Monday, March 31, 2008

Getting a Handle on Usernames

Online usernames differ from real life names considerably. Three key differences can be seen between online and real life names: names are required for all social participation, users choose their own names, and users can easily change names. These differences entail significant ramifications for identity perception and development.

In our offline society everyone has a name, although these names are not used in all contexts. It is possible to have social interactions and relationships in real life without knowing someone’s name - such as friendly banter with the coffee shop cashier. Appearance is arguably the most important identity-discerning factor in offline interactions, whereas online it can often be one’s username. In many online environments usernames are not only required to join, but one’s name is constantly visible to other participants. In text-only environments, such as chats and MUDs, using a name becomes the only way to specifically address a message to another user. Even users in graphical online spaces, where avatars and proxemics are fully capable of indicating the target of messages, often use names in messages.

Being given a name is a hallmark of real life identity formation – and it is an act where one is powerless. In contrast, online life typically begins when users choose their own name, thus forging their own identities. Real life names are a reflection of one’s parents, culture, and socio-economic group; online users are free of these constraints and can choose names inspired by literature, pop-culture, mythology, or character qualities. Real life Marys and Johns are replaced by more evocative Merlin, Blackwinter, chupchups, and Satan. While my username is often just my name, glen farrelly, usernames can offer anonymity. The anonymity of usernames with no ties to offline identities permits the adoption of new personae that safely permits exploration of identity issues with little chance of repercussions.

Users may wish to change their online identities. In most online services name changes are quick, simple, and free, whereas changing one’s name in the real world is a time-consuming, legal process that is rarely used (except with marriage). Online users may change their name to start a new persona, to work through new issues, to present a new facet of their personality, or to remove baggage amassed with prior persona. The freedom to easily change one’s name is key to facilitating an environment with little social risk to one’s actions. While this has both positive and negative outcomes, it does allow users to explore aspects of their identity. The chance to start over again with a new name and resulting new identity is readily available.

Names in real life may reveal qualities of one’s background, but do not afford much opportunity for using one’s name to develop identity. The easy adoption of online identities via choice of usernames appears to have the potential of encouraging people to break free from some of the cultural and gender baggage forced upon them by their real names and fosters positive identity development.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rehabilitating a killer app: How Gmail & Outlook help address email’s shortcomings

While email is often called the killer application of the Internet, it is not without flaws, leading a researcher to declare: “E-mail is a serial-killer application! It is seriously overloaded and has been co-opted to manage a variety of tasks that it was not originally meant to support” (Ducheneaut & Bellotti, 2001, p.37). In a seminal study by Whittaker and Sidner, they found email was “overloaded” by three user functions it was not designed for: task management, personal archiving, and conversations (Kiesler, 1997, p.278). This critique of email is applicable today. However, a critical examination of functionality currently available in Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail demonstrates that these applications offer innovative ways to address these critiques.

Task management refers to the ability of reminding a user of outstanding tasks, recalling related details, and tracking progress and deadlines (Kiesler, 1997, p.278). Whittaker and Sidner found that a crowded inbox makes task management difficult, yet users were reluctant to file or delete messages to alleviate this issue. They proposed that email software should allow the flagging of actionable messages (Kiesler, 1997, p.292) and permit users to set reminders. In a comparison between Outlook and Gmail, Outlook surpasses Gmail in this regard. Gmail allows users to flag messages by clicking on a star icon or colour-code incoming messages based on user-specified filters, not only does this help visually prioritize messages, thus allowing users to keep messages in their inbox, but draw attention to those needing follow-up. Outlook takes this functionality further - allowing messages to not only be flagged, but also permitting users to specify a due date and seamlessly integrates with a calendar and specific task management application.

Email’s second problematic area is personal archiving, which Whittaker and Sidner state is “cognitively difficult” (Kiesler, 1997, p.285). While some users studied kept all messages in their inbox or only periodically filed, this resulted in inboxes so full that retrieval became difficult. They recommended full-text search and automatic message threading. While both Gmail and Outlook offer full-text search, only Gmail makes archiving less cognitively challenging. Gmail, by giving a large amount of free storage space and by offering prominent one-touch “Archive” functionality, allows users to park messages that can be retrieved easily by clicking “All Messages”. Additionally, Gmail offers users the choice to “label” and thus group emails by one or more terms. This improves archiving by allowing users to store a message in multiple places. However, if too many labels are applied, message retrieval could be complicated.

The final issue regarding user functionality itemized by Whittaker and Sidner is conversations. Conversations may involve many overlapping multi-person, multi-topic messages that can be difficult to follow. Whittaker and Sidner cite the lack of convention in including message context; this has been addressed by Outlook and Gmail by defaulting to include a message’s history when replying or forwarding. Again, Gmail goes further by offering the ability to “file an entire thread, but leave a representative message from that thread in the inbox” (Kiesler, 1997, p.292). Gmail does this by automatically grouping messages on the same thread into one message in the inbox. Thus not only is inbox clutter reduced, but conversations can be more easily followed.

Despite this retrofitting of email applications to accommodate actual usage, I believe ingrained user behaviour will be hard to change. Users will still likely struggle with overloaded email. Users can look to Gmail and Outlook for assistance – two email programs that finally address the problems identified by Whittaker and Sidner in 1996. While Gmail is free and generally outperforms Outlook in the above functions, Outlook might be more useful to business users for its close integration with calendar and task management applications.


Ducheneaut, N., & and Bellotti, V. (2001). E-mail as habitat: An exploration of embedded personal information management. Interactions, 8(5), 30-38. New York, N.Y.: ACM.

Whittaker, S., & Sidner, C. (1997b). Email overload: Exploring personal information management of email. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet (pp. 277-295). Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Are Web Publishers Obsolete?

As it is the Friday before March break and with yet another winter onslaught hitting Toronto, my office was deserted today. Naturally, as one of the few souls remaining, I passed some time chatting with co-workers.

My cubicle-mate, mentioned that he had perfected a Dreamweaver template that now made it incredibly easy for almost anyone to publish online. I have only dabbled with Dreamweaver templates, but I do love how they have editable and uneditable regions, so that those using templates can't accidentally bring down an entire site by changing one simple line of code. I also like, as I saw from my colleague's template, how Dreamweaver can make it easy to add or subtract designated editable regions.

Dreamweaver’s WYSIWYG features already made most web formatting quite easy and combined with a good template, web publishing can indeed be very easy now.

This led me to question whether or not there is a role in large to medium sized organizations for dedicated web publishers?

I define a web publisher as a specialist who takes pre-authored content, formats and adjusts it for the medium, and posts it online. Can content authors using Dreamweaver templates now post directly to the web without the need for a web publisher's intervention? Or can web publisher's now act merely as tester/reviewer?

I do think training content creators to use Dreamweaver’s publishing tools would be easily achievable, that is assuming they have the desire and time to do so.

I don’t believe that online formatting is the stumbling block for online publishing. From my experience, the problem still is writing material that is appropriate for online media. While it seems like every journalist and corporate communicator has now taken a course on web-friendly writing, I still find that many people don’t really get it, or their print bias is too-deeply ingrained, or they just don’t have the time or inclination to really understand online publishing. Making website text effective and appropriate is not just doing the maxims sold as simple solutions, that is write shorter, chunk up you copy, use bullets, don't go more than one screen.

While some of these points are true, there are times when doing the opposite is better. And there are other ways that web publishers can help format, organize, and rewrite copy if necessary, to make it more effective and medium appropriate. These take time to learn and it is here that I think web publishers will continue to offer value to organizations.

So to answer my own question, I’d say that updates to existing online material or simple changes can be done with minimal, possibly no involvement from a web publisher. But new material or substantial changes, call in your pro.

Monday, March 03, 2008

User Tagging Effective Aid for Online Searching

Due to an ever-growing abundance of online information, there is increasing difficulty in finding useful information. Currently, most web data is coded to instruct browsers to display data, without regard for meaning. By adding metadata to denote what data means, search engines can offer more useful results. While there are limitations with metadata approaches, user tagging appears to offer the greatest potential for improving online searching.

Metadata can be split into two main types: 1) tagging – the act of appending keywords to web resources (e.g., Flickr, StumbleUpon), and 2) semantic web data – coding conventions to describe the data (e.g. RDF and microformats). Metadata can be added by, or in conjunction with, four groups: 1) creators, 2) programmers, 3) information specialists, 4) users. Metadata is useful for retrieving resources already found, (e.g.’ use of tagging), or for filtering of content to read pertinent areas. Yet, it is the use of metadata, specifically tagging by users, to aid searching that offers the most potential.

The leading hurdle for semantic web data is its highly technical nature, which limits use primarily to advanced web developers. Two XML/XHMTL solutions, RDF or microformats, are too advanced for many web developers, let alone lay web users. As a veteran web developer, I found the syntax of both to be intimidating. Until web-authoring software simplifies adding semantic data, it will remain a good idea left largely unimplemented.

There are essentially two limitations with the use of metadata by information specialists. For one, there is far too much web content to address. Yahoo, for example, abandoned a manual process as too time-consuming and costly. Secondly, while information specialists are good at classifying resources based on official schema or taxonomies, which work well in smaller environments such as an intranet, their work may not necessarily address the needs and lexicon of users in a wider community.

Tagging by content creators also faces the limitation that the creators do not fully know users’ needs and lexicon, even though they know the content well. In addition, tagging by content creators offers the opportunity for abuse – both intentional and unintentional. Unintentional abuse can derive from ignorance of standards, lack of accurate self-appraisal, or cultural or language differences. Abuse can also be intentional, as typified by spammers and phishers who use false metadata to lure people to their sites.

Tagging by content users offers the most potential for web searchers. Group tagging draws on the theory of the wisdom of crowds, wherein collective action by a diverse group results in better information than even specialists could provide. When a resource is tagged by a sufficient array of users, it overcomes minor discrepancies and represents what the resource actually means to most users. Users know the terms they associate with a resource and can use their own words to identify it; they are not apt to misidentify for selfish gain. Also, most tagging services are free, and they are quick and easy to use, compared to semantic web data.

Tagging services are not yet standard offerings in browsers and require time to learn, which may be why these services lack widespread adoption. However, as more and more users tag web resources, this situation will improve and will offer even more aid to web searchers.