Sunday, March 30, 2008


Many thanks to everyone who responded to my request for reading recommendations - I've just made my 185th Amazon purchase (!) and now have far more than a week's worth of holiday reading winging it's way to me from their Marston Gate warehouse.

A couple of comments referenced the pile of books I'd used to illustrate the post - whilst it does contain a few of my favourites, it was more of a reflection of the volumes that were nearest to hand (I have an annoying habit of evangelically forcing my most cherished books onto my friends who are then forced to use them as door stops / paperweights and smile politely whenever I inquire as to how they are enjoying them).

A while back I came across 22books - a modest little site "dedicated to the creating, sharing, and viewing of book lists". Created by James Avery, initially to detail all 22 of the late Kurt Vonnegut's published books (hence the name), the site is a little light on functionality at present, offering commenting and embedding and not a whole lot else. That said, I'm increasingly favouring single-function sites (e.g. Flickr for photos, Twitter for status updates) over the everything-but-the-kitchen sink, all-your-base-are-belong-to-us behemoth that is Facebook.

Anyway, rather than construct my list of favourite novels using the more obvious choice of Amazon's Listmania, I thought I'd give 22books a whirl. Unfortunately I can't get their embed code to work with Blogger so I've cut-and-pasted the list below (don't worry James - I've left your Amazon affiliate code in tact :) You can view the list in situ here.

22 of my favourite novels:

412y3qjrjrl 1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
210rard2yql 2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
51qwd6jfcfl 3. Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
4183ppg0gzl 4. Air & Fire by Rupert Thomson
115brqk11yl 5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
51nm852x9ml 6. The Insult by Rupert Thomson
01e73hqarql 7. Atonement by Ian McEwan
11zmm8sfbgl 8. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
41w8a61sfrl 9. The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson
71g21n1tsfl 10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
01tv3wqa6nl 11. Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
01s8fsj0cul 12. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
41czgbe4aal 13. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
51pgg6vyfgl 14. Number9Dream by David Mitchell
417s4bsg07l 15. Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
01526x6a3fl 16. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
513rnc8n3el 17. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
11ervchgvjl 18. Saturday by Ian McEwan
51vajxf5x9l 19. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho
01qqst3x6dl 20. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
5141n7k89gl 21. The Five Gates of Hell by Rupert Thomson
51k6th69v1l 22. Black Out by John Lawton

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bow Street Runner & We Tell Stories

I've been giving quite a bit a thought to games and the whole concept of play since returning from this year's SXSW Interactive, where Jane McGonigal delivered a barnstorming keynote on gaming and happiness (lovely slides, sadly mangled by SlideShare) and World Without Oil picked up the Activism gong in the 11th Annual Web Awards.

Whilst a more considered post on gaming and play gestates, below are a couple of established media companies making innovative use of game mechanics which have caught my attention over the past few weeks.

Bow Street Runner

Produced by Brighton-based Littleloud, Bow Street Runner is an episodic Flash-based point-and-click graphic adventure commissioned by Channel 4 to accompany the five part TV series City of Vice. Set in Eighteenth-century London, the game seamlessly weaves together video capture with lovingly rendered backdrops and game objects to create a surprisingly immersive in-browser experience. Whilst a little too linear in structure (your progress through locations is predetermined and one-way), the concept of accruing esteem works well, as does the evidence gathering, which requires manual dexterity with the mouse/trackpad (most memorably to stitch up a stabbing victim). A new episode is unlocked every Thursday and a password is provided on completion of each episode so you don't need to replay them when returning to the game.

We Tell Stories

A Six to Start production for Penguin UK, We Tell Stories is a six week project in which half a dozen established authors fashion narratives which aim to take advantage of the unique properties of the internet. Week 1 is 'The 21 Steps' by Charles Cumming, a homage to The 39 Steps which overlays a twenty one chapter short story onto embedded Google Maps, visually plotting the narrator's progress and unfolding the story one data-point at a time (including optional images). The next story (from one of my favourite authors, Toby Litt) is due tomorrow with the remaining four narratives appearing over the following four weeks. Of course, this being the brothers Hon, there's also a secret seventh story "somewhere on the internet" with the incentive of £13k worth of literary booty to be won.

Game on!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reading recommendations - the people vs. Amazon

I'm off on holiday in a couple of weeks (praise the Lord) and have started turning my attention to my holiday reading list. Whilst it's true that I have a whole bookcase of unread tomes (silently reprimanding me for how little time I manage to carve out for dead-tree format reading these days), I'm always on the look out for new recommendations, especially in the run up to an away break.

Whilst you might expect any self-respecting geek to turn to Amazon for literary pointers, I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by their feted recommendations functionality. Sure, it's useful for directing you to other books by authors you've previously purchased or books in a similar genre, but it fails to deliver much in the way of genuine serendipity (I don't need a computer to tell me that if I liked Atomised by Michel Houellebecq then I might also like Platform by Michel Houellebecq).

Which is where you, dear reader, come in. Following on from the successful vote to determine which mobile phone handset I should upgrade to, I'm once again asking for your help - this time in broadening my literary horizons with answers to the following three questions:

1.) What's the best fiction book you've read in the last 12 months?
2.) What's the best non-fiction book you've read in the last 12 months?
2.) What's your favourite book of all time (fiction or non-fiction)?

Feel free to respond to some of all of the above questions either via the comments section below or on your own blog. I look forward to reading your recommendations.

Related fabric of folly posts:
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson
The Tortilla Curtain

Saturday, March 15, 2008

It started with a tweet - my Twitter epiphany

It's not something one readily admits to in the company of the geek elite, but prior to last week's South by Southwest I was something of a closet Twitter refusenik. Sure, I'd signed up along with everyone else back in 2006 and sent a few tentative tweets but I couldn't quite work out what all the fuss was about. Turning on mobile alerts didn't help and if anything, just cemented my view that it was an intrusive waste of time ('beep beep - X is having a sandwich' 'beep beep - Y is clipping their toenails'). Meh.

That all changed last week when Twitter played a major role in shaping my experience of SXSW. It started in Chicago airport when, waiting for a connecting flight, I exchanged Twitter handles with a bunch of fellow geeks, also on their way to Austin. Suddenly I was part of a mini community with a shared purpose and the tweets coming through felt super relevant and interesting ('X is talking in Room 8 right now and she's awesome' 'I'm grabbing some lunch at the Halcyon - anyone want to join me?').

Where previously I thought of Twitter as being like SMS or IM but more spammy, I started to see the benefits of its one-to-many format. It was possible to throw a thought out there, with people able to respond or not, without obligation - something which definitely isn't true of SMS or IM, where an unreplied to message usually goes down like a cup of cold sick. The beauty of apps such as Twitterific is that your friends' twittering becomes an almost ambient side-channel with you free to dip in a out as your time and interest allows.

Another interesting use of Twitter at SXSW was as a back-channel during the sessions, enabling attendees both within and without of a session to have a near real-time conversation about it (with well documented consequences in the case of the Zuckerberg keynote). Of course, the smarter session chairs pulled the back-channel up on screen so they could gauge the mood of the audience and respond accordingly.

Of course, Twitter isn't all joyous. Like any medium, it can be used for both good and not-so-good (someone should tell Doris Lessing, who somehow managed to get a Nobel prize without seemingly giving any serious thought to the medium/message blame equation). At the moment, however, the good far outweighs the bad and Twitter is shaping up to be a fascinating and complimentary new medium.

Tweet me @fabricoffolly.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

SXSWi 2008 in review

Having opted not to blog on any individual sessions from this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival (thanks to Dan, Roo, Jo and countless others for doing a far better job than I would have done), I thought I'd afford myself a brief summary post, picking out some personal high (and low) lights.

Getting the negative out of the way first, my overall lowlight would have to be fighting off a cold for most of the five days I've been out here, forcing me home to bed early and depriving me of the full Austin after-hours experience.

My overall highlight would have to be the people I've met, not only familiar faces (great to catch up with Tom, Matt, Paul, Matt, Ben, Yasser, Chris and Chris) but also putting faces to familiar names (Jemima, Roo, Dan, Gavin) and getting to know some brand new names and faces (Jeff from Apple, Deirdre from Chinwag, Rachel from b5media, Jeremy from Penguin, Heitor from the University of Porto and Abi from HeatEatReview, to name but six).

In terms of conference highlights, my votes would be as follows:

Best keynote: Jane McGonigal
Best interview: Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson
Best panel session: Gaming and User's Geolocation in Web 2.0
Best party: People Powered Party

A full list of the sessions and parties I attended can be viewed on the awesome

And finally, if I had to sum up the whole festival in just nine words they would be: Wi-Fi, Queue, MacBook, Shiner Bock, Twitter, Walking, Ribs, Lacygate.

See you next year!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review of social aggregators / lifestreaming services

The difficulty in keeping track of one's activity on an increasing number of social media sites (Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, etc.) has, somewhat ironically, spawned a whole new breed of site - the social aggregator (a.k.a. lifestreaming services). Below is a review of 15 products currently in this space. I've tried to keep the focus on aggregators, rather than services which have more of an emphasis on inputting new content (e.g. microblogging platforms such as Tumblr or Jaiku) although the lines are clearly blurred.

Key to success in this area is minimising the work the user has to do to setup their aggregation. Scanning services against specified usernames (rather than adding each service individually) or automatically pulling in friend lists from the services added are both massive timesavers which lower the chances that you'll decide it's not worth the hassle and give up.

Another important factor in determining which aggregator is the best fit for you, beyond which services they supports (see comparison table at the foot of this post), is whether you want to keep track of your own activity, your friends' activity or a combination of the two. The below services all handle this in slightly different ways, both technically and presentationally.

1.) Profilactic

Launched way back in 2006, Profilactic is the daddy of social aggregators, not least because it's notched up support for an astonishing 144 services. It also has a decent UI and some nice bits of functionality, including search and filtering of your 'mashup' (poor choice of label imo - too many other connotations). I also like the fact that it pulls in decent sized Flickr images rather than thumbnails, although I guess that's just personal preference and others may feel they take up too much space. Perhaps Profilactic's most compelling feature (now shared by newcomer socialthing!) is that it automatically draws on your friend lists from the services you add rather than forcing you to add them manually, which removes a massive barrier to take up.

Pros: number of services supported, search & filtering, large Flickr photos, automatically pulls in friends from other services
Cons: Lacks the design elegance of socialthing!

Features: 5 stars
Ease of use: 5 stars
Design/UX: 4 stars
Overall: 5 stars

2.) socialthing!

Still in private beta, socialthing! is a masterclass in the less-is-more school of interface design. The main page is filled with your 'Lifestream' with everything else tucked away behind a 'Settings' tab. Adding feeds is super easy and you can choose on a per-service basis who to share updates with (everyone, only friends or only friends on that particular service). There is also a checkbox to determine whether your friends' updates appear in your Lifestream or not (although they seem to appear regardless of whether I have this box checked, which I'm guessing is just a beta bug). The major drawback of socialthing! at this stage is the small number of services currently being supported, although that's likely to change as the beta progresses. I have 10 socialthing! beta invites to give away - leave a comment if you'd like one.

Pros: Sweet interface, iPhone-optimised version, draws on your friend lists from the services you add
Cons: Limited number of services supported, bug whereby friends' updates always appear

Features: 4 stars
Ease of use: 5 stars
Design/UX: 5 stars
Overall: 5 stars

3.) FriendFeed

Founded by a handful of ex-Google employees, FriendFeed is as spare and functional as you'd expect. It accepts feeds from 28 of the most popular social media sites and boasts a simple user interface with three main tabs (friends, me, everyone). Throw in a a decent Facebook app (which saves time by keeping your Mini Feed updated) and some nice extras (stats, recommended friends and, best of all, add an 'imaginary friend' to keep track on feeds from friends who don't yet have a FriendFeed account) and you're looking at a decent alternative to Profilactic.

Pros: good range of services supported, clean interface, decent Facebook app
Cons: feeds have to be added individually

Features: 4 stars
Ease of use: 5 stars
Design/UX: 4 stars
Overall: 4 stars

4.) iminta

iminta (strap line: what are you inta?) matches FriendFeed for number of supported services but doesn't quite match its simplicity of interface. It does however, offer some neat bits of additional functionality including the option to limit visibility of different feeds to different friends (via groups) and the ability to filter the stream by type (e.g. stories, events, videos) and/or by site.

Pros: groups, filter stream by site/type
Cons: busy interface

Features: 4 stars
Ease of use: 4 stars
Design/UX: 4 stars
Overall: 4 stars

5.) Plaxo Pulse

After an inauspicious start, Plaxo seems to be back on the straight and narrow and rapidly gainly in popularity. It's Pulse component can accept feeds from an impressive 34 sites (second only to Profilactic) and you can choose whether to share updates with friends, family, business contacts or a custom group on a per-service basis. There's also a nice option to sync your Plaxo Pulse status with Twitter and a drop-down enabling you to filter the stream by type. The interface is more cluttered than socialthing! or FriendFeed, although it is trying to support a fully-featured social network.

Pros: Twitter-sync option, filter by type
Cons: Slightly cluttered interface

Features: 4 stars
Ease of use: 4 stars
Design/UX: 3 stars
Overall: 4 stars

6.) Readr

Readr falls very much in the middle of the spectrum of social aggregators. Aesthetically, it borrows very heavily from Twitter, right down to the customisable wallpaper backgrounds, which is no a bad thing - the Twitter design works very well. Functionality-wise, it covers all the basics, including the ability to make individual feeds public or friends-only. However, it fails to make it into the top tier by not automatically pulling in friend lists from added services.

Pros: live update of your lifestream as you add services, range of embeddable widgets
Cons: Friends have to be added manually

Features: 3 stars
Ease of use: 4 stars
Design/UX: 4 stars
Overall: 4 stars

7.) Second Brain

Second Brain provides a clear and simple layout with some nice interface touches including speech bubbles for tweets and preview thumbnails for URLs bookmarked using Unfortunately the finessed design isn't matched by the usability - adding feeds is a laborious process, involving lots of authentication and watching a spinning progress indicator, which other services seem to avoid.

Pros: Clean interface, search functionality, tags
Cons: Adding feeds is laborious, erratic feed updates

Features: 2 stars
Ease of use: 3 stars
Design/UX: 5 stars
Overall: 3 stars

8.) is visually very appealing, offering customisable 'skins' and pulling in large Flickr photos, Digg icons and full blog posts. It doesn't offer much in the way of additional functionality though and lacks much integration with your friends activity (beyond a link on the homepage).

Pros: Large Flickr photos and full blog posts
Cons: Limited functionality

Features: 2 stars
Ease of use: 3 stars
Design/UX: 5 stars
Overall: 3 stars

9.) Onaswarm

Visually very clean and simple, Onaswarm is another site whose functionality doesn't live up to the polish of its visual design. 'Calendar' sounds intriguing but turns out to be a blank page, whilst clicking on 'with friends' doesn't appear to present anything different to the individual view. It does however offer one very cool piece of functionality which is the ability to scan available services for specified usernames. I was thus able to turn up fabricoffolly accounts on multiple services by just typing in one word.

Pros: Good looking, scan services for username feature
Cons: Broken or opaque functionality

Features: 3 stars
Ease of use: 2 stars
Design/UX: 3 stars
Overall: 3 stars

10.) where is me?

where is me? supports a relatively modest 13 sites but manages to cover off most of the big hitters. Adding feeds is a relatively straightforward process, although both Flickr & Twitter require you to look up and enter your ID number, which is a bit of a pain. Another minor frustration is that updates can only be ordered by service type not chronologically, so you don't get a true picture of your updates over time. One cool feature, which the other services would do well to emulate, is the ability to specify a tag so as to only show posts which match that tag.

Pros: per-service tag-filtering
Cons: can't order stream chronologically

Features: 2 stars
Ease of use: 3 stars
Design/UX: 3 stars
Overall: 3 stars

11.) liveZuu

Matching FriendFeed and iminta for number of available services (28), liveZuu is let down by an esoteric interface which squeezes most of the interaction into a tiny portion of the screen and forces the user to adopt a trial and error approach to finding what they're looking for (it took me ages before I realised how to get to the fullscreen lifestream). It's a shame because the actual functionality is pretty good (although I couldn't get it to play with my Flickr feed).

Pros: Good range of services, Facebook app
Cons: Confusing UI

Features: 3 stars
Ease of use: 2 stars
Design/UX: 2 stars
Overall: 2 stars

12.) Superglu

Superglu offers a blog-style presentation of your lifestream with main content updates down the left and a column on the right with recently listened to tracks, tags and month-by-month archives. Unfortunately the pulling in of the feeds seems a little erratic (no update on mine between the 12th Feb and 1oth Mar). There's also an issue with the image crashing into the right-hand column (see above grab). The good news is that Superglu does enable advanced users to manually edit the stylesheet (so I could go in and sort if out were I so inclined).

Pros: Manual CSS editing
Cons: Erratic updates, lack of friend integration

Features: 2 stars
Ease of use:
Features: 3 stars
Design/UX: 2 stars
Overall: 2 stars

13.) iStalkr

The functionality of iStalkr is really not too bad but it's let down by poor design and UX, not least the fact that there is so much furniture at the top of the page (Google Ads, logo which isn't clickable, Digg icon) that the main event (the stream) is invariably pushed down beneath the fold. The user is just made to work too hard (why do I have to type in the name of the service? Why can't you do it and I'll overwrite it if it's wrong?). There are some redeeming features, including search functionality and an activities timeline (although the labels are often too truncated too be meaningful and the full description doesn't appear on hover), although they're not enough to counter the UX shortcomings.

Pros: Activities timeline, search stream feature
Cons: Sub-optimal design/UX,

Features: 3 stars
Ease of use: 2 stars
Design/UX: 2 stars
Overall: 2 stars

14.) is the most lo-fi of the services reviewed here, employing a design aesthetic and linking to photos and videos rather than pulling them into the data stream (or 'river', as calls it). Only six services are currently supported (although they are some of the biggest hitters) and adding feeds can be a bit of a pain (to add you have to log in the site and temporarily change your country to Timor-Lest). On the plus side, there's an aggregated tag cloud and some basic stats on what number of posts are coming from which services.

Pros: tag cloud, basic stats
Cons: limited number of services supported, convoluted feed additions, doesn't pull media assets into stream

Features: 2 stars
Ease of use: 2 stars
Design/UX: 2 stars
Overall: 2 stars

15.) OneSwirl

OneSwirl didn't fair too well in my testing, returning MySQL database errors on the homepage (doh!). The only feed which I could get to appear in my stream (Twitter) wasn't very effectively presented (too spread out, necessitating a lot of scrolling) and the design looks very dated to me. In fairness to the developers, it's only been live for two weeks and they're clearly aware they've got some way to go with it. Casting around for a redeeming feature, I did quite like the inclusion of a calendar, enabling you to easily jump back to specific dates (although, of course, it doesn't work).

Pros: Er...
Cons: Database errors, not all feeds successfully updating lifestream

Features: 1 star
Ease of use: 1 star
Design/UX: 1 star
Overall: 1 star

Comparison of services supported by social aggregatorsSocial aggregators comparison table