Monday, July 28, 2008

Pros & Cons of Managing a Website for a Small Company

I've now officially left my job as a website producer for a pension plan after six years doing the job. I recently won a SSHRC scholarship, so I'm now more able to focus on my studies and raising my family.

In looking back at my time managing the website for a small company, I realized that while such jobs are not right for everyone, there are many benefits.

1) Jack of All Trades
As not uncommon with working for a small company, I was pretty much a department of one. This means that I got the opportunity to dabble and learn about a lot of cool stuff (search engines, web analytics, AJAX, Flash, accessibility, etc) and refine skills (web writing and editing, information architecture, web design, etc.). I have friends who specialize in only one of these aspects. This might be fine to really hone one's craft, but I would have found it insufferably boring. There are a lot of fascinating aspects to websites and it's great to get to explore lots of them. However, it is frustrating sometimes as there is not ever enough resources to draw upon, projects can take a long time or never get done, and, there's no delegating. Even after six years and feeling like I was an expert, I still had to do basic chores to keep the site running and updated.

2) No Bells & Whistles
Small companies tend to not be able to afford the latest bleeding edge technology or design. For the most part, I'd say that's fine. With rare exception the latest hot stuff doesn't tend to add much value to a site, and can even be problematic for users. However, as an Internet professional , it's in our bones to want to try out cool stuff that's been proven to work. It quite frankly sucks sometimes to sit on the sidelines and watch the parade go by.

3) Be Your Own Boss
Small companies where their website is not a vital component of their businesses tend to not have much in-house expertise on running a website. In my case, this meant a great deal of autonomy to do projects I felt were worthy (and justified via business cases). It also meant that my expertise was valued, I didn't have to argue for every decision or priority (as can happen with team structures), and I didn't have someone looking over my shoulder. These environments can also mean that your work, however, is never an organizational priority, and one can be marginalized at times. Also, for someone wanting technical guidance or camaraderie, these places can be lonely - so it's best to recruit colleagues and mentors outside of the company to get advice and help from.

4) Sense of Individual Accomplishment
I readily acknowledge the contributions of programmers, writers, translators, designers and software vendors, all of whom invaluably contributed to the site. But for the day-to-day work of running of the site and of planning, there was really only me. I formerly worked with a company where everything was very much a team effort. While collaboration like this has advantages, it was sometimes hard to see one's individual accomplishment. Over the last few years, I had the opportunity to guide, direct and implement the website along the lines I felt were important. A lot of jobs, don't give one this degree of responsibility, pride and sense of accomplishment.

A few days before I left my job, I found out that the website relaunch I spearheaded was successful in winning an award recognizing the achievement (plus we also one an award for online annual report). So between this and the company launching its transactional website last week, I now feel that my swan song is complete. I can retire from the stage of financial services websites and see what new acts will come my way.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Poor Grades for e-Learning

As of last week, I have one more year of studies for my online master's in communication at Royal Roads. I'm currently in my sixth class, and classes finish for me in December, as afterwards I'll be working on my thesis.

While I have great respect for the university, the program, and my classmates, I am disappointed in Royal Roads. Despite the occasional good use of online media, there appears to be no overall commitment to e-Learning, instead they seem to rely on standard offline distance learning methods, with forums thrown in. So while I have not got the exposure to innovative e-Learning I had hoped for, there have been unexpected benefits from their approach.

I do like Royal Roads' use of three weeks of on-campus classes per year. The setting is sensational, as are the faculty and support staff - so it is a delight to be on campus.

The standard format of online classes is weekly to do readings and then answer specified questions and discuss via forums amongst one's teammates. There are forums to field questions to the professor, but this is for help and is not a fixture of the class. Essays, as with any university class, are the major basis of grading. There are no lectures per se, which for me is the biggest weakness as I find the readings do not say it all and I would have benefited more from a professor's insight on the subject matter (as we receive during our on-campus time).

Most of the course activity, aside from reading and essay writing, is discussions with one's team (a new team every class). I'm not sure if I lucked out, but I have never taken a class with such a group of intelligent, humourous, and personable people, so discussions are generally lively and insightful. However, there is a serious time commitment to keep up with discussions that is problematic for working professionals.

Of my six classes so far, there have been sporadic examples of e-Learning techniques. The best so far, was for an initial class, that made use of podcast lectures combined with PowerPoint presentations. Another professor held regular Skype discussions (which was the first time I used Skype, I'll admit). Another professor used HTML forms for tests.

My suggestion for improvement would be for Royal Roads to take the most effective and feasible e-Learning techniques and make it a core component of every class. e-Learning is not just about the coolness of technology, it can aid learning, as I experienced with the podcast lectures early on.

My suspicion is that most students don't choose online learning over in-class. Online programs offer more flexibility than traditional programs and that's why they are flourishing. However, face-to-face communication still has advantages and using technology and media effectively can help bridge the gap and maximize learning.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Social Media Popular in Canada's Websites

Social media seems to getting more and more popular, but to prove it I did a little study. Below is a list of the top one hundred websites accessed within Canada, according to web traffic firm Alexa (accessed June 2008). From this list, I performed a quick review to discover if social media (e.g. blogs, user generated content, wikis, social networking, social bookmarking, message boards, etc.) was occurring on this site. Social media was prominent in 45 of the 100 sites. The total is probably higher as I counted the sites not in English or French as a no, as I couldn't tell what was happening on the site.

As this study shows, social media for Canadian's websites has undoubtedly arrived. Whether all these sites should be offering social media is another story...

Rank

Website

Social Media Prominent?

1

Google.ca


2

Windows Live


3

Facebook

Yes

4

Yahoo

Yes

5

YouTube

Yes

6

Google


7

Wikipedia

Yes

8

Microsoft Network (MSN)


9

Msn.ca


10

Blogger.com

Yes

11

eBay Canada

Yes

12

Myspace

Yes

13

Governmentof Canada


14

PartyPoker.com


15

EBay

Yes

16

Internet Movie Database

Yes

17

Kijiji

Yes

18

MicrosoftCorporation


19

Photobucket

Yes

20

Craigslist.ca

Yes

21

TD Canada Trust


22

RapidShare

Yes

23

Flickr

Yes

24

The Weather Network


25

NHL.com


26

Youporn.com

Yes

27

Amazon.com

Yes

28

Fastclick


29

CNN


30

Mininova


31

WordPress.com

Yes

32

Go


33

Adult Friendfinder

Yes

34

Dailymotion

Yes

35

Redtube.com

Yes

36

ImageShack

Yes

37

BBC Newsline Ticker


38

FutureShop Canada


39

NBA.com

Yes

40

GameSpot

Yes

41

IGN

Yes

42

Skyrock

Yes

43

Live Journal

Yes

44

About


45

CBC Television

Yes

46

Digg

Yes

47

Canada.com

Yes

48

Baidu.com


49

Veoh.com

Yes

50

AOL


51

Bestbuy.ca


52

Canoe


53

DeviantART

Yes

54

Sina.com


55

Mozilla.com


56

Wixawin.com


57

The Pirate Bay


58

Megaupload

Yes

59

Reference.com


60

Réseaudes Sports (RDS)


61

Apple Computer, Inc.


62

Craigslist.org

Yes

63

wenxuecity.com


64

MLS Online


65

Pornhub.com


66

TSN.ca -Sports Network


67

University of Toronto


68

Royal Bank Financial Group


69

Megarotic.com/

Yes

70

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce


71

Plenty of Fish

Yes

72

ESPN Sportszone


73

Adultadworld.com


74

LesPAC.com

Yes

75

Bank of Montreal


76

IsoHunt


77

Toronto Star


78

Free


79

tudou.com


80

LeMouvement Desjardins


81

888


82

Google.fr


83

QQ.COM


84

Nexopia.com

Yes

85

Adobe

Yes

86

Rogers.com


87

Cyberpresse


88

Friendster

Yes

89

Redflagdeals.com


90

Image Venue hosting

Yes

91

Hi5

Yes

92

6park.com


93

Globe and Mail

Yes

94

Workopolis.com

Yes

95

Blizzard- World of Warcraft

Yes

96

VnExpress


97

GameFAQs

Yes

98

New YorkTimes


99

Xvideos.com


100

Rbcroyalbank.com


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Summer Camp - Facebook Style

I'm addicted to Facebook, I unapologetically admit.

Rather than be contrite, I delight in addicting my friends, and just this week I rejoiced in converting 3 hold-outs! I've blogged about my Facebook addiction before, but prior to last night my addiction was practiced at home alone.

Last night, I went to Facebook Camp Toronto 4. It was a free event (my favourite kind) at MaRS, which also hosted Mesh and is shaping itself as the spot for Internet and technology. There were hundreds of people attending, mostly developers. Toronto, it was pointed out, has the largest Facebook developer base in the world - not to mention one of the largest networks. While not a developer, my addiction and recent research fueled my desire to attend.

The speakers were excellent, including reps from the Palo Alto company itself, as well as three third-party application developers. Here were the main points for me:

1) Facebook will very soon (next week, perhaps) be doing a significant redesign. Mostly, the redesign will allow users to clean up, organize, and have more control over their Profile page. My profile page was getting so crowded that I had to delete things just to clean up. This won't be necessary anymore, but the downside is there won't be the one main page per person , rather a series of tabbed pages. Here's more info on the changes (must be a member of Facebook to see).

2) Facebook is getting serious about advertising. We knew Facebook would soon be vamping up its efforts to monetize its userbase, but they've got some really promising tools to make the actions more relevant to users. Basically, ads can by "hyper-targetted" based not only on demographics but also interests and other Facebook profile data. As a user, I think this will help make advertising relevant to me - I'd love to see ads for any Xena Warrior Princess products or services that may be out there, for example.

3) New fun apps keep getting are added to Facebook regularly. There were three presentations of Canadian-made Facebook apps, all of which seem to be very promising and potentially addictive:
a) Mouse Hunt - a quick and easy game (with great artwork)
b) Praize'n'raze - allows you to vote for your favourite local services
c) Slangbook - enter and vote on your favourite slang

I haven't had a chance to check them all out. But what I love about Facebook applications is that with various websites that require social participation, it is difficult to get one's social contacts there. For example, I am an ardent user of del.icio.us, Digg, and OurFaves but I can't convince my friends to join. My friends are on Facebook and so getting them to use various web applications is much esaier, and thus realizing the value and fun.

I saw the developers, Jerome Paradis and Kim Vallee, of one of my favourite Facebook applications, Status Competition, were at the camp last night. Status Competition is so effective and fun because it fits my Facebook behaviour. I like to quick check into Facebook about 1-2 times a day to see what's happening with my friends and I love to interact with the content in various ways. I love Status Competition because not only can you see at a glance the various status updates of your friends, but you can give a vote to the ones you enjoy and designate your feelings on the posting from "cool", "funny", "weird", "sad", "confusing" or "meh". The competition is mostly for bragging rights, but it's not whether you win or lose, it's how often you update your status (at least once a day is my preference).

It's great to see such cool Internet stuff happening in Canada. We may not have a company like Facebook in Canada, but apparently we have some great application developers here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Canada's Cyber Celebs

In honour of Canada Day, I wanted to further document Canada's contribution to the Internet and cyberculture. This area is greatly underpublished, as I found out while researching my prior articles on Canada's top Internet successes.

Below I have collected a list of Canadians inventors, researchers, developers, or writers who have contributed to the development or our understanding of the Internet or cyberculture. I'd like this to be an ongoing project and I will flesh out the bios in more detail in the future.
  • Alexander Graham Bell - without him all those on dial-up would be SOL
  • Tim Bray, father of XML & co-founder of Open Text (early web search engine)
  • Rhiannon Bury, academic, studies women and online fandom
  • Stewart Butterfield, co-founder of Flickr, pioneer in use of tagging
  • Bill Buxton, Microsoft's principal researcher, pioneer in field of human computer interaction
  • William Craig, founder of iCraveTV, the first company to stream TV over the Net
  • Douglas Coupland, author of Generation X, Microserfs, JPod, etc.
  • Peter Deutsch, leader of the team that invented Archie, the first Internet search engine
  • John Demco, creator of the .ca domain, co-founder of Webnames.ca
  • Hossein Derakhshan - influential Iranian blogger
  • Cory Doctorow, activist, blogger & co-editor of Boing Boing
  • Michael Geist, academic, leader in field of Internet law
  • William Gibson, fiction author, visionary of cyberculture, coined term "cyberspace"
  • Marina Glogovac, CEO of Lavalife
  • James Gosling, inventor of Java programming language
  • Kevin Ham, the world's leading domainer
  • Graham Hill, founder of environmental blog site, TreeHugger
  • Pierre Lévy, academic, developed notions of collective intelligence
  • mafiaboy, prominent website hacker
  • Emma Payne, author and founder of Wired Women
  • Gerri Sinclair, founder of Canada's first multimedia research centre at Simon Fraser, founded NCompass Labs, content management software
  • Mark Rzepka, pioneer of online pharmacies
  • Jeffrey Skoll, co-founder of eBay
  • Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics
  • Clive Thompson, journalist has written for Shift, Wired
  • Barry Wellman, academic, pioneer in studies of online communities & social networking
  • Bob Young, founder of micropublisher, Lulu and former CEO of Red Hat
Please let me know of anyone who should be added to this list. I haven't included all the founders and leaders of the various Canadian companies (e.g. Research in Motion, Nortel, Club Penguin, StumbleUpon), but let me know if you feel they should be included.