April 28, 2010

In Support of @Spaz

I can't believe I'm advertising here. OK, yes I can, but still. Makes me feel all sorts of cheap.

And yet, it feels right to give a shout-out to a group that's already done so much for me, in a lot of ways. @funkatron and @ElizabethN are two of the nicest, friendliest people I've met. Despite my disgusting Javascript skills and my complete lack of experience with Git and Open Source development, they've both welcomed me and put up with my obnoxious questions on Google Talk, IRC, Twitter, and anywhere else I can find them. @ramsey, @wlturland, and @elazar have collaborated to make me feel welcome and involved, and have proven that getting involved in Open Source is one of the best choices I could have made.

Just last night, @wlturland and @elazar got into a conversation about me over Twitter based on my @spaz contribution. For the record, I've changed three files, added four methods, meaning support for one feature. I'm not exactly writing huge chunks of their codebase. But they make me feel involved, and I find myself wanting to contribute more. This is how FOSS is done, ladies and gents. It was mildly odd, getting mentioned by two people I had only heard of in passing and never interacted with directly, but I got over it rather quickly.

Really, all this post is meant to say is that @spaz is an awesome experience. May 8th is an IRC hackathon on freenode.net's #spaz channel, with more information here. I plan on joining in, and hope some new people will stop by. For a project this awesome, it's absolutely worth it. Definitely a great project to get started in the FOSS world with.

April 26, 2010

I Support Twitter's Ads, and So Should You

Ok, so pretty much anyone who's tech-savvy knows by now that Twitter has started "embedding" ads in its search results. Embedding is in quotes because Twitter will say it's the wrong word. They like "promoting".

In a system it calls "promoted tweets", it lets advertisers pay to have their tweets promoted in places like searches and in their followers streams--or so far as I've understood, at least. Granted, I don't understand much about this new revenue system, and I don't really care to; an odd approach, given the post title. Let me explain.

I'm not so much saying that you should support Twitter and its ads; instead, I'm saying that applications should. Twitter made the risky decision to not require its third-party clients to include the promoted tweets, and to split the revenue with them. Meaning if a developer doesn't want to display ads in their application, they don't have to. Which is admirable.

And yet, I'm claiming that developers should include these promoted tweets in their application. And here's why: it isn't the developer's choice.

Ads have a really negative stigma associated with them today, and for good reason: most suck and are annoying. We need to keep in mind the point of advertising, however: to make us buy things. And so long as we aren't being tricked into buying things, one would imagine that we'd actually want what we're buying. This is what the whole industry is built on. Advertising is simply the business of bringing a user and the product they want together. Everyone wins.

Most users, however, don't want to see these promoted tweets. Why? I don't care. Honestly, it's superfluous to my argument, a tangent that only breeds trouble. I don't know enough about the system to argue it effectively. But I do know that if I'm a user, there's a chance that I may enjoy these ads, they may work for me, or hell, that I may want to support Twitter. And why should the developer of the application I'm choosing to use make that decision for me? With Twitter launching its own official clients, developers can't afford to estrange users by making decisions for the user.

So yes, I support Twitter's Ads. I'll be asking @funkatron if we can include them in @spaz. But, to be perfectly clear: I support including them as an option. A check box in the settings page. Let the user decide.

April 19, 2010

Beware the Pretty-Faced Girl

It's astonishing how quickly forget one of the most important lessons in life, just because it's applicable somewhere unexpected: if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Why then, do we not hear words like "magical" and "revolutionary" and become suspicious, as we should, instead of fawning and yammering on excitedly about the future?

Any semi-savvy computer user (or anyone with common sense, really) can tell you that no, there is no Kenyan prince willing to sign over a vast sum of money to you, if you only send him the bank fees. No, the bank didn't make a mistake on the account you didn't know you had, and will not mail you a large check if only you can verify your social security number.

Why then, when we hear about a magical, revolutionary new tablet, do we think it comes with no strings attached? Why is it ok for us to find a brilliant product, a brilliant free product, even, and think it's not going to have some sort of cost somewhere down the road? Why do we think we can make thousands, if not millions of dollars developing applications for a service, but the service (with financial woes of its own!) won't step in to compete?

We're just used to the Web being free. We're naturally suspicious of Open Source software (that's changing, as of late, thank God) because we don't understand why people would waste their time developing free, open tools they can't profit from for our use and enjoyment. And the simple answer that they like to seems out of place. And yet, when those tools are embedded in a webpage... Suddenly it's all okay.

You'll notice I've strayed away from Apple's iPad. There are plenty of posts out there on how the iPad is a "poisoned apple". Nobody needs another one. And the iPad isn't what got me thinking about this.

I was just thinking about Tumblr, the wonderful micro-blogging site. Free to use, elegant, well-designed, and with a nasty tendency to copy features from other sites, it is the blogging tool of choice for most the hipsters I know. Just as Apple is the company of choice. And that really got me thinking: it comes down to aesthetics.

I mean, how could something so pretty possibly be bad?

And yet... Tumblr has that aforementioned nasty knack for cloning functionality. Apple has a sour relationship with developers, competitors, and really anything they decide not to like that morning. Apple's practices are, more often than not, borderline monopolistic in nature: want to develop for your iPhone? Good. Get a Mac.

There are plenty of arguments for why this is. The one that holds the most water, I believe, is controlling user experience. By making sure their products work best together, Apple can control the user experience. By copying features in-house, Tumblr can control the user experience.

When did we decide it was okay for anyone to control our experience except for us? Are we really that insecure about our ability to have a good experience on our own? Imagine going to a movie, and having the cinema tell you where you were sitting, what you were drinking, what you were eating, who you were watching the movie with, what movie you were watching, and what you thought of the movie, including whether you liked it or not.

Why is that experience not okay to control? Doesn't Regal know best? If Apple went into the cinema business, would it be okay for them to do that?

We really need to consider the types of businesses we're supporting and condoning, all because they have a pretty face and control our experience for us.

April 15, 2010

A Return to My Roots

I should be writing a paper right now. Two, actually. But a book review of Go To is nowhere near as interesting, and a response to Shameful Flight is far too tedious. So, in a true return to my past, I'm writing a blog post instead of worrying about schoolwork. Such is life.

I started my life as a hacker playing with JavaScript on ProBoards. But my true immersion into the world of hacking and programming came when I took up Linux, inspired by my programming mentor Bob Duke, and formed the Linux Campaign in my high school. As a LUG, the Linux Campaign was a bust. But it was fun. And I found something out:

I really enjoy Open Source software.

The GPL, the MIT, the Creative Commons... these are my licenses. Free Culture is my bible. And yet... in the past few years, I've been drifting away from FOSS. Not intentionally, and not significantly. I still prefer FOSS products, when I can find them. I still use CakePHP and Django to make stuff, and still don't care if other people use my stuff.

But I guess that's the issue. I don't care.

Part of the culture surrounding FOSS is the desire to share. The desire to help others use you work, to contribute back to the community. And the community gives me so much, it's hard to justify not giving back. To be honest, for the last year or two, I've been a leech on the FOSS community. I've been busy, yes, but so are @funkatron, and @felixge, and all the other FOSS contributors that I admire and strive to emulate. And I'd like to change that.

I'm starting this summer by applying to GSoC. If accepted, I'll be working on either Melange or Big Blue Button for the summer, contributing Open Source Code. Last night, I also attended a @spaz meeting, and signed up as a contributer to the wonderful FOSS.

So here it is, FOSS community: my apology to you. And my promise to make amends.