Tags: lifestream




I tend to compulsively sign up to just about every new web-based tool or social networking site that comes along. Most of my accounts then languish unused because the service turns out to suck in a fairly fundamental manner.

I signed up for Tumblr a while back. On the face of it, it doesn’t really have anything new to offer; it’s basically just a blogging tool but one designed for micro-content rather than long posts. But there’s something about it that’s—forgive the nineties term—sticky.

Tumblr allows you to pull in feeds from other places. At first, this is what I did but I realised that there wasn’t much point in that because I already have a lifestream. The lifestream aspect of Tumblr just made it harder to filter the Tumblr-specific content. Jaiku does a better job of that, allowing not just the author, but also the reader, to filter content by source.

I don’t use Tumblr for posting links—I’ve got del.icio.us for that. And I don’t use it for photos—that’s what Flickr is for. So I focus on the things that Tumblr is particularly good at handling: videos and quotes.

The Tumblr bookmarklet is pretty clever. If I click it when I’m on YouTube, it guesses that I probably want to post that video. If I highlight some text on a page and then click the bookmarklet, the selected text will be added as a quote. Most importantly of all, the process of posting is very fast and unobtrusive; one or two clicks and I’m done. That means there’s no tagging, which might make refindability difficult, but the speed and ease of posting makes me more likely to click that bookmarklet.

Tumblr has a kind of casual throwaway feel to it and that’s how I’ve been using it: videos and quotes that don’t quite warrant a blog post or a del.icio.us link. Tumblr isn’t the most fully-featured service out there but that’s also its strength. If you’re interested, you can look at my Tumblr account.

Watching the stream

Ever since I hacked up my little life stream experiment and wrote about it, it’s been very gratifying to see how people have taken the idea and run with it. Emily Chang has written about the resources she came across when she was putting her life stream together. Sam Sethi has been talking about life streams as a rich vein of attention data (which reminded me of John Allsopp’s thoughts on why blogging as we know it is over).

Of course this idea of mashing up time-stamped (micro)content—usually through RSS—isn’t anything new. Tom Armitage touched on this during his presentation at Reboot in Copenhagen last year:

Whenever I publish anything with a date attached, there’s a framework for ongoing narrative. The item published is our narrative, but the date gives it ongoingness. It takes time for the pattern to emerge; initially, throwing data at that black box, it seems random. For instance: I upload photos to Flickr at arbitrary intervals. I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term, it’s an important part of my story. My blog is full of delicious bookmarks right now because I’ve been busy at work, and writing this talk. That’ll be reflected in the longer game, when I write my post-Reboot blog entry, and suddenly the pattern becomes clear.

If you haven’t yet done so, I strongly urge you to read the rest of Telling Stories — What Homer, Dickens, and Comic Books can teach your (social) software. It’s quite brilliant and discusses many issues that are even more relevant today with the rise of OpenID and the clamour for portable social networks.

Jeff Croft has been pioneering the life stream idea for quite a while now, originally calling it a tumblelog. His implementation uses APIs rather than plain ol’ RSS. He’s right in thinking that APIs are a more robust solution for long-term archiving but I think of my life stream as being a fleeting snapshot of current activity.

As Jeff points out:

The result is that most people’s lifestream looks great for the first several days back, but then get all sparse at the bottom, where only one or two sources are still providing information.

CSS to the rescue. I’ve updated my life stream to give vibrant colours to newer entries and faded, eventually illegible colours to older, less relevant content. It’s kind of like Shaun’s recent experiments with age and colour.

I love APIs but when something as simple as RSS does the job, I’ll go for the simple solution every time (hence my love of microformats). In fact, I see RSS as being a kind of low-level short-term API or, as Rob Purdie put it, the vaseline of Web 2.0.

The ubiquity of RSS is what makes Yahoo Pipes possible. Now anybody can make a life stream by plugging in some RSS feeds into a pipe. Here’s one I made earlier. When I tried to do this a few days ago, I couldn’t get it to sort by date properly: it was sorting the pubDate field alphabetically—that seems to be fixed now.

Using Yahoo Pipes isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be. It still feels kind of techy and intimidating for non-geeks. This is the same problem that Ning used to have. Its services were ostensibly being provided so that non-techy people could start mashing stuff up but the presentation was impenetrably techy. That’s all changed now.

Ning has completely rebranded as a social network builder. Personally, I think this is a brilliant move. After just a few seconds on the front page, it’s absolutely clear what you can do. By providing example sites, they make the point even clearer. You can still make all the same stuff that you always could on Ning—videos, photos, blogs—but now it’s all wrapped up as part of a clearer goal: creating your own social network site.

When Yahoo Pipes launched, it looked like it might be competing directly with Ning. Now that’s not the case. The two services have diverged and are concentrating on different tasks for different audiences.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Ning to see how it deals with the issue of portable social networks. I’ll be watching Yahoo Pipes as a tool for creating life streams.