QuoraQuora is an interesting looking service, providing a fairly straightforward question and answer platform. It’s been in closed beta for a while, but now has been unleashed onto the public at large.

It’s all about capturing the activity we all do on sites like Twitter: asking questions, giving answers, and researching topics online. Quora adds to this activity by turning it into a searchable and collaborative archive:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

Part of the reason for some of the hype around Quora is the fact that it has been founded by a bunch of people involved in Facebook’s early days. They know how to build a decent web app.

TechCrunch have a decent write-up, with a warning of a potential problem now the site is public:

Their biggest challenge is about to begin. Quora has generated attention not just because of its slick interface, but because of the extremely high quality of its answers up until this point — it isn’t unusual for someone to ask a question and have it answered by a top expert in the field within a matter of hours (or less). Likewise, questions about various Internet companies often attract answers from longtime employees. The big question now is whether or not Quora will be able to maintain that quality as it deals with an influx of new users.

I’ve signed up, and you can find me here. Will be fascinating to see how this works out.

Update: writing this reminded me about Formspring, which hasn’t really taken off for me. Quora differs because it is based on subjects and issues rather than individuals. My Formspring page is here.

Organising yourself with Evernote

EvernoteEvernote is a nice little app that I have mentioned a couple of times before. It’s a note taking and organising tool, which exists in three main forms: a website, a desktop application for your computer, and an iPhone app.

This approach is becoming increasingly important for any service I use on a regular basis. It needs to be present in a usable form wherever I am and be accessible offline as well as off. It’s one of the reasons that Dropbox has become so invaluable too.

Evernote let you create pages on notes, using text, images, video or audio and to embed documents and even web pages as well. Notes can be collected into notebooks, enabling you to bundle things on similar topics together, and notebooks can even be published publicly, turning Evernote into a simple CMS.

For example, my default notebook, where note are stored if I don’t specificy another one, is simple ‘Stuff to sort’ and notes don’t stay in there for long. I have a notebook for blog posts ideas, one for  reports and documents to read, and another for project ideas.

I’ve recently started using it in another way – which I wouldn’t have really thought of before I found myself doing it! When I am at events, I pick up loads of business cards from people. Before, I would take them home in a big pile, then after a while I would go through them, trying to figure out who people are etc. Now, I photograph them on my iphone as soon as I get them, and send them into Evernote. I can then add notes to them, such as who they are, what they are interested in, where I met them etc all in one place. These all get synced up to a ‘business cards’ notebook so I can find them easily and it acts as a simple CRM.

I’m not the only fan of Evernote at Learning Pool – my good friend John Roughley uses it regularly too – here’s his take:

John RoughleyI found Evernote by chance when looking for a way to collect and organize the sheer amount of technical information I come across on a daily basis. I needed an easy way to collect text, images, and web pages. I looked at various options but found that Evernote offered the flexibility I needed. For me, one of the big advantages was the ability to tag information, making it easy to search for.

So what do I collect? In a word everything! Well, everything that is of use to me in my job at Learning Pool.  This mainly consists of information from moodle.org, capturing text, sometimes long pieces or short posts on the forum. Anything that I think might be useful, it’s much easier than bookmarking every page that might (or might not) be useful in the future.  Plus you only capture what you need. Images are easily captured with a right-click, then tagged in the same way as you would with anything else.

Gathering all this information is great, but is of no use if you can’t share it with anyone. Another cool feature is that you can share the information with anyone, by simply entering their email address. They can then view the information through a web browser.

So there you have it. Evernote is dead handy.

Do you use Evernote in an interesting way you could share? Or do you use a different app? Would be great to know about it if so!

Google goes for Twitter

Google Buzz is the search engine giant’s latest attempt to get social to work within its suite of applications. Strangely, while we use Google’s stuff for all sorts of things, from searching to email to RSS aggregation to document editing, we don’t tend to use their services much for sharing. Instead, we go to Twitter, or maybe Facebook.

Perhaps all that will now change.

Here’s a video explaining Buzz and how it will work:

It may seem crazy to attempt to take Twitter on in its own territory, but Google have a couple of real strengths which mean they end up winning the status update battle.

For a start, Google have been quietly building up a range of services based on your Google account. You may have started this account to access Gmail, or maybe Google Reader.

But did you know you also have a public profile on Google, which you can fill up with all sorts of information about you and the sites and services you use? Here’s mine.

Or how about the way Google has a really cool service that manages all of your contacts?

What about the social circle search, which lets you look for content created by your friends, or friends of friends?

In some ways it’s kinda scary the way Google collects all this information, and the way it puts it all together like this. But it’s also a reason why Buzz might succeed where all other Twitter-killers have failed.

What’s one of the things that puts people off Twitter the first time they use it? The fact that you don’t know anyone, and have nobody to talk to. But the way Buzz will tap into your existing networks, you might not have that problem on Google’s service. The user base already exists, and it is already massive.

There is also masses of potential for organisations using Google Apps, where having Buzz as part of the mix will bring masses of value, and possibly kill off Yammer in the process.

There’s another reason why Buzz might well beat Twitter, and that is the money thing. Google has a business model, and a very successful one. It isn’t hard seeing how Buzz can slot into that model, and make a contribution. At some point, though, Twitter is going to have to start earning money. How it does that, and whether it manages to do so without annoying the hell out of its users – for whom revenue generation will necessitate a change – will determine whether Twitter survives.

Another thing that is in Buzz’s favour is that it sits inside Gmail. In your inbox. Despite the massive growth in social networking over the last few years, email is still the internet’s killer app, and most people spend a hell of a lot of time looking at their inboxes.

As an example of this, I use Google Talk a lot as an instant messaging service, but I use it entirely from within Gmail. I usually can’t be faffed loading up a separate client for IM, but if someone’s name pops up in Gmail saying they’re online, I’ll often grab them for a quick chat.

Having a status update, Twitter-like facility sat there too means that I’m going to use it, to the point where I might stop visiting other locations to do similar stuff. Bye, bye Twitter, maybe.

Of course lots of similar stuff was said about Wave, and while that wasn’t exactly a dud, it did strike me as a solution looking for a problem. A great bit of technology that felt a bit like a square peg. Buzz, though, isn’t looking to revolutionise the way we use the web, just to make an existing activity easier, and nearer – and that might be enough to make it work.

Having written all this, I of course don’t have access to Buzz yet. If you are one of the lucky ones, do please tell us all about it in the comments.

Update: Not sure how I missed it, but there is an API for Buzz, allowing for developers to hook it up to all sorts of other services, whether “Atom, AtomPub, Activity Streams, PubSubHubbub, OAuth, MediaRSS, Salmon, the Social Graph API, PortableContacts, WebFinger, and much, much more” according to the Google Social Web blog.


2009’s top tech

Here’s a quick roundup of some things I’ve really started to get some use out of in 2009. Not necessarily services that were new to the last 12 months, but ones which became a vital part of my toolkit.

You’ll notice Google Wave isn’t on the list – for me, it’s still a great bit of tech in search of a problem to solve. The idea posited here, that it’s real value will be in the enterprise, is interesting.

Key things that come out of this list for me are:

  • For me to really love a service or application, it has to run nicely – preferably using a dedicated app – on the iPhone. It also needs to have a web interface, so I can access it using different computers.
  • I also prefer tools which interface nicely with the other things I use – silos for my information and content don’t really interest me.

1. Basecamp

Despite the fact that there are a lot of things about Huddle that I like more than Basecamp, I’ve found myself using the latter more and more in 2009. I think it is partially the email integration I like so much – the fact that people can take part in online discussions without having to leave their email client.

In 2010, though, I suspect that Huddle will break through into the government space, and that I’ll start using it a lot more. One reason for that will be the integration with Microsoft Office, which could be a real game changer.

Both Basecamp (unofficially) and Huddle now have iPhone apps, making them accessible in a usable format on the move.

2. Evernote

I have mentioned Evernote in a few posts before – it’s a very useful and clever little service. You create notebooks which contain note pages within them. All are synced in the cloud, so whether you access them via the desktop app, the iPhone app or the website, you can read and edit them wherever you are.

Great for storing quick notes, links to look up later, or even photos and audio notes. I use it a lot to jot down and develop ideas for blog posts.

3. Posterous and Tumblr

I’m going to cover these two in a dedicated post on ‘easy blogging’ soon. Both make it stupidly quick and easy to record content online. Both work brilliantly on mobile devices with apps (Tumblr) or excellent email integration (Posterous). Both seamlessly interact with other online services, like Flickr, Twitter and Facebook.

4. Mailchimp

If there is one technology that government really ought to be making better use o, then it’s email. Fine, lots of people moan about having too much of it, but given the option between getting an email or having to check a webpage, they’ll go for the addition to their inbox every time.

Email works on mobiles, is accessible and pretty much everyone knows what to do with it. Services like MailChimp – and there are others, like Campaign Monitor – make it easy to collect lists of email addresses and send messages out, tracking what people click on and how many people open the addresses.

I have a bigger post on email in the pipeline.

5. Yammer

Since joining the Learning Pool team, the problem of keeping communications working in a distributed workforce have become really apparent to me. But since we started using Yammer in a serious way across the company, those problems seem to have disappeared.

Yammer, for those that don’t know, is a Twitter-like service that is private for organisations. Authentication is based on your email address, so everyone on the same email domain can access that organisation’s Yammer stream.

It works really well, and the service is used for a true mixture of ‘what I’m doing today’ type updates, office banter, general messages and discussion. Kent County Council are also using Yammer to great effect – anyone else?

6. Skype

I’ve been using Skype for years, but never more than now. Part of that is for the same reason as for the use of Yammer – chatting to the Learning Pool guys, who are all heavy Skype users – but I’m now using it a lot to talk to family as well.

I’d put quite a bit of this down to hardware – all the computers in our house now have webcams built into them, which makes using services like Skype much easier and more effective.

7. Adium

Adium is a great little multi-protocol instant messaging client – which means that within the one application, I can chat to people using Google Talk, MSN, AIM, Yahoo! and Facebook.

Instant messaging is now something I use much more than before, and Adium makes that easy. IM is often seen as being a bit old hat these days, what with it being a fairly closed and usually one to one medium. But sometimes you need the immediacy, and, yes, the one to one-ness. These days more time seems to be spent communicating, which affects every medium.

8. Dropbox

I came to Dropbox late, but it is an awesome tool and probably the best cloud-based file storage solution. It adds a drive to your desktop computer, or your laptop, to which you can save files, which can then be retrieved on other machines via the web interface, or the iPhone app, or indeed the drive application if you have that installed elsewhere too.

Dropbox makes it a doddle for me to be able to access the files I am working on whether I am using my laptop or my desktop.

9. Delicious

I’ve been using it for years, but I’m starting to find more and more value in Delicious. Part of the reason is the huge number of links I now have in there, which I can access and search easily using the Firefox plugin, also the way it interfaces with other services, like the occasional blog post that pops up automatically here, to cross posting links to Twitter.

I’m also finding myself subscribing more and more to individual users’ accounts in Delicious, to see what they are bookmarking. It may seem rather old hat these days, but if you are interested in using the web as a learning tool, then social bookmarking is a vital part of the toolkit.

10. Wikipedia

There probably hasn’t been an hour that went by, when I was awake, during 2009 in which I didn’t refer to Wikipedia at some point. I’d never used it as a single source, or for any serious research (other than to follow up the links it references, perhaps) but to get the lowdown on a topic fast, it’s an astonishingly good resource.

I often mock it for its focus on tech and pop culture when I mention it in talks, but that is probably where I get most of my use out of it. Oracle want to buy Sun? What do Oracle actually do, anyway? Wikipedia make it dead easy to find out.

Disruptive communities

A few interesting sites I’ve come across in the last few weeks have got me thinking – always dangerous – and have also connected some stuff in my head. As always, I might have got this wrong, but thought it worth sharing.

Some of the most exciting uses of the web to emerge over the last couple of years have used the power of web 2.0 to foster conversation online amongst people with things in common, who might not otherwise have found each other.

This is effectively what I am banging on about in the talks I give on this subject, putting together the apparently opposing aspects of the web which I label – in line with the books of the same titles – The Long Tail and Here Comes Everybody. That is to say that the web allows us to be incredibly individual online, to find information that’s incredibly niche, to write our own blogs about very esoteric subjects (the Long Tail bit). But at the same time, the web connects us, so no matter how apparently individual our interests, we can always find others into the same stuff – whether they are geographically near or far (the Here Comes Everybody bit).

By combining these two things – individual interests and self organising, websites can create new communities for people who may have otherwise thought they were alone. We can belong to as many of these communities as we like too, no matter how apparently contradictory – just like our own personalities. For instance, I could be a member of an online conservation group, as well as a Range Rover owners’ community. Belonging to one need not preclude me from another as long as I feel comfortable with it myself. This would not necessarily be the case with other, mainly offline groups – political parties being one obvious example.

This is incredibly powerful – and potentially very disruptive. There are a few examples of mass scale communities which are often trotted out – NetMums is one, Money Saving Expert another – but these are generally technically pretty traditional. The new communities are increasingly targeted at niche areas and are increasingly sophisticated in terms of the tech.

Disruption is considered a bad thing in many circles – wrongly, as is failure (the best we can ever hope to do, after all, is fail better). In fact, disruption is just doing things in a different way – perhaps bypassing process or procedure, or creating a whole new process in place of the old one. It’s just change, really.

These new, disruptive communities bring people together, and it is at that point that real change can start to happen. Websites don’t really change anything – but people do. This has a considerable number of implications for many different organisations, but particularly government. This ranges from what kind of organisations and groups should be consulted on issues to actually who should deliver services.

Here are some examples, which are those interesting sites I mentioned at the top of this post. They aren’t necessarily new, but are great examples of what I’m talking about.


PatientsLikeMe is a US based site which creates communities out of people with similar health complaints. It allows members to share experiences, information and knowledge about their conditions, with obvious benefits. Those people living in small rural locations, for example, are unlikely ever to meet other folk with similar issues – but online it is easy to connect and discuss. Members of the site also share data relating to their illness, which in turn is shared with partner organisations to help develop cures.

Enabled By Design

Set up in the UK by Denise Stephens, with help from Dominic Campbell and others, Enabled by Design

…is a community of people passionate about well designed everyday products. By sharing their loves, hates and ideas, Enabled by Designers challenge the one size fits all approach to assistive equipment through the use of clever modern design.

The site brings together people who have great ideas for design in assistive and other equipment, as well as taking contributions from those who spot great – and terrible – examples of design out there now.

Help Me Investigate

Help Me Investigate is a site that encourages people to get together and, well, investigate stuff. It’s a mixture of local journalism and a social network. People list things they want to investigate, and others join them, adding what they find out to an investigation page online that everyone involved can see.

With a team boasting the best in networked journalism and technology that Birmingham has to offer (Paul, Nick and Stef) Help Me Investigate is a great site for bringing citizens together around the issues that matter to them – and issuing challenges to public and private organisations.


Signpostr is a very new site, only just out in Alpha testing mode. The brainchild of School of Everything‘s Douglad Hind and Colin Tate, Signpostr is a community for job seekers, particularly those leaving education into the current job market. It offers three things:

  • a space to talk honestly about the realities of looking for work at a difficult time;
  • a user-generated resource directory, where people can share information about resources useful for finding work or living cheaply;
  • and a tool for organising and developing your own projects.

There are an awful lot of government sponsored initiatives out there to help people get (back) into work during the recession – and it will be fascinating to see whether a self organised community can add something that ‘official’ projects cannot provide.


FreeLegalWeb describes itself as

…a project designed to deliver a web service that joins up and makes sense of the law and legal commentary and analysis on the web, providing a substantially more reliable, useful and efficient service than is currently available.

So, the current arrangements are perceived to be failing people, so here is a self-organised attempt to put that right. A great team is behind the project, including Nick Holmes, Robert Casalis de Pury and Harry Metcalfe; and support is being provided by the Cabinet Office, OPSI, BAILII, the Open Knowledge Foundation and mySociety. Well worth keeping an eye on.

All of these community projects have identified a need where government or the market is failing people, and have stepped up to fill that gap, using digital technology as a cost effective way of bringing large numbers of people together in one (online) place.

These communities are also, I think, great examples for local authorities to follow when making applications to the (deep breath) Communities and Local Government Customer-Led Service Transformation Capital Fund which Ingrid at the IDeA has been doing so much to promote recently.

This fund is looking for projects that fill a genuine need for citizens which isn’t currently being met, to provide information to key identified groups of people and focusing on specific issues that have been made priorities by local government. It isn’t really about getting those little projects kick started that you’ve never found the money to do – it strikes me that these sites funded by this money will be new ideas – and big, scalable ideas too.

Those interested in going for the funding should be looking at the sites I have mentioned above, and thinking what are the issues where citizens currently aren’t getting the access to information, or the conversations, that they need.

Beyond the CLG dosh, though, is a bigger question for government, which is whether it should be involved in building these sites at all. There is a convincing argument that says they shouldn’t, and that self organised action is entirely preferable.

I agree with that view to an extent, and in an ideal world, that’s how it would work. But where government – local or otherwise – can help kickstart that community building process, whether by acting in a convening capacity, or investing in the necessary technology, promotion and community management work, it should. It need not matter whether an online space is set up by a community activist or a local council – just as long as it does the job required and is run in the interests of its members.

Tom Watson’s Christmas Message

Our Minister for Digital Engagement’s blog has a stark message:

Globalisation in a connected world did for Woolies. When my son is a teenager, his friends will arrange to meet online and share their music tastes before pressing the ‘buy’ button. They’ll discover the world from their shared trust in favourite web sites.

We are entering an era of profound and irreversible change to the way people choose to live their lives and organise the world around them.

And there isn’t a politician on the planet who is going to stop this.

What do people want to know?

I am planning a series of posts on this blog that will go right back to basics on a number of social web topics, partially just to be helpful but also to help develop the documentation for some workshops I am planning.

What I would like to know is what sort of topics people would like covered in terms of social media tools and services. Which services could be of most use in your organisation, but are really hard to explain?

Some ideas I had were for simple stuff like RSS, tagging and social bookmarking.

What would you like to see me write about here?

I’ve Gotta Knol

Knol is a reasonably new service from Google, which has been described as their attempt to kill, or at elast steal some traffic from, Wikipedia. It’s basically a way for people to publish information about what they know in the form of ‘knols’ – Google’s term for a single unit of knowledge. These are tied to your Google account, so you are pretty much responsible for your own content on there and which kind of answers the problem of Wikipedia, where you might have no idea who has produced the content. I’m thinking that it is kind of a mixture of Wikipedia and Squidoo.

I’ve been having a bit of a go myself, adding knols on collaborating with wikis and getting started blogging – effectively just copy and paste jobs from some of the bigger posts on this blog. A few thoughts on my experiences doing this:

  • The URLs for the knols themselves aren’t very friendly, which is a shame
  • The editor is reasonably friendly to use but the Knol site seems to have a problem remembering whether or not I am signed in, which can be a pain
  • I don’t think you can embed flash stuff like video or presentations, which is a pain
  • Some kind soul has given the wiki knol a five star rating! But who? It would be nice to know
  • There has been quite a bit of discussion about where knol entries will appear in Google searches – so far neither of my entries are appearing anywhere near the first page of results, but I am going to monitor this
  • It would be nice for groups of authors to be able to form, and to group entries together as well, making it easy to find entries by authors that know each other, and for knol-writing projects to be kept together

I have set both my knols – and any future ones I write – to be editable by anyone with a Google account, so if you fancy having a go at improving them, or just having a play with Knol, go ahead. I think I am going to continue to cross-post relevant things to there. Whether I will ever go searching on Knol to find something out for myself, I’m not so sure.



Posterous is the easiest blogging platform in the world to use. No, really.

All you have to do to get started is to send an email to post@posterous.com – no signup needed to begin with. I have given it a go here, and am pretty impressed with the way it handled Gmail’s rich text emails. Attachments like photos are added to your posts, and audio can be played with a flash player that’s automatically embedded when you send an mp3 to Posterous.

Also, if you include a link to, say, a YouTube video, Posterous automatically embeds the video in your blog, rather than just linking to it. Find out more about what Posterous can do.

If you take the time to register with the site, you can add a profile and an avatar, which is quite nice. Posterous is a good alternative to quick blogging tools like Tumblr, for example, and given the ease of use, maybe even Twitter.

The only concern will be around security. The site reckons it can spot spoof email addresses, but there have ben examples already of people posting to other people’s blogs. Hopefully this can be ironed out in the future, because Posterous has real potential, I feel, not least because of it’s reliance on email, which for most people is work, while the web is playing.