Twitter to the Rescue!

Here’s a little story about why Twitter is great. It all happened over the weekend during our round trip from Montpellier to Antibes for the Keith Jarrett gig (the gig was fantastic, I’ve already posted about that below.)

After the gig, we left Antibes around midnight, and headed back onto the autoroute. As the lights of the city faded, Régine, who was driving, said to me “our headlights aren’t working properly.” And indeed, they weren’t – the sidelights were fine, high-beam was OK, but switching to low-beam plunged the road ahead into a disconcerting blackness.


(Image: Lezarderose)

Within a kilometre we saw an aire de repos with a Total station. So we pulled in, grabbed a coffee and a sandwich, and set about trying to fix the headlights. It seemed unlikely to be a bulb problem – both low-beam bulbs failing at the same time was just improbable. The most likely scenario was a blown fuse.

Régine, smart lady, had a set of spare fuses in the glovebox, and although I barely class myself as mechanically literate, I do know how to change car fuses (too many years driving second-hand Toyotas in NZ, where the engines last forever, but the electrics – mirrors, aircon, stereo – are well dodgy).  So far, so good.

But we couldn’t find the fusebox. The Skoda designers had hidden it well. We emptied the car looking for it. Behind the glovebox. Under the dashboard. In the door cavities. We even looked in the spare wheel compartment and under the bonnet. No joy. We had no maintenance manual, and the guys at the service station had no idea either.

Not wanting to be stuck at a service station outside Cannes until sunrise, I turned to technology. Figuring that at least a few of my Twitter followers somewhere in the world would be online, I tweeted via text:

Within five minutes a reply came back:

Now THAT‘s why Twitter is cool. Of course, if I’d had a phone with internet access, I could have done a web search myself, but in the absence of that, a text and a network of Twitter followers worked just as effectively.

On reflection, the real benefit of Twitter in this instance is not the technology itself, it’s the type of user it attracts: high-frequency internet mavens. I knew when I texted my request that somebody among my followers, somewhere in the world, would be online and would do the internet search for me.  That wouldn’t happen with my Facebook friends (sorry guys).

So, thanks to Twitter and @paulie in England, @etnobofin (standing on the side of a motorway in Southern France) was able to find the hidden panel on the side of the dashboard of a Skoda Fabia, lever it off and expose the fusebox. Within fifteen minutes we’d replaced the fuses, got the headlights working again, and were on the road back to Montpellier.

I love living in this century.

Twittering Around Blighty

There’s unlikely to be any posts here for the next week – I’m spending 7 days in the UK for some meetings and catching up with friends, mainly in London, Birmingham and Oxford.

I’ve decided to leave my laptop and home, as a bit of an experiment to see if I can run my life from my HTC Diamond (pictured – it’s kind of like the Google Phone, but runs smelly Windows Mobile instead of Android).

I’ll be tweeting, so you can follow me on twitter, if you expect anything profound or amusing might cross my mind during the week.

Take care and see you soon!

Network Fatigue

Image: Michael Marlatt (Creative Commons)

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from one of my best and longest-standing (real-world) friends that he was going to de-friend me on Facebook, because my Twitter messages were flooding his Facebook front page. There were so many Tweets from Richard that he couldn’t see any news from any of his other friends.

Now, before Facebook recently changed its front page to a livestream, this didn’t happen: the older update feed was prioritised largely by user, so there was normally only one update (status changes, new photos, “David took a quiz and discovered he should marry an: asparagus” etc) from each friend on the frontpage.

The logic of the new FB livestream however, is that it prioritises the feed simply by newness – which means that hyper-active users (especially those with their Twitter synched to Facebook) get seen a lot more than “normal” users who might log in once a day or less.

Essentially, my Twittering (and that of many others) has been swamping my friends’ FB livestreams. This kind of defeats the main use-case for Facebook: to allow regular people be able to keep in touch with other regular people. And this contact is kind of spoiled if its disrupted by maniacal out-of-context chatter such as “zOMG I just saw a pigeon” / “@stephenfry LOL” / “Hey guys! Lets see if we can turn #irrelevantcrap into a trending topic. 1,2,3 GO!”.

So, to cut a long story short, I’ve de-coupled my Twitter feed from Facebook. It didn’t seem fair to everyone else I know on Facebook. Although I will miss some of the great feedback I got on my tweets via my Facebook-only friends.

If current trends continue, we’re all going to be interacting more and more via social media services such as Twitter and Facebook (and whatever comes next). We haven’t quite defined the modes of politesse that are required in this environment: how much chatter is too much? Is it rude to ignore a direct message or an @reply? Is it best to aggregate all our social networking tools into one massive Friendfeed, or keep separate silos for our personal and professional lives?

It’s all a bit blurry at the moment. However particularly for expatriates, good management of social networks is increasingly important. Currently, my networks are pretty well silo’d. They break down like this:

  • Twitter: the one I use the most. Enables inane and wonderful conversations with a motley bunch of real-life friends, professional contacts, interesting people encountered online, as well as Darth Vader, Stephen Fry and Ceiling Cat.
  • Facebook: 98% real-world contacts. If I went to school with you, played music with you, or you’re a cousin, this is where you hang out. A few old workmates and time-honoured online friends also make the Facebook list.
  • LinkedIn: my online professional rolodex and CV. This is where colleagues and business contacts get filed and where I ignore friend requests from Guptil in Bangalore.
  • RSS Feeds: Yeah I still run good ol’ Feedreader. Not really a social networking tool, but it’s still the only way to realistically follow blogs.
  • Email: If you’re really really old or have close genetic ties to me, I can’t be bothered teaching you about social networking sites. Lord knows that getting you onto Skype was enough of a struggle. Just remember to resize your photos before you attach them.

Will this list of social media tools be the same 6/12/18 months from now? Almost definitely not. In the interim, I’ll just try to remain interesting and relevant to my friends and contacts, and not annoy them with excessive wittering about what I ate for lunch.

Catch y’all online. LaterZ.

Will Twitter Take off in France?

Failwhale Tricolore

En attendant l’atterrissage définitif du Failwhale* franco-français…

Using Twitter in France is a bit of a lonely experience. I only know of 2 other people in Montpellier (@jcverdie and @missexpatria) who tweet. We miss out on the fun that twitterers can have in cities like Birmingham, where a swarm of local tweeps can bounce ideas off each other, meet up and compare notes on the weather.

Twitter remains a low-profile service in France, barely known outside the media/I.T. sector (who tend to speak/understand English). On the occasion of the first Paris Twestival (February 2009), wearesocial.net estimated around 18,000 users in the whole country**.  That’s a little less than the population of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (no I hadn’t heard of the place either).

By contrast, Facebook is growing exponentially here, and its trigger point for expansion was availability in French language.  Facebook in French arrived just 12 months ago in March 2008. At that point, there were less than 2 million French Facebook users, (who were using it in English). A year later, Facebook accounts in France have grown by more than 400% to 8.6 million. Ah, the magic of localisation.

“Ne me twitte pas” by Jérôme Choain

The only real barrier I can see in France for Twitter is language. To break out of its current media/tech ghetto, Twitter’s UI, tools such as Tweetdeck, Tweetie and the rest of the ecosystem will also need to be localised in French. This will take time.

Some French commentators are sceptical: Jean-Dmitri Dewavrin at goopple thinks that Twitter can’t work in France (citing, notably a lack of SMS interactivity agreements with local operators, and an unclear utility-value proposition compared to Facebook). In addition of course, Facebook has reoriented its UI to emphasise real-time status updates – it remains to be seen what effect this has on Twitter.

Likewise Cédric Deniaud can’t see a future in which Twitter is a “mainstream” tool. Perhaps this scenario is more realistic: Twitter works best for user who are permanently connected and who can take part in near real-time conversation. By contrast, Facebook is something you can use for just 10 minutes a day. Is Twitter is destined to be social media’s equivalent of the Mac to the Facebook PC?

Tour de France

Perhaps it would take a particular event to launch the service to the wider French public. For example, the astute use of Twitter for race and team updates during the Tour de France could see user rates soar this summer.  @lancearmstrong already has almost 400,000 followers (but mostly anglo-saxon I imagine).

I see no a priori reason why Twitter can’t become a raging success here. France has a remarkably large and active blogosphere, and a strong culture of public debate and conversation. Lack of SMS connectivity in the UK and elsewhere has not prevented Twitter’s uptake (most mobile users have passed straight to mobile apps running over 3G), and the French are just as human as the rest of us – they like to talk.

*Failwhale, n. “Baleine-échouée” or “Baleine-erreur

**This is an extrapolation of the numbers from June 2008 survey by Twitterfacts, based on global growth rates for Twitter.

All Change?

Let’s redefine the concept of “lame”. Lame is me.

I was in Paris on Tuesday afternoon: but rather than wandering down to the Marais for a brioche, I bought a sandwich poulet fermier at the station, stayed in my hotel room and took photos of CNN’s coverage of Obama’s inauguration.

Even from a distance, watching the events on a small TV and brushing baguette crumbs from the bedspread, one got a real sense of The Inauguration as a Historic Moment.  But perhaps in anticipation of the day, we had reimagined too much the gilded,  selective memories of ceremonies past – the investitures of Lincoln, FDR, JFK .  Obama’s speech was good, but it wasn’t great. George Kenney thought it “underwhelming” – a little harsh perhaps, but George’s reservations about Obama are healthy and justified.

If Obama’s speech didn’t quite reach the heights we had hoped, there has been some other political poetry floating about this week that’s quite cute.  Matt (the amigo formerly known as  DJ durutti)  composed a haiku on the news that Karl Rove (no, he hasn’t yet been beamed back to the Planet Zorgon) is alive and twittering:

It really is him
Foxtard tweeps rejoice. Just don’t
follow me @KarlRove!

I haven’t any clue why anyone would choose to follow Karl Rove when you can follow Darth Vader instead: much funnier, slightly less evil and more skilled in the ways of the force.  (When I started following Vader, I un-followed MC Hammer: somehow fictional Sith-power won out over knowing irony).

Anyway, although the Bush era is finished, and we will probably continue to laugh at W’s malapropisms for many years to come, a moment should be taken to salute the true Poet Laureate of the Bush presidencyDonald Henry Rumseld. His masterpiece “The Unknown” formed part of a Finance lecture on my MBA course last term as we contemplated where the credit crunch might lead:

The Unknown
(composed at a Department of Defense news briefing, Feb. 12, 2002)

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

Obama’s cabinet would do well to remember Rumsfeld’s wise words as they plan their programmes for the coming years. Even in the most powerful political office in the world, it is not possible to know or forsee everything. Human beings are vain to think they can control or anticipate all eventualities. At the centre of power in America is just a regular human being. And that is the most scary, and yet the most hopeful thing of all.

Stephen Fry on Fiordland


Image: mcaretaker

Our friend* Stephen Fry is filming for the BBC at the the moment in New Zealand. Here’s what he twittered today after a helicopter flight over Fiordland:

“Bloody hell!!! Fjordland [sic] ladies and gentlemen. What a spectacle. Earth Destination Number One. To throw words at it would be like throwing meringues at a charging rhinoceros. Fruitless. (Unless it’s banana pavlova). No but really. Stunningly dramatic. Best helicopter flight I’ve ever had. And we engaged with some kea too. I’m the luckiest devil alive. “

Kea, contemplating engagement with Stephen Fry (Image: Jared Kelly)

*Friend, as in “he follows me on Twitter”, which pretty much counts as friendship these days, right?