how to make twitter lists useful (and keep your timeline clean)

For those of you who don’t know, twitter lists are like custom timelines away from your main timeline. Lists contain a selection of twitter users that (usually) have something in common. For example, I have a list called ‘Musics’ which contains artists and bands I’m interested in. Grouping these twitter users in a list, rather than following them in the traditional sense, means that I can still keep tabs on them, without having my main timeline spammed with stuff that I’m not bothered about 100% of the time. The problem I have, is that I rarely think to check my lists for any updates that do pertain to me. For quite a while I wondered if it was possible to export lists to read in my feed reader (RSS/atom). I figured it wasn’t possible, or wasn’t easy at least, since clicking on the feeds button in firefox gives 3 options to subscribe to: my main timeline, my mentions, and my favourites. Also, none of the microblogging clients that I have used (most recently: pino, gwibber, choqok) have a lists feature. I’m unsure if applications on other platforms support lists, let me know if they do!

Anyway, while poking around with the twitter API for a while today, I just noticed that ‘lists’ can be called externally as an atom feed. <- Click on that linked text for all available parameters, etc. Basically, as long as a list is public, it can be seen by anyone. Feed URLs are in the following format for atom feed readers:

https://api.twitter.com/1/:user/lists/:id/statuses.atom

where :user is replaced with the ‘curator’ of the list, and :id with the list name. For example, the list I mentioned earlier called ‘Musics’ which was created by me, has the following feed URL: https://api.twitter.com/1/twitz0r/lists/musics/statuses.atom.

If a list is private, it can’t be viewed by anyone except the twitter user who created it, and so can’t be viewed by any regular feed readers. I’m sure that if you have some super cool feed reader that authenticates you with twitter then that’s not a problem. It isn’t a problem for me, since private lists are boring anyway. I hope this post will be useful to anyone who has the same pining to use lists as they should be used! Good day.

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open social stepping stones

I just stumbled across an interesting new project today called Ostatus. Basically it aims to provide ‘distributed social networking’ by using some existing protocols to existing blogging and microblogging networks. Depending on what sites implement it, it could be very exciting (I’m excited already, can you tell?). So far, they list Google Buzz, StatusNet (and sites running the StatusNet platform, such as identi.ca), WordPress.com, and tumblr as having implemented some or all of the necessary protocols.

If higher profile sites such as twitter and facebook get in on the act, then it could be the answer to a lot of problems. It would mean that we would not all need to have an account on every platform on the web to interact with our acquaintances. We would not need to provide so many sites with our personal details, just because we have a handful of friends that use each. For example, the thousands of people who have left facebook recently could still show up in the friend lists of the zombies who still occupy it, not as facebook profiles, but as profiles from other social networks or blogs.

Some will inevitably ask: Why don’t we all just use the same social network, then we wouldn’t have to worry about all of these unnecessary growing pains?

Well, we all know what happened with the facebook, and why not everyone would agree with that. If there is some aspect of one network that you don’t like, such as the privacy policy, terms and conditions, or the features it provides, you would use a different one instead. Couple this with OpenID, another exciting decentralized open standard, add a few bells and whistles, and we would have a much more open and social web!

Through their unprecedent kickstarter success, the Diaspora guys have proven that we all want more choice and diversity, while at the same time having control over what details we share publicly. This is another project I look forward to. Due to be released in September, it could well be the ‘next big thing,’ if it can do what they promise! The project page already mentions the possibility of OpenID, among some other phenomenally cool stuff. Everyone (who wants to use it) will have a ‘seed,’ which will harness all of their existing information from the social sites they use (and choose to tie in to the seed). When you want to check up on a friend, you check their seed, without having to worry about scouring the web for different sites with the information. It will also mean that the information we see will be a little more ‘proven’ – we will be more certain that the information about the person, is by the person, and not fraudulent. Also, did I mention it will all be encrypted?!

Who knows, maybe by then the internet won’t be cool anymore…

The Facebook.

I have just deleted myself from the facebook. I decided it was time to get out while I still could. My reasons are many, and my regrets are few. I will not list all of the reasons for my decision, just a few that I think are important; and I will try not to go into too many boring details.

The recent privacy controversy surrounding the facebook is as incessant as the oil that is spewing out of the Gulf of Mexico. It was always going to come to this, wasn’t it? I’m sure it was a thought lingering around a lot of peoples heads when they signed up, that the machine would harvest all of our information and exploit it. Advertising is how they make their money, and their money is what matters to them, not you or your privacy. As my late grandmother would have said if she was in Mark Suckerberg’s position: ‘Privacy? What bank can I cash that in?

A more important reason for deleting my account on the facebook is to make an example of myself. I am a technology enthusiast (geek?), and I am also quite critical (and sometimes outspoken) of widely-used platforms (in the broadest sense of the word) which I think have major downsides that people are ignorant of. I always try to lead by example in such situations, by seeking and using better (but often lesser known) alternatives. This is one of the reasons why I am so enthusiastic about linux and open-source software. I think that a lot of people are probably unaware of the constant changes and “improvements” that go on over at the facebook, and how these changes can affect them. For example, while writing this, I see a post by a friend, let’s call him Bob. The news feed reads like this:

Bob likes Having sex can reduce a fever because of the sweat produced. Sex is also a pain reliever, ten times more effective than Valium: immediately before orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin rise by five times, determining a huge release of endorphins. These chemicals calm pain, from a minor headache to arthritis or migraines, and with no secondary effects. Migraines also disappear because the pressure in the brain’s blood vessels is lowered while we have sex. So now we see that actually, a woman’s headache is rather a good reason for having sex, not against it. – OMG Facts.

When I hovered over the text,  I saw that it links to an external site (‘omg-facts’ or something, hyperlink edited changed to scroogle here). I know nothing about this external site or what it’s intentions are, and I’m not going to speculate on it here. I will just say that external sites and applications are potentially very risky, for both your privacy, and your online security, if you are not prepared for what scripts they might run.  Clicking on the link will bring you to their site, where they could run a script, hijacking your session or worse. I hope the facebook has some sort of  failsafe for  stuff like this, for people who are unaware of the risks, but this post on the f-secure.com blog suggests otherwise. I’m not sure how many people use browsers with built-in or additional script blocking capabilities (such as the noscript extension for firefox), but I am not confident that that number is very high.

The facebook is both limited and limiting. This is probably my biggest reason for not liking it anymore. It’s a point that has been bothering me for a few months now. The internet holds so much potential for variety, choice, and innovation, among many other things. These don’t really apply to the facebook: it is too restrictive. For some people, the facebook is where they spend most of their daily online time (I was probably like that for a while myself). For people like this,’the internet’ consists of a blue bar along the top that says ‘facebook’ on the left, and ‘home, profile, account’ on the right. Everyone has a page. All pages look the same (more or less). Picture, information, friends, etc, all in the same places for everyone. Faceborg seems like an apt nickname for it at this point. This limits the way we think. Maybe that isn’t a fair statement, but sharing user data with advertising companies without consent is most definitely less fair.

The things it could actually be useful for, it fails miserably at. It could be very useful for sharing photos, but instead it is useless for it. 10 megapixel cameras are bogstandard nowadays. The facebook reduces the quality of photos uploaded to less than 1MP, and doesn’t store any of the metadata of the original photo. We all have stories about the instability of the instant messaging feature, it is probably the buggiest I have ever seen. It’s private messaging (inbox) system is just as bad, if not worse. I just found out I can only send to max 20 people at a time. I have 574 ‘friends’ (although this number goes up and down like a yo-yo, without any interaction from me…as does the number of photos I am tagged in, and i recently detagged myself from all photos) – when I message all of my friends to tell them I am quitting the facebook collective and to provide them with an alternative means of contacting me online, I will have to send the same message 29 times.

That brings me to another point (wow, the ranting is really starting to show now, eh? I will try to control myself). The facebook doesn’t want you to leave, and will make it as difficult as possible for you to do so. There is no easy way to download the photos you have been tagged in. There is no easy way to export the contact details of your friends (like their email address, phone numbers, whatever). The actual delete link is close to impossible to find (I’m not sure if it is even possible without a walkthrough). You can ‘deactivate’ your account easily, and up until very recently, until I stumbled across this wiki page, I didn’t think it was possible to actually delete. I’m still not sure, as nobody really knows how much data the facebook will continue to store on you.

I realise that the facebook is still a handy tool to be able to use. I believe however, that the balance has been tipped, and its drawbacks now outweigh its benefits. If you still feel it fun to play on the facebook, I urge you to get to know the ins-and-outs of their privacy control jungle, and to check it regularly. There is a strange phenomenon where things tend to change there frequently. There is a bookmark tool at reclaimprivacy.org/facebook to check your privacy settings, that I would suggest trying, although I can’t guarantee that it covers everything. For the readers who don’t think online privacy is important, read this delightful short story, ‘Scroogled’ by Cory Doctorow. Let’s not let the facebook or any other single goliath type machine define the future of our internet!  Now, I’m off outside, where we used to go before the facebook. Good luck!

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