselves seen and heard (and read and talked about), I’m really starting to appreciate what social media can do, from the large corporations right through to single-person enterprises.

So I’m back in the trade, so to speak.

Yesterday I described Facebook as a TV studio with Twitter as the satellite dish beaming out the updates. Today I’ve been figuring out how best to get my Yahoo Pipes Social Media Search Engine sorted so that I can package that as a service. Tomorrow I’m working on a blog strategy for a management consultancy.

Brings me back to my grandfather. I once tried to explain to him what the ZX81 was about. “Eeeh, it’s beyond my ken”, he sighed. Then probably went out to shoot more rabbits.

So, imagine a Venn diagram with those three things around it, and me in the intersection. It seems that, whenever I try to move out into one or other of the bubbles, some strange gravitational pull draws me back into the middle.

That’s all. I should really talk about social media issues and news etc, but sometimes I just write… stuff.

Click image for source

Click image for source

Music to my ears (or rather, ear, since one of them’s deaf)

How cool is this? Click image for source.

How cool is this? Click image for source.

Isn’t it strange how things come around?

About two days ago, after moving house (again – permanently, this time) I put my home studio back together again. It’s nothing to shout about, just a keyboard, mic and acoustic guitars plugged into a laptop, but I can honestly say I’m at my happiest sitting on the floor plugging bits of hardware together in cruel and unusual ways. It’s probably a hangover from my days as an only child (yes, it shows, doesn’t it?) spending hours engrossed in Lego Technic sets. The similarly minded among you may remember the fork lift truck, the motorbike with sidecar, and, the apogee of technic, the car chassis with differential steering, adjustable seats, gears and suspension.

I digress. So, after a few false starts the studio is back up and running. Press a key on the keyboard and you get a thunderous noise coming from the monitors. And once you stop the feedback, you get a nice noise coming from them.

It’s strange, then, that three music-related things happen over the next couple of days. To wit:

See what I mean? I feel a ‘musicy’ episode coming on.

Given that this blog really should be about copywriting with a smattering of social meeja thrown in (and, it seems, me tripping out on my own ego, in this post at least), I should add that I recently discovered I’m the top hit for social media copywriter on Google (I’ve set up a Google Adwords account for that term too, just so I can get to grips with Adwords a bit more).

This astonishes me, but moreover, gives me a way to find out truly how much this blog is now worth. I need to find out a) how many times that search term is used and b) how much it would cost for me to appear top every time it is used.

But, seeing as I’m still getting to grips with Adwords I’m not absolutely sure how I would find either of those things out.

Any ideas?

* In case you think I’m being a bit high-brow here, I also bought the entire Star Trek movie set.

Spotify – another business model on the hoof?

I was very interested to read the recent Guardian coverage of the music streaming service Spotify, especially having been part of the beta programme and written about Spotify quite a while ago and a couple of times since.

My initial impressions were very positive. I liked the clean interface and the incredibly quick response times. But on using the service more, I started to notice that there seemed to be issues with the sound quality, and whereas I recanted to an extent, it does seem that others have picked up on this. And then there’s the adverts, which I do feel intrude on the music. I’ve been told this is why the service is free, but Last.FM and Musicovery are free and they don’t interrupt your listening pleasure with ads, that I’m aware.

But the real problem with Spotify seems to have been its licensing situation. It would appear that overnight, thousands of titles were recently removed on orders from the publishers. It’s even been noted that a lot of Radiohead is missing, which I find very peculiar considering they’ve been quite literally giving their music away.

So, the service is launched, then radically changed. Sounds horribly familiar to me. Isn’t this what happened with Pandora, which was my previous service of choice? Lovely interface, nice algorithm, then suddenly the plug is pulled for anyone outside the US. And only this week we have Facebook attempting to hold the rights to users’ content – forever – then deciding it needs to think about it some more, in a manner reminiscent of its recanting of the Beacon advertising system.

What is going on? Exactly how thoroughly have these services really thought about their business models before going to market? I would like to think Facebook in particular would have thought long and hard about the legal complexities of what they want to achieve. At the very least they should know that the very networks they enable have collective voices powerful enough to give them real problems. But it seems Pandora and Spotify have also gone like a bull at a gate to get their services online, then suddenly realised they haven’t quite thought it through.

Is it the mentality of the ‘permanent beta’, the idea that software is in constant development when delivered over the web? If so, it’s a powerful way to deliver software, but I’m not sure it’s such a good way to run a business.

Audio here, there, but not quite everywhere

I’m a big fan of online streaming audio. I loved Pandora before it became US-only. I quite like Last.FM. Musicovery has a lovely approach in its interface and mood-based approach. Now – at last – we have Spotify, and another great utility I came across this week, Simplify Media.

I’ve covered Spotify before. I saw a pre-beta version and was very impressed with the immediacy of Spotify’s streaming. Then it went to invite-only beta so I was delighted to receive an invite last week and I’ve been playing around with it since. It has good technical points but I think it’s missing a big marketing trick.

Just to round up the current offerings, with my take on each:

  • Pandora uses the Music Genome Project in which musicologists analyse a song using many parameters, starting from the basic – tempo, style and so on – and then really dig down to whether it’s guitar-based, solo, male/female vocals etc. It’s not very community-based – that is, it doesn’t become more sophisticated through referrals and relies on the possibly subjective analysis of a small community – but I loved the results. Type in Nick Drake and you could spend a wonderful afternoon with the likes of Bob Dylan, Jeff Buckley et al. It just… worked. Unfortunately its business model didn’t and so it had to batten down the hatches in the face of prohibitive licensing costs and is no longer available outside the US. You can try IP-rerouting to trick it, but with limited success.
  • Last.FM is the leader and adopts a pureplay referral system. In the same way you see references on, say, Amazon telling you what other people have bought that is similar to the product you’re looking at, Last.FM infers that, because you like song A, you’ll like song B, because other people with similar tastes liked them too. It’s a great theory and it works well with, say, electrical goods or DVDs, but I’m not so sure the algorithm works as well for music. You can stream by artist or by tag and of the two, tag works best. If I listen by artist I’m often dismayed that Last.FM will give me American soft rock when I want to listen to music that is ‘similar’ to Beck, for example, simply because other people’s tastes straddle the two. But you can specify a tag – eg jazz – and have a reasonably consistent listening experience.
  • Musicovery’s great insight is that you tend to be in a certain mood when listening to music, or want to specify music to reflect your mood or change it. So you can specify whether to listen to light-hearted music, or something a bit darker, and the tempo, choose across many genres, even specify the decade of the music, and be up and running with a very pretty Flash-based interface. It can throw up interesting results – I did not know there was a jazz version of OK Computer, for example – and I like it for that. It truly is music discovery.

So Spotify needs to find its niche within these established players. On first glance it looks very much like a greyscale version of iTunes but is initially blank, which I found quite offputting at first. I just wanted to see at least some initial offerings to choose from.

But type in your artist and it immediately springs to life. And how. It’s incredibly responsive. Click a track and it almost instantaneously starts to stream. It’s very easy to create or share playlists. And you can choose to listen to ‘stations’ made up of genres and, like Musicovery, timelines. 1960s Heavy Metal digs up Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild, while 1950s Reggae gives… interesting results.

What we have here is essentially an iTunes interface to an online streaming music database. It’s designed from the ground up to live online. And this is where I don’t get part of Spotify’s proposition. As far as I can tell it’s a completely self-contained system. I doesn’t seem to offer any capability to integrate with other systems. For example, you can’t scrobble audio with Last.FM. And, more importantly, there are no widgets, for example for Facebook.

Isn’t this missing a trick? If you’re web-based then isn’t this something you would immediately implement? I can only imagine this is part of the plan, to be rolled out post-beta (assuming it’s not a permanent beta like so many web apps nowadays), or maybe there are licensing restrictions.

I also think another challenge for Spotify – as with all the other systems mentioned so far – is the sound quality. It’s ok on my low-end DigiTheatre surround-sound system in the lounge because that’s not a hi-fi. But when I listen to it on my studio monitors, the limitations of the sample rate become immediately apparent. It’s compressed, there are artefacts, and a like-for-like comparison with my own music library shows how locally-stored MP3s are far superior. Hmmmm.

POST EDIT: Following comments from Daniel at Spotify, I looked at (and listened to)  this more closely and the differences are not as clear as I first thought. Please see my reply on this subject.

This is where Simplify Media could offer an alternative. It enables music sharing across IP, and integrates with iTunes and Winamp. Download the client – at a hefty 14MB it’s not exactly light – set up an account, and share your music. Get up to 30 friends to do the same and suddenly you have access to many thousands of tracks.

Last night, for example, I listened to the Bob Dylan tracks on my friend Paul Borge‘s MacBook Pro, in my lounge. Quite apart from the mind-blowing technical feat here – from his machine, across his wireless network, across the web, through my wireless network and onto my machine – the sound came through with, as far as I could tell, original quality. It sparkled (inasmuch as one could describe Bob Dylan’s whine as ‘sparkling’).

Again Simplify Media doesn’t integrate with Last.FM scrobbling or Apple’s new Genius playlist feature, but you can kind of forgive this. It’s strictly a music sharing system, as opposed to fileshare, and I like it a lot.

What I’d really like to see is a system that enables the ‘DNA’ of the music to be tagged like Pandora, in a sort of ultra-high resolution folksonomy, not just broad categories such as genre; the community dynamics of Last.FM; the clever interface of Musicovery; the agility of Spotify; the quality of Simplify Media; and full integration with widgets across the most popular social networks.

Maybe each of these systems is addressing a different way of listening to music. But, in the same way as we’re getting aggregators of aggregators in Friendfeed, or blog editors that interface across many platforms such as Live Writer, I’m wondering whether someone, somewhere, is going to come up with a system that has all the advantages of each of these approaches, and none of the drawbacks.

Me? I’d have been quite happy with Pandora to be honest. Maybe I should move stateside.