Rob Cottingham's blog

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To be, or not to be

Existential Impacts of Facebook Status 'is'

Facebook: so marvelously designed, so magnificently conceived, so amazingly successful... and yet... peppered with irritants. And one of them is, well, is.

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BC Hydro's Green Gifts: harnessing Facebook gift-giving energy for conservation

When you're a company looking to make your first foray into the thickets of social media, building your own online community from scratch – and taking on everything from usability issues to platform selection to how you get that critical mass of people to sign up in the first place – can seem pretty daunting, and with good reason.

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...which ate the rat, that lived in the house that tags built.

Here's how I think it all went down:

  • I posted this cartoon about employers blocking Facebook in the workplace.
  • I thought Shel Holtz would like it for his Stop Blocking blog.
  • He did, and posted it there.
  • Beth Kanter saw the cartoon and blogged about both it and Stop Blocking.
  • So as not to draw on Shel's or my bandwidth, she posted the cartoon (which is Creative Commonsed up the wazoo, so all is kosher) to Flickr so she could link to it there, and tagged it "socialsignal".
  • We have a Flickr photostrip on the front page of this site, which randomly selects Flickr photos tagged, you guessed it, "socialsignal".

And tonight, this is what I saw (click to enlarge, and look in the lower right-hand corner):

 front page screenshot

And the circle of life continues. 

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Messages to Burma: with the Internet censored, radio rears its head

The brutal crackdown in Burma is following a familiar pattern, including the severing of lines of communication with the outside world – particularly two very modern technologies: mobile phones and the Internet.

Into that information vacuum steps a technology whose time I'd honestly thought may have come and gone: shortwave radio.

Radio Netherlands (a station I listened to religiously when I was a teenage shortwave radio geek) is going far beyond the boundaries you usually associate with a state-owned broadcaster, and using their shortwave service to breach the Burmese border with messages of support from the outside world:

Our frequencies, transmitted from Irkutsk in Siberia, Madagascar and other sites, have not been jammed and for three hours a day we offer an alternative to the military junta's propaganda. Internet may be down but via Short Wave we can punch a hole in the information stranglehold.
Pro-democracy dissidents are having their say and we've broadcast the comments of world leaders telling the military junta to stop its attacks.

You can have your say too

Let us know what you think of the push for democracy as people in Myanmar/Burma confront the military dictators.

We'll publish your comments here on our Internet page. Please include your phone number too so we can call you back to record your comments as we prepare a special 'Shout via Short Wave' programme.

It warms my heart to see this happening... partly because of the impact of this initiative and the hope it will bring to a country that needs it so badly, and partly because of what it says about technology and communication.

The Internet is famed for its ability to route around obstacles, accidental or deliberate. But that capacity may be just as much an attribute of the human values of compassion and solidarity. And it's good to remember that the expression "information wants to be free," which we usually think of purely in the context of the Internet, applies much more broadly. 

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The kid inside you may be Apple's secret weapon

Kelly Goto has a post suggesting the iPhone may be the breakthrough product in a category where promise has been tantalizing but success has been elusive: the ultra-mobile personal computer.

The success of the gesture-based touch screen interface is almost so fluid and easy to use it goes unnoticed. Even a 1-year old baby can use it. Since its release, many individuals formerly tethered to their laptops have admitted being able to switch to the iPhone for email and browsing when traveling. In many ways, the iPhone is the first ‘ultra mobile’ consumer device to give us a taste of tomorrow we can use today.

Go check out that video she links to. It's exactly as billed: a baby (okay... at 20 months, maybe a toddler) successfully navigating an iPhone app. It ain't exactly pivot tables in Excel, but this is still amazing to watch.

I left a comment on Kelly's blog. Here's the gist of it:

I don’t think that attractiveness of Mac technology to kids is an accident. The iPhone in particular has a vividness to it that’s only the latest in a line of recent design advances from the folks at Apple (remember OS X’s “lickable” interface?). From the little animation touches to the gorgeous, saturated, high-contrast graphics, Apple’s appealing not just to our inner efficiency expert, but also our inner child.

Maybe that’s part of the appeal of iPods, OS X and even the original Mac. Apple’s design aesthetic doesn’t just say “let’s work”, “let’s connect” or “let’s create” - it also says “let’s play.” That may be part of the reason some folks still find it hard to take Macs seriously in the workplace… but it’s also a big part of what makes using them so compelling...

Most projects don't have nearly the number of dollars available that Apple can throw at user experience, of course. But it's worth looking at your site, software, product or service, and asking if a little injection of playfulness wouldn't make a big difference.

By the way, we're going to see the latest iteration of Apple's come-out-and-play approach to interface design later this month when OS X 10.5, Leopard, is unleashed. We'll try to contain our sense of panting anticipation in our blog posts between now and then... but no promises.

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New: Noise to Signal postcards

Here's a little something we're trying out on the Noise to Signal cartoon: a postcard feature.


Head to any (recent) Noise to Signal cartoon, and look for the links at the bottom. You'll find a "Send this as a postcard!" link. Click it, and you're off to the races.

Take it for a spin - I'd love to know if it's working for you!

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Facebook discriminates against the fictitious


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In appreciation of appreciation

Online communities thrive on low barriers to goodwill

One of the most powerful things about the social web is how it harnesses two human impulses to each other: the drive to connect to other people, and the drive to express ourselves.

The result is an explosion of content from people who would, a few years ago, have had few outlets of expression. Suddenly you can post your own photos, share videos, offer opinions, publish poetry and do much more.

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Usability tip: "cancel" isn't the same as "no"

Warning: a pet peeve follows. 

Way, way too many programmers are in love with the words "OK" and "cancel", as in the dialog box "You are about to format your hard drive and set fire to your house. [OK] [Cancel]."

Originally, it made sense: this was your chance to either proceed with an operation or cancel it altogether. But those words have become synonyms for "yes" and "no", and that's a problem.

Take this example:

Dialog box reading 'Confirm: Do you want [deleted] to remember the username?'

(I've blocked out the name of the offending Firefox extension because, well, why single them out when there are so many other offenders?)

This box popped up while I was trying to register a domain name. It was asking me a question: did I want something to happen? And the logical answers are either "yes", "no" or (and this is asking too much from most apps) "I'm not sure; tell me more".

But "cancel"? That could mean anything from "cancel saving the username" to "cancel submitting the form" to "Stop the Internet: I want off." A few seconds of reflection later, and the likely meaning is clear... but as Steve Krug pointed out so famously, making users think (at least about interface choices) isn't a friendly thing to do.

There are still times when "OK" and "Cancel" make sense; I don't suggest jilting them altogether. But when you're asking a yes/no question, what possible reason could you have for not offering users the ability to give a yes/no answer?

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Your blog post could win $1,000 for your cause

Our friends (and clients) at Vancity's community are running a great little contest with a cool twist. Blog about a good cause (at, tag it "changesomething", whip up some buzz around it, and you could win a $1,000 donation from Vancity to the group you blogged about.

They're doing in in celebration of their new branches, which just opened. What I love about this is the chance to give some profile to the smaller groups out there, the folks for whom $1,000 could make a real difference.

Best-case scenario: a good cause gets the money. Worst-case scenario: even the groups that don't win get some real profile in a community of more than 1,500 people dedicated to change. And either way, some important stories get told.

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