Hacking domains

Domain hacking is defined by Wikipedia as:

an unconventional domain name that combines domain levels, especially the top-level domain (TLD), to spell out the full “name” or title of the domain, making a kind of pun.

What does that mean? Well, it means taking the elements of a domain name (that is, the thing you type into your browser’s address bar) so that it spells out a word, or something similar.

For example, Delicious used to be found at del.icio.us – with the last element (known as the ‘top-level’) of the domain (.us, for the United States) forming part of the name of the site. Sadly, it’s plain old delicious.com now.

I recently registered a domain from the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands – which ends in .gs. The domain is vebrig.gs – can you see where I am headed with this? 😉

I’ve created an email address on my domain which is simple ‘d’ – so in full it looks like d@vebrig.gs which kinda spells out my name. I know this is very sad, but I like it!

By adding a sub-domain to vebrig.gs of da I can get the web address da.vebrig.gs which again is quite a neat hack. Not doing anything with the site right now though!

So, the main point of this post, other than making it clear to everyone what a total dork I am, is to let everyone know that the best email address to get me on now is d@vebrig.gs. My old one still forwards onto me, though, so don’t worry too much.

Now all I have to do is update all my social networks with the new address…

Creating an email newsletter

Partly to be helpful, and partly to do a bit of profile-raising, I have been thinking of putting together a regular (weekly or fortnightly) email newsletter, full of social web news, views and other tidbits. It might go some way to filling the need for the govweb group blog I mooted earlier, though I should imagine it would be written in sufficiently broad terms to make it applicable to non government folk too. I think there are a number of valuable things about email lists like this, as opposed to a site:

  • People use their email all day everyday, pretty much, so if they register, they will always see the emails in their inboxes
  • If I stick to plain text, I don’t need to worry too much about accessibility and whether things render well in Internet Explorer 4
  • People see email as work, the web as play

My newsletter will feature a few regular sections:

  • A feature on a recent cool bit of webbery from a public or third sector organisation
  • A roundup on news and development in the social web space
  • An introduction to a social web site or service
  • A multi-part how-to guide (eg setting up a blog, or a wiki)

There are a number of ways of setting something like this up, and I have been playing around with some of them. Here’s what I have found.

1. Do It Yourself

It would be the most simple option to gather in email addresses via a HTML form on a page on this blog, store them in a text file, then write the emails in my mail client, and paste in the email addresses to the BCC field and hit send. Unsubcribes would have to be done manually, and any analysis of subscriber numbers, etc, would have to be done in a spreadsheet or something. Also, there may be issues with the emails getting past spam filters, etc, as I use gmail to power my emails. I would also have to make sure I don’t use any funky formatting in my emails so that they can be read easily in different mail clients. So, this option is easy to get up and running, but difficult to manage and maintain, and there may be access problems. It’s cost free, though.

2. Use Mailman

Mailman is a remarkably configurable mailing list manager, and (like all the best things in life) is open source. I could set up a one-way mailing list, allow people to sign up to it as they pleased, and likewise unsubscribe. One of the problems with Mailman, though, is the interface which is used to manage the service and through which users can change their settings, which can seem a little unfriendlyto the uninitiated. To set it all up as a one way service would mean quite a bit of messing about to remove certain options from view, etc. So, whie this option might make some things easier, it will add complications elsewhere. Again, though, this would be free for me to use.

3. Use a dedicated service

The third option would be to use a service to manage my list of subscribers and to handle the sending of the emails themselves. They provide statistics, too, so I can track which newsletters are more popular, etc. These services also provide the ability to send HTML or rich text emails, making them easier on the eye and easier for most people to navigate. Given my target audience, though, I am tempted to stick to plain text – ugly but pretty much guaranteed to work! Some of the services I have looked at include MailBuild (suggested by Steph), AWeber (recommended by Chris Garrett) and Blue Sky Factory (used by Chris Brogan). All look pretty good. The obvious disadvantage is that they will cost me money, but they all need quite a bit of time dedicated to them to get set up properly.

So there we are. I think I am going to go for one of the dedicated services, but not sure which just yet. Of course the real challenge will be to produce regular, quality content that people will want to read, but by wittering on about which tools I am going to use I can put that one off for a day or too!

If anyone has any feedback on the ideas I have set out here, please leave them in the comments. And if you would like to be a recipient of the inaugral newsletter, say so in the comments or drop an email to newsletter@davepress.net and I will add you to the list. Ta!

Telegraph switches to Google Apps

Been busy at WorkCampUK so haven’t been following my feeds that closely, but my eye was caught by a post written by Shane Richmond, Communities Editor of the Telegraph’s web presence:

I’ve been testing Google Apps within the Telegraph for the last few months so I’m delighted that we’re now switching over entirely. The speed, accessibility and flexibility of Google Mail, Google Calendar and Google Docs make them much better to work with than the programs we used before.

Interesting news. After all, if an august institution like the Telegraph can make such a move, why not any other organisation?

I do have a few issues with the Google Apps offering though. For a start, the version of iGoogle that comes as standard is a seriously crippled version which, amongst other things, only lets you have one page of stuff. Also, sharing forms using Google Spreadsheets doesn’t work for people without an account on the Google Apps domain. It also doesn’t make sense to me that Google Reader isn’t a part of the package too.

But just in terms of email, as someone who has used various versions of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus Notes and other enterprise email systems, Gmail is better than any.

Blogs vs. email

I’ve touched on this before, talking about people liking email more than things on the web because they see email as work and the web as messing around, having fun. It’s interesting because while on the one hand people are always saying that email is ‘broken’, or that there is too much of it; they are also saying that it is still the internet’s killer app, and the best way to build and develop online communities. Which is it?

One rather surprising development in this area happened over the weekend, when Jason Calacanis, the chap who has done as much as anyone else to promote the blog as a communications medium, with his foundation of Weblogs Inc (now owned by AOL), announced he was quitting his blog. What’s more, he was launching an email list that he would use to publish the stuff he would normally blog. He says:

Starting today all of my thoughts will be reserved for a new medium. Something smaller, something more intimate, and something very personal: an email list. Today the email list has about 600 members, I’m going to cut it off when it reaches 750. Frankly, that’s enough more than enough people to have a conversation with. I’m going to try and build a deeper relationship with fewer people–try to get back to my roots.

Now, we should probably not read too much into what a blatent self-publicist like Calacanis gets up to, but this really is an unusual step – not least because it would appear from my short membership of his mailing list that it is a really one-way affair – I can reply to Jason, but not to the whole list. So this really is a Web 1.0 style push medium. It isn’t open or transparent, for you have to be a member to see the archives – i.e. you can’t dip your toe in to see if you would be interested, and there doesn’t seem to be a way for conversations to flow between readers, just between the author and readers.

In a sense, the subscribers to Jason’s list are his audience – and I really thought we had moved on beyond that.

This debate brings to mind a comment Tom Steinberg posted to the UK & Ireland eDemocracy list a little while back when we were discussing the Stratford Council Twitter feed. Tom asked:

As for Straford’s site – it lets people visiting the homepage find out about twitter, but doesn’t have a top-central-located box for gathering email addresses to turn into email updates more akin to the 50,000 leaflets mentioned above. As far as me and my cynical troupe are concerned, that’s an inexcusable prioritsation of buzz word compliance over tried and tested approaches that have far more user recognition. Barack Obama doesn’t do this – why should Stratford?

In other words, everyone – well, except for John McCain – uses email, so that should be the first port of call for online communications. He’s probably right – hence why in my wiki guidance and elsewhere I stress that it’s important to allow people to contribute using whatever method they are comfortable with, even if it is something as uncool as email.

But I would argue that Jason Calacanis is wrong, and that he will soon find his personal mailing list an echo chamber that doesn’t provide the richness of interaction that he had before with his blog.

Go ColaLife!

One of the best sessions at 2gether08 was Simon Berry’s on his ColaLife project, to try and gather as much support as he can for his idea to use the Coca Cola distribution network to get dehydration salts to those that need them in the developing world. It was also frustratingly short – another argument for greater flexibility to be built into conference agendas.

Simon has been leveraging the social web like no tomorrow in an attempt to drum up as much support as possible, making regular posts on the topic to his blog, and creating a Facebook group which has, at the time of writing, 2,934 members. In this video, Simon chats with David Wilcox about the campaign’s development:

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One of the key challenges facing the campaign is how to actually get the huge Facebook interest to transfer into real action. Facebook is notoriously a walled garden – it is hard to get outputs from it.

So, to help continue discussions and open things up a bit, Simon has started a Google Group at http://groups.google.com/group/colalife. This means that folk can chat via email, rss or web, pretty much however it suits them. It also means that information and documents can be shared online too.

Anyone can sign up to the Google Group by entering their email address in the box below:

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Please do so and get involved with this incredible campaign.

Posterous

Posterous

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.

Mozilla Messaging

TechCrunch announces the launch of a new Mozilla (the guys behind open source projects like FireFox, to name one) site called Mozillla Messaging. This site aims to ‘fix’ internet communications, firstly by driving the development of the new version of Thunderbird, a desktop email client that replaces things like Outlook Express on Windows machines and Mail on the Mac.

Thunderbird has never really taken off like Firefox, largely, I would imagine, because people just don’t use desktop email clients much, unless it is a heavyweight like Outlook or (bleugh) Lotus Notes at work, so there isn’t much to replace. Indeed, the success of Firefox in making web based email applications even more usable, like Gmail and the new Yahoo! Mail, has reduced the possible market for Thunderbird.

Still, giving the email app. a bigger online presence, out of the shadow of Firefox, is probably a good idea. Mozilla Messaging hasn’t completed replaced the former Thunderbird online places though – you can still get it from the Mozilla.com site.

It’s not just about Thunderbird though. In a blog post, the new CEO of Mozilla Messaging David Ascher says:

It is worthwhile considering what the right user experience could be for someone using multiple email addresses, multiple instant messaging systems, IRC, reading and writing on blogs, using VoIP, SMS, and the like. What parts of those interactions make sense to integrate, and where? I don’t believe that stuffing all of those communication models inside of one application is the right answer. But the walled gardens that we’re faced with today aren’t the right answer either. There is room for innovation and progress here, and we need to facilitate it.

There has been plenty of writing recently about email actually being the hub that links all of our social networks, rather than being replaced by them. However, I’m not convinced that a desktop application is the answer. Indeed, I would imagine that you can pretty much manage all your online social networks through Gmail in FireFox now.