Monday, 26 December 2011

Clean all the (online) things for 2012

How much time do you have in a day? Out of the 24 hours, you spend 8 or so sleeping (or trying to sleep). Take out more hours for doing work, or looking for work, as well as commuting. Then there's the personal maintenance; showering, eating, going to the restroom, grooming. Household maintenance; paying bills, doing chores. Close relationship maintenance; talking to those you live with, for example.

Alice in Wonderland: White Rabbit - Who Killed Time?

It doesn't really leave much time, and in that spare or free time, there are plenty of things battling for your attention. Games, reading (get thee to a public library), the arts, sports, television, cinema, walking, thinking, talking, writing and so on. Especially, as I've mentioned before, writing, which consumes vast amounts of uninterrupted time.

Add to that list, the time that you spend online. Of which there is some - as you're reading this. Here's ten suggestions on how to make that online time more meaningful, less wasted. A couple of hours spent doing these may free up many hours or days in 2012 for you to do ... whatever you want or need to do.

Here we go; in this order for the best efficiency:

1. First. Unless your computer is pretty new, it will be slower than when you bought it. Clean out (properly) any software or apps or toolbars or games or anything else that you don't use. Update versions of software. Delete and/or backup old content, such as emails sent, or old reports that have been lying in folders for years, or old pictures.

When you've done all that, use a bit of legitimate software to clean out all your caches and tidy up the hard drive and registries. Do all that and, more times than not, your computer will be running a little faster, and a little quieter. Oh, also - if you have dozens or hundreds of icons on your desktop, most of them never used, then now (not "when I have time") is a good time to delete or file away all but the essential ones so you can stop playing "hunt the thing I need".

When deciding to delete software and apps, be honest. If you downloaded it several years ago, but haven't used it, then saying "But I might use it one day..." - no, it's not going to happen, is it? Delete.

2. Find and list all of the online services, social media and other websites where you have a "presence". The tricky ones - but the more important ones, arguably - are the old legacy ones that you haven't updated for several years. You may have forgotten a few and need to do a few vanity searches. Livejournal? MySpace? Bebo? Friends Reunited? Old blogs that you started in 2006, posted to once, then forgot about?

For each one, make a decision:

  1. Keep, but don't update.
  2. Keep, but update (either once, or regularly).
  3. Delete, but backing up or moving the content first.
  4. Delete without backing up anything.

...and carry out your decision. That may well leave you with fewer social networks, so you can move onto:

3. Update your profile across those social networks you still maintain. Do all of them at the same time for speed, and consistency. New or recent employer, change of location, relationship status - whatever you decide you want to make public, check it's all up to date. Related to this, and also best done at the same time - if you have your resume online, then update it as well, in conjunction with your social media profiles et al.

4. Unfollow disappointing people. Are there people whose updates, posts, status updates make you regularly say "meh"? Or worse, regularly disappoint you? If you aren't getting much or anything from them, then just ... unfollow. If you've been hanging onto them for odd reasons - maybe they are family, or there's some work connection, or in the hope that they will send out just one useful update - then ask yourself if it's worth it. You have no legal obligation to follow anyone. And another year reading pointless updates, even though it takes a few seconds each (add on another few seconds for the time spent being annoyed by each one), can add up.

This is the best time of year to have a prune of your various followees, friends, connections, whatever, across Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Google+ or whatever else you use. Be honest to yourself. Three times I've had a major purge of people I follow on Twitter, and it has transformed my personal twitter stream; useful, interesting, fun, tweets now stand out more, and don't get lost amongst the dross. Less noise, more content.

You don't have to tell anyone why you unfollowed them, and most people won't notice, or even care, anyway. Interestingly, asking people why they don't unfollow a specific person whose tweets they don't like often returns the answer of "They might get upset" or "They might ask me why". Well, those aren't really valid reasons; why should you endlessly put up with reading "stuff" from other people that you don't want to, just to (possibly) avoid a situation of the other persons doing?

Unfollow. It's your time.

5. Block people who just won't leave you alone online. I've blocked a few of these this year. A good sign that they can't take a hint is if you block them on one particular media, and they switch to another to keep sending you stuff. Relentlessly. In these cases, it's best to unfollow and block them across all media, and also if it becomes a serious problem to have their email auto-deleted as soon as it arrives at your ISP or mailbox.

The older you get, the more you realise that time is valuable and finite; time spent on people who persistently annoy or disappoint or bore is time wasted that you can never get back.

6. Use copyright dates on any of your online websites or content? Update them all from (c) 2011 to (c) 2012. That way, at the least it looks like you keep your online "stuff" up to date.

7. Go through your online news sources. Websites, feeds, newspapers, mailing lists. Are they genuinely useful? Do they genuinely inform? Or do you use them (or they use to...) to reinforce your own particular political or social positions e.g. "I knew party X was corrupt, and this article in the online newspaper merely confirms it!"

Especially mailing lists.

The Passage of Time

Some of which are useful. Some of which are more akin to an online version of Speakers Corner.

These can be the worst. If you can't live without a particular mailing list for a genuine reason, but it's swamping your inbox, change the settings so you don't receive every posting when it happens, or it comes as a daily digest, or it goes to a different mailbox or folder.

8. On that last point; if you don't already, then use filters for incoming information. If you don't know how to, there's a billion online guides.

For twitter, filter out things you have no interest in. For Facebook, use lists and whatever the newest complication with information is. For email (essential) use filters to get rid of the junk, and shuffle the non-urgent into a place where you can read it ... well, non-urgently. For blogs, if you get lots of spam, change the settings or install a filter or plug-in to get rid of the bad stuff.

9. Look at your own online behavior, but be honest about it (otherwise, this exercise is a waste of time). Do you forward lots of emails, or third-party share lots of pictures on Facebook, or tweet a few hundred times a day? This may be having a negative effect; people will unfollow you, or think you're a bit of an online crazy, or not read your emails or posts or tweets any more. In addition, you're spending a significant amount of time pushing all this "stuff" out there.

Think it through. Maybe think in terms of the quality, rather than the quantity, of "stuff" you are thrusting onto other people (that's pretty much what you're doing). Tilt towards the quality side, and over time be known more for being wise, rather than giving the impression of being spammy or self-important.

10. Another aspect of online behavior. Something is wrong on the Internet. Yes; it is. And it doesn't take much looking to find many, many, things that you will find wrong, or incorrect, online.

Going to fix all these wrong things? Yes? Good luck with waving goodbye to that portion of your life. You cannot fight every battle. You cannot fix everything. You cannot wholly make the world a better place. You have to do other things as well to keep balance, sanity, and focus.

For example. If you find yourself reading the comments added to online newspaper articles, and spending several hours a day responding and retorting to them, you need to be honest with yourself. Is what you are doing effective? Many of the comments are venting anger, or sockpuppeting (how many of the commenter names are genuine? how many of the commenters are the same person?). In some cases - possibly most cases - whatever you say will not change their views. One. Single. Bit.

Unless it's your paid employment, spending several (or more) hours a day fighting all the online battles is not an effective use of time. You'll burn out. Or become permanently cynical. Or only have a future career as a lobbyist (that thing floating off into the sky is your soul). Or, one day, regret the massive amount of time spent doing that, when you could have spent far less and done other things; reading (for pleasure), eating, sports, games, sex, good company, peace and relaxation, whatever.

Rather than fighting every battle you found online until you couldn't stay awake any longer, then repeating the same the next day.

I'm not saying give up EVERY battle. Just choose your battles with care. Maybe choose to edit Wikipedia pages, but just those pages in a narrow, specific, subject field which interest you. If you care about libraries, instead of joining every campaign going, consider just joining one or two e.g. a national one, and a local one.

And as a side-point, an absolutely crucial point is to Learn how to say NO to people. This is an essential skill just to get through life, without being the dogsbody who takes on every cause asked of them. Seriously; if you have difficulty in saying "No" to people, then consider assertive training of some kind. This could be the one of the best, time saving, misery saving, things you've ever done for yourself, and it will have a massively positive effect on the rest of your life. A good, free and private starting point for this is to go to your local public library and borrow whatever books they have on assertiveness, of which there are many.

Time Selector

As with point 9, picking battles carefully comes down to a quality, not a quantity, issue. Focusing on a few things, rather than many things, means you can slow down, be more considered, contribute with more gravitas, receive more respect and personal satisfaction back. And still have more free time to do other things.

Wishing you a more efficient, productive, content and successful 2012.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

From above

As the pale blue dot endlessly rushes beneath the International Space Station, completing a whole orbit every 91 minutes, one of the pictures taken and put up on Flickr, the social media site, by NASA:

Midwestern U.S. at Night With Aurora Borealis (NASA, International Space Station, 09/29/11)

Sitting 4,000 miles away in nighttime England, I've identified the dots, pools of light that mark the places that are important to me. I can do this, thanks to NASA and thanks to the Internet and the Web. Here's the related video:

Perhaps that's what the web is ultimately meant to be - if it's meant to be something. A thing which makes us more aware of the rock we live on; that rock which is not quite as large or vast as we sometimes think it is.

244 weeks on from Finland, I'm still asking myself the question of "What is home?". Hopefully, I'm a little closer to the answer, now.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Iowa steam engine

Train on the Iowa Interstate Railroad, crossing the Cedar River (by Chris Lastovich).

One of my earliest memories of being fascinated, obsessed, with America, is of drawing a huge American steam train in primary school. I've clocked up over 10,000 miles by train in that country, though sadly not by anything coal powered. One day, perhaps.

Shooting Chinese steam in Moscow

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The thin end of the wedge

For God's Sake. Peter Andre and Boris Johnson reading books. And people "buy" this?

"Mayor of London to recruit ‘library champions’ to boost library services", as publicised on this PR website. The Huff has an even crazier piece.

You put lipstick on a pig, and it's still a pig. You make a skilled librarian redundant and replace him or her with a 'library champion', and you're still sacking a skilled professional and replacing them with an unskilled volunteer.

Lipstick on a pig

Any education or library organisation that buys into this is either naive, stupid, gullible, or politically weak. "The Love Libraries programme is being delivered by a consortium of organisations made up of the Association of London Chief Librarians, the Reading Agency, and Chief Leisure Officers Association ... Mike Clarke, Chair of Association of London Chief Librarians, commented: 'London's public libraries already benefit from thousands of volunteer hours every year but we think there is potential for much more. This isn't about replacing the valued paid staff...'"


Maybe you honestly think that, Mike. Or maybe you're a bit thick; or maybe I'm the thick one and this is cunning politics. Because the scheme is pure politics. Though I can't really see how going along with mass librarian replacements with volunteers (and you can deny it all you want, but this is what the bottom line is) can be politically astute for library organisations. It is not about "Loving libraries"; it's about not funding the library services provided by skilled and experienced libraries, but papering over this fault with some volunteers.

And the end result will be Boris and co saying either:
  1. Look! London libraries are being well used due to the 2,000 library champions! Proof that we don't need to pay librarians.
  2. Even with 2,000 library champions, use of libraries in London still fell. They've had their day.

Also: £100,000 of funding. That's £5 per volunteer. Wooo; am sure they will be professionally trained on that {/sarcasm}. Whereas that £100K would be the wages of not one but several front-line library staff (yes, skilled librarians aren't on a gold-plated mega salary, to put it very mildly).

And to those who naively say "But you're slagging off brave volunteers who give up their time?" the response is:

  1. Why do you conveniently ignore the sacked people who, one way or the other, they will be replacing? You see a volunteer gained. You pretend not to see a skilled information professional made redundant. More the fool you.
  2. Will you be equally complacent if - or when - your local teachers, police, nurses and other public sector staff are replaced by unskilled volunteers?
  3. Will YOU have no problem when you are sacked and replaced by some volunteer, with the implication that someone with no experience can carry out your roles just as well as you can?
  4. Do you think the quality of information provision will remain high, with a library service run by volunteers and content provided by donation? If you do, then you are truly a fool; a cost-avoidance service presents opportunities for every organisation around to get their stuff into the public domain, no matter how dubious. Kent is a good example of this.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Slimming down the social: unfollow me

Life is short and then you die.

Brutal, but true. It also means that the period of contentment you can have is limited, as you, me, and everyone else is a complex biochemical system that will one day, irreversibly, break down for good.

As Simon writes: "As finite beings, we bestow meaning through selection." That's very true of socialising, and social media. We choose which individuals and groups we socialise with.

These choices aren't, unfortunately, always based on enjoyment reasons. Sometimes we have to socialise with people connected with work, for income continuity reasons. Sometimes, with people for political reasons. And sometimes with relatives who we don't like, to "keep the peace" in the family.


The two questions perhaps to ask, after spending time with someone or people who you don't enjoy, is why did you spend that time with them? And what happens if you don't in the future i.e. what's the trade-off for the free time - your time - that you've gained back? When you try your hand at writing, you really realise how valuable swathes of uninterrupted time is; large amounts of it. Without it - there's no concentration, writing, rewriting.

Time, to a writer, is (nearly) as valuable as oxygen and water.

Social media is just the same. Yes, it's real; there are real people behind accounts. And, as in the physical, non-digital world (the one where you can smell someone), you are communicating with them; it's just the media between you and the other people is a little different. And getting hung up on the media is like getting hung up on whether a book is in paper or digital form, while ignoring the really important question of whether the book is worth spending the time reading or not.

One of the great pluses of social media over the physical world is that it's easier to control who you spend time communicating with, or reading, or following. It's the main reason I prefer Twitter to most other forms of physical or digital media. When I lived in the Outer Hebrides, on an island of 130 people, it was difficult to avoid those specific people who irritated, or bored me. They were encountered in the local shop. Or at meetings (usually the ones who had an opinion on everything, whether sensible or not). Or at funerals, playing the "get the pew with the highest apparent status" game. Or at island social events.


Twitter is different, because it gives control to the individual. I can build my perfect island twitter community of 130 people. These are still people, just instead of being able to smell or (appropriately) touch them, I sometimes see what they tweet and retweet, and the pictures and videos they put up. If someone is boring, or irritating, or endlessly critical, irrelevant, or offensive (all subjective, but from my perspective) then I just don't "follow" them in the first place, or unfollow them if I am currently following them.

Think how different the "real world" would be if everyone walked around with an "unfollow" button on their chest, that you could press to make them disappear and/or shut up.

It. Would. Be. Truly. Awesome. The hours that would suddenly be freed up each day.

Remember that, if you are stuck in a room this Christmas with people that you don't like, but for reasons of "keeping the family together" or wanting to spend time with people you do like, you are enduring specific people. There is no "unfollow" button. You perhaps need to ask yourself if it is truly worth repeating that real world experience; the sad truth being that most people don't change, and see again the first sentence of this post.


Over the last few days, I've had one of my periodic social network slim downs, where I go through Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and unfollow people who regularly annoy or disappoint me. Nothing deeply personal; at any time, anyone can unfollow me; it's totally their choice. Meh. Slimming down the social network doesn't take long to do; there's no need to agonise over each person, and the initial gut feeling when their avatar appears is usually the right one. My twitter stream, the tweets of the people I'm left following, is better for it now.

Some people feel awkward or anxious about unfollowing people in social media, and would rather not "cause offense" or "risk" some kind of social retribution. This is wrong, similar to e.g. people enduring a deeply annoying relative or neighbour ("only me") pestering them. If you are anxious about unfollowing anyone, here's a little exercise you can try:

Unfollow me across all media; Twitter, Facebook, whatever else you follow me on. Go on, do it. If you can't: what's stopping you? Why can't you press a button? Honestly?

Do it, and wait an hour, a day, a week, whatever, to see what kind of social retribution from me there'll be.

I'z still bored

Here's a clue: none. Anyone who did kick up a fuss, because you unfollowed them on some social media - you'd have to consider whether they were a sensible, stable or healthy choice to follow in the first place.

The time that you allocate to people, in the "real world" or through digital media, is finite. Use it wisely, or forever lose little bits of that finite lifetime allocation. You're only 29, 43 or (hopefully) 83 once. Social media has an "unfollow" button. Real life does not have a "reset" or "play again" button.

I wish you a good time over this festive period, hopefully in the company of enjoyable people.