A tweet got a little more attention than usual

As I was struggling to finish and fact-check my Yahoo column Monday evening, I stumbled across an enraging story: The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery had been charged in St. Louis County, Mo., for “trespassing and interfering with a police officer” while covering the Ferguson unrest a year ago.

Having read Lowery’s account of his arrest and brief incarceration–his alleged crime was not clearing out of a McDonald’s in which he’d been charging his phone as fast as a cop wanted–I thought that charge was bullshit. And then I remembered another place where a Post reporter has been wrongfully detained: Tehran, where Jason Rezaian has spent more than 365 times as much time in jail on a trumped-up charge of espionage.

I noted the parallel in a tweet:

Twitter analytics screengrabThen I got back to work, or tried to as my phone began constantly buzzing with Twitter notifications. Within a few hours, my comment had been retweeted about 500 times, which would easily make it the most-read thing I’d ever shared on Twitter, and it’s now past 700 RTs. For the first time ever, I found it helpful to use Twitter’s option of showing only interactions from other verified users.

That’s flattering. But I’d rather that Lowery (whom I was pleased to meet briefly at last year’s Online News Association conference) and the two other journalists similarly charged not have to deal with this nonsense. And I can’t help noticing how few people clicked on the Post link I’d shared: when I started writing this post, 2,014 out of 111,591 total “impressions.”

And then there were the minority of ignorant replies that suggested the problem was reporters acting “disrespectful” (should I read that as “uppity”) or merely attempting to document the workings of law enforcement, among other bits of right-wing nuttery. That’s a downside of outsized attention on Twitter or any other social network: You will bring out the crazies.

It’s a good thing I retain a sense of humor about such things. I guess I owe the Post some credit for developing that over the days when the crazies would call the city or national desks, and it was my job to pick up the phone.

When I will delete your e-mail

I’ve been making one of my periodic attempts to catch up on my e-mail (read: if you wrote me three weeks ago, your odds of getting a reply sometime this coming week are less worse than usual). That process has required me to think about something I normally avoid: deleting e-mail.

Paper in trash canMy usual habit is to keep everything that’s not outright spam, just in case I might need to look it up later on. Messages from friends and family are of obvious importance, reader e-mail may provide early evidence of a problem that becomes widespread months later, and correspondence from co-workers can have documentary value about a company’s progress or decline. Even PR pitches can have lingering usefulness, by providing the contact info that too many companies can’t think to post on their own sites.

And yet if a search will yield hundreds of messages including the same keyword, I’m going to have a hard time locating the one or few messages I had in mind. Something’s got to go.

The easiest items to delete are the automated notifications and reminders I get from various services I’ve signed up–Twitter, Eventbrite and Meetup, I’m looking at you. The utility of those messages to me usually expires within 24 hours, tops. When those notifications duplicate the ones that already pop up on my phone. my tablet or OS X’s Notification Center, they’re pointless from the moment of their arrival.

(You may have seem this kind of requested, not-spam mail labeled bacn. Not long after that term came about, I wrote that “dryer lint” would be more descriptive and less cutesy, but everybody seems to have ignored that suggestion.)


Then come newsletters that attempt to recap headlines in various categories. Even if I read these almost every day–the American Press Institute’s Need to Know and Morning Consult’s tech newsletter come to mind–they’re little help to me the day after, much less six months down the road. I look for day- or months-old news headlines on the Web, not in my inbox.

Ideally, I could set a filter in my mail client to delete designated notifications and newsletters 24 or 48 hours after their arrival. But although Gmail will let you construct a search like that using its “older_than” operator to scrub stale Groupon offers from your inbox, its filters don’t seem to include that option. And the filters in Apple’s Mail, which don’t seem to have been touched by any developers in the last five years, are of no use in this case either.

Do any other mail clients offer this capability? If not, any interested mail developers are welcome to consider this post a formal feature request.


It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

Weekly output: Turkey and Twitter, activity trackers, MVNOs


This week provided a rare excuse, however tangential, to apply some of my Georgetown book learning on things like international relations and European history.

Yahoo Turkey Twitter column41/2014: Turkey Blocks Twitter. Could It Happen Here? It’s Come Close Already., Yahoo Tech

I’d been wondering how I could cover the strange campaign by Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan against Twitter and social media in general, and then I realized how many of their actions matched up with things that have been done or advocated in the U.S. (Fortunately, Erdoğan complied with an unfavorable court ruling and ended the block on Thursday.)

4/1/2014: Activity trackers, WTOP

The news station had me on to talk about the utility of activity-tracking wristbands, pods and apps. I had a brief deer-in-the-ON-AIR-lights moment when I realized I was about to mix up the names of a few phone apps… but you can’t hear it since WTOP’s site seems to have stopped archiving each day’s broadcasts on an “ICYMI” page. Hence there’s also no link.

4/6/2014: How wireless service resellers stack up, USA Today

A query from a friend became the kick in the rear I needed to conduct an overdue evaluation of the pros and cons of some major wireless resellers: Consumer Cellular, Credo Mobile, Net10, Republic Wireless, Straight Talk and TracFone.


#corrected: Fixing your errors on Twitter

I screwed up on Twitter yesterday morning. In the grip of nerd rage over a story about an Apple patent application–and without sufficient caffeine in my body–I tweeted that the Cupertino, Calif., company had received a patent on a feature that had debuted in a third-party app some three years before its 2012 filing.

Delete tweetThe problem was, Apple had only applied for a patent on a text-while-you-walk system that would overlay message conversations on your phone camera’s view of your surroundings. Oops.

So I tweeted something, um, transparently wrong. Now what? I’ve attended more than one panel discussion on this, and the answers usually get stuck on one of two conflicting imperatives: Don’t let the error go unfixed, but don’t look like you’re hiding the mistake either.

(See my earlier post about documenting changes to your story, if necessary in comments you leave yourself.)

Since you can’t edit the incorrect tweet or even flag it as wrong in the way you could amend a flawed story or blog post, letting it stand risks perpetuating the mistake. But if you delete it, then the evidence of your error vanishes.

What I decided to do was to delete the tweet, follow up by saying what I’d gotten wrong, and then redo the original tweet with a reasonably obvious hashtag, #corrected, to indicate that it was a “CX” for an earlier version:

Does that routine work for you all? Or am I once again seriously overthinking something that people with real jobs don’t worry about at all?

In other news, earlier this afternoon I was glad to see that the Ask Patents clearinghouse for prior art will include this Apple filing in an upcoming call for submissions:


So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–“ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

Follow you, follow me: Twitter and a scaleable attention span

A few days ago, I learned something new about the social network I’ve been using almost every day since the spring of 2008. As I belatedly followed somebody on Twitter whose input I’d been enjoying for years in retweeted form, it struck me how rarely I’d had reason to regret following people on the service.

Twitter follow buttonMost of my unfollows have involved read-only accounts that I found a poor substitute for RSS. As for actual people–and organizational accounts that interact as if there are actual people behind the keyboards–I have to discover that you’re a far more obnoxious or uninformative tweep than I’d thought to unfollow you.

(FWIW, I don’t think I’ve blocked anybody on Twitter for anything besides spamming and don’t quite understand “ending” an argument by blocking somebody who has remained civil throughout the debate. I suppose enough pointless jackassery sent my way could drive me to that step, but it hasn’t happened yet.)

And yet when I started out, I was unrealistically afraid of having too many people’s words cascade down the screen. Each new follow involved a careful consideration of how often this person would tweet, and how relevant those tweets were to my work.

I mean, I didn’t even follow the guys I shared a group house with at a NASA Tweetup. How weirdly snobbish is that?

That was dumb. I missed out on a lot that way.

I now follow more than 400 users–still far less than many other people I know–and don’t feel close to overwhelmed even though I have far more to keep up with. In retrospect, I seriously underestimated how my attention span could scale up.

It’s true that reading Twitter on the go on a phone has gotten more pleasant since 2008, and that this service imposes no visual penalty for falling behind–no messages piling up in an inbox, no RSS items asking to be marked as read.

But the most important change is in my own head. I’ve gotten better at reading Twitter quickly: recognizing the varying signal-to-noise ratios of people and skimming their output appropriately, noticing retweets from users with particularly good taste, ignoring waves of banter about pop-culture topics I don’t care about.

Twitter has become one of those specialized tasks–typing on phone keyboards comes to mind–that I’ve done enough times to have essentially reprogrammed my brain.

That could still turn out to be a tragic waste of cerebral capacity. But it is more fun to surround myself with more interesting and creative people, even if they don’t all neatly fit into a People Relevant to Tech Journalism spreadsheet.