It’s 2015: Stop Your Whining

Remember the old days, when you would struggle with Windows 95 or Windows 2000 to get it to properly load, say, a printer driver? Remember the love/hate relationship you had with Redmond’s Richest (Microsoft)? This schizophrenic emotional state was elicited by the relative convenience afforded by use of the Windows graphical user interface paired with the frustration of abundant software bugs and things like plug-n-play that certainly plugged, but often didn’t play.

windows 95 logoUse of Microsoft’s products and services, specifically its operating system and the applications found in MS Office, was a double-edged sword. On one side was convenience, speed, and user-friendly operation. On the other was buggy software, cumbersome tech support, and almost daily frustration—typically resulting in language befitting a drunken sailor.

Welcome to 2015. We’re officially 15 percent of the way into the 21st century. No longer do we marvel over smartphones and digital cameras. No longer do we say “Wow, that 42-inch flat panel sure is amazing.” No longer do we dream of a future of electric cars, smartwatches, thin touchscreen tablets, and free global video conferencing.

We’re home, Toto. All that cool stuff is here. And much of it is either free or very cheap.

After all, who could have imagined free video conferencing (using services like FaceTime and Skype)? When I was a kid, I recall my CPA wannabe grandmother always cutting short long-distance phone calls because of the expense and metered billing rate. We now conduct high-definition video conferences—of any length and with folks around the world—for free and on a regular basis.

But our technical schizophrenia remains. Spurred by relentless online ads and spotty wi-fi, our frustration seemingly won’t abate. Yet, we love the Google search engine and the magic of Twitter. But isn’t my laptop too hot? Why won’t it rip this CD? It did it last week. And why can’t I remember the password for my secret email account?

When thinking recently about our fickle use of technology, I realized something: Google has replaced Microsoft as our evil bipolar technological stepmother. The Silicon Valley giant, whose name has become synonymous with looking up stuff on the internet, is something that we think we can’t live without—but that we also curse on a regular basis. I’d hate for someone to steal or damage my Chromecast media streaming dongles. Yet, I want to throw them across the room when they drop the Pandora stream for the fifth time in two hours.

google_logoAlyce Lomax at The Motley Fool, way back in 2006, described Google as a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” In my blog post Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot from September 2014, I pointed out how Google loves to experiment with a variety of products and services. From “smart” contact lenses to self-driving cars to huge balloons intended to bring internet access to undeveloped nations (and, with it, ads from the company’s search engine and other services), Google has its hand in a very wide range of products.

It’s almost as if the iconic Silicon Valley company doesn’t trust its ability to succeed in any one area. Maybe it’s so keenly aware of the fierce competition and incredible challenges of the technology that it gets involved in dozens of product areas with the hope that a few will actually pan out.

But everything is relative. Our love/hate relationship with Microsoft from yesteryear was based on the pervasive nature of the company’s operating system and software. Windows was everywhere. Very few people used Macs back then (hell, there wasn’t even a version of Microsoft Office for the Mac, so you can barely blame them). It was all MS Word and Excel and Windows XP. All of which sported some pretty serious bugs. We felt trapped.

Today it’s a bit different. I was recently frustrated when using Google’s URL shortening service for links within tweets. I found that, somehow, I had violated Google’s terms of service and it invalidated one of my URLs, giving my tweet, going out to hundreds of thousands of users, a dead link. Fine, I thought, and switched back to Bitly. Frustrated by the amount of paid links at the top of the results page for Google’s search engine, I switched to Duck Duck Go. Not happy with my sluggish, stuttering Nexus 7 tablet running Google’s Android mobile OS, I switched back to an iPad from Apple.

The difference today is that there’s options. Back in the day, those frustrated by Microsoft Word or PowerPoint had few alternatives, none of which were ubiquitous enough to make the switch feel practical or intelligent. But if you’re fed up with your Nexus tablet or your Android-powered smartphone gets wonky, there’s ready alternatives from companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Blackberry.

Unlike Microsoft’s stranglehold on us back in the 1990s, Google can no longer hold us captive.

So welcome to 2015 and the age of tech options. Don’t like the ad-laced Google search engine? Switch to Bing or Duck Duck Go. Don’t like the Goo.gl URL shortener? Use Bitly or TinyURL. Getting frustrated by your Android-powered smartphone or tablet? Give Apple or Nokia a try. Don’t like Google Maps? Try AOL’s MapQuest or Apple Maps. Don’t like Gmail? Try Outlook or Yahoo (or the messaging built into Facebook or LinkedIn). Not digging Google+? Try Facebook (ok, every human already did that…sorry).

But stop your whining and don’t feel trapped. Because there’s plenty of alternatives to the products and services you’re currently using.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Ello in Real Life

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[Updated August 25, 2015]

Back in early October, I wrote a blog post regarding the hip new social network Ello. Based out of Vermont, this unique digital gathering place boasts an ad-free social environment and never sells user data to outside parties. Ello feels so strongly about this that it has published an anti-establishment Manifesto that begins with the line “Your social network is owned by advertisers.” It’s obviously a very different approach to social media than Facebook or LinkedIn.

Another unique feature of Ello: It’s currently invite only. If a friend doesn’t share one of their invites with you, you’re SOL. For those who haven’t received an invite, this is obviously somewhat of a deal killer—a dynamic that doesn’t exist on most social networks. Kik, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest…they’re all begging people to join. Ello, on the other hand (and for the time being), is purposefully limiting its user population.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers.

I finally received an invite from a fellow author friend and jumped on a few days ago. I can attest to the fact that Ello isn’t for everyone. But for those who will enjoy it, they’ll probably really love it.

Artsy & Design Oriented

Ello is incredibly artsy and design-oriented. And I’m not limiting this description to the Ello site itself. After you gain membership and begin using the Discover feature to find new “Friends” (who you simply follow; you don’t need their permission), you quickly get the feeling that the majority of Ello’s users are designers, photographers, and artists of one variety or another.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers who live in hipster cities like Portland, Denver, San Francisco, and Austin.

You also perceive a culture that’s intelligent, talented, possibly pretentious, and absolutely creative. If nothing else, most Ello members have an appreciation for leading edge design (I can see Apple executives enjoying Ello). Personally, I perceive this service to be populated by both successful and starving artists, cord cutters, nature lovers, and folks who are obsessed with art and photography.

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Ello is receiving mixed reviews from actual members. A simple search of the hashtag #ello on Twitter reveals everything from affinity to indifference to recommendations of abandonment.

Worth the Effort?

“I have Ello now, but I don’t see the point, unless you’re an artsy type and like to share images” said one member. Another queried, “Ok, fess up. How many of you joined Ello and have completely forgotten about it?”

Of course, there’s those who absolutely adore this quirky new service. “So in love with Ello,” said one. Another opined, “I got an invitation to Ello—it’s restored my faith in the potential of social media.” Regarding the site’s layout, one member said, “Minimalism is the most appealing design these days. Kudos to being the bare minimum.”

Another member proclaimed the site’s potential greatness: “I made the leap. With a few tweaks, Ello could be huge.” Considering that it’s still in beta, those tweaks are inevitable. Ello’s success, however, certainly isn’t.

Some opinions regarding Ello are philosophical: “Simple, beautiful & ad-free. Is this how social networks should be?” However, the network’s minimal design is actually perceived by some to be overdone.

“I’ve realised it’s too plain to hold my attention,” said one, while another quipped, “Just signed up to Ello—is the user interface supposed to be so borked?”

With so many new members, there are those intelligent souls who are waiting to get some time under their belts before declaring if Ello is worthy of being a part of their daily diet of social media. Said one newbie, “No opinions made up yet of Ello, but already amused that their Help page…is titled ‘WTF.'” Said another, “Just got invited to join Ello. I don’t know how to feel about this.”

Tasha James, a 20-something entrepreneur from Pennsylvania, confessed, “My first impression is that it’s overly simplistic. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing there.” Jon Fahrner, an IT executive from San Francisco and another new member, facetiously summed up Ello’s culture: “Just guessing Ello, the new invite-only social network, is for creatives and designers. Just a guess…”

You May Dig It

Whether you would enjoy Ello really depends on how much disposable time you have for social media and to what extent you appreciate art and alternative culture overall. It’s kind of like tree-hugging granola culture meets Silicon Valley geekdome meets the art scenes of L.A., New York, and London.

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I doubt many will be dumping Facebook for Ello. In a way, that’s good. It means Ello is its own thing. While some in the media have dubbed this new, exclusive network the “Facebook killer,” that’s really an overly simplistic and ignorant label. It’s a totally different thing.

The only element Ello and Facebook seem to have in common is that they’re both social networks and they both allow you to have friends. Beyond that, they’re as different as a Ford F-250 pickup truck and a Porsche 911 sports car. Ello did finally mimic the “Like” feature with its own heart shaped “Love” button, which functions more as a bookmarking feature.

I’m glad Ello is around. It’s clearly a rebellious challenge to the internet’s status quo. Thankfully, it’s also a good hangout for those who hate ads, have an appreciation for art, design, and photography, or simply want to take the path less traveled.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ello? Are You a Product?

ello logo for blogTim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently spoke out—in a thinly veiled jab at Google and Facebook in the form of an open letter to customers—regarding the fact that Apple doesn’t sell customer data to advertisers or other third parties. In a similar vein, a new social network has emerged that directly challenges ad-supported social media by claiming to never sell user data.

The service? Ello.

Ello is getting quite a bit of media attention. It’s an ad-free social media site that’s being labeled a potential “Facebook killer” and the “anti-Facebook.” While no competing social network will likely kill—or even put a significant dent in—Facebook in the near future, Ello’s emergence and the serious attention it’s garnering are a sign that social media is maturing and beginning to serve different niches.

Ello, still in beta, is a free service launched by artists and designers in Burlington, Vermont (where, symbolically, roadside billboards are illegal). It has been described as a hybrid of Twitter and Tumblr. On its website, the company states, “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life,” adding the Applesque, “You are not a product.”

Currently, Ello membership is available only via invite (although the service is still gaining 35,000 new signups and 45,000 invite requests per hour). New users are permitted to invite several friends. Unlike most social networks, Ello allows members to follow others as either “friends” or “noise” and doesn’t reveal how you’ve categorized them. Said one newspaper review, “Whatever the online version of ‘new car smell’ is, Ello has it.” This tone suggests that this relatively novel social network is special simply because it’s the new kid on the block—not because it’s truly disruptive in the evolution of social media. Which, of course, remains to be seen.

Echoing Cook’s message regarding customers versus products, the Ello Manifesto, posted on the company’s sparsely designed website, states, “Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”

Further indoctrinating potential users into its customer-focused, David-meets-Goliath culture, the company adds, “We believe there is a better way. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” I love the sound of that—and sincerely hope Ello survives past its startup phase. I’d also like to know what Vermont verde these guys are smoking.

Media response to Ello has been mixed, but typically cynical or pessimistic. England’s The Guardian wrote, “We’re turning to the new thing because it’s new, not because it’s good.” CNET reviewed the nascent service with a similar tone: “Plenty of folks are dubious.” AL.com, although supportive of the site, reported, “It’s pretty likely, however, that Ello is a flash in the pan.”

Unlike competing services from LinkedIn and Facebook, Ello lacks a “Like” feature. No doubt this is in response to the fact that it’s one of the most efficient ways in which Facebook and LinkedIn collect user preference data to sell to advertisers. It also currently lacks user blocking and a mobile app. In fact, there’s plenty of features you might be habituated to using on social media that aren’t available in Ello—at least not yet.

If this service is free and there’s no ads, how does it pay for server farms and employee salaries? The company plans to begin offering supplemental “special features” to enhance the user experience. Surely they’re hoping that all of your friends will purchase some of these features and, if you don’t, you’ll suffer feature envy or be incapable of engaging in certain types of communication. Gizmodo said it well: “Think of [Ello] as a freemium social network.”

In the end, Ello might turn out to simply be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. At worse, it could disappear in a few months (after its initial venture capital runs dry). At best, it might gain tens of millions of users and subtly influence services like Facebook and the resuscitated Myspace. Some are speculating that interest in Ello doesn’t necessarily reflect an affinity for this new, hip social network, but rather a disdain for old entrenched players. As The Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman wrote in late September, “Entrenched social networks like Twitter and Facebook would do well to pay attention, because they’re the ships we’re trying to abandon.”

Time will tell if enough people abandon—or, more likely, simply supplement—networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to ensure Ello’s survival. Just the fact that it allows members to use alias names will surely help it gain a few million followers (aliases violate Facebook’s recently introduced “real name” policy that has infuriated members of the LGBT community seeking to avoid harassment). In the meantime, if you’re really curious, stop by Ello’s website and drop your name in the hat, praying to the hipster gods of this new social network for an invite to the party.

It’s refreshing that this newbie service isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its competitors. “We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Well alright now.

But don’t assume that meteorological success for Ello would hamper the explosion of Facebook, which—at 1.2 billion global users—hasn’t even peaked yet. Also, if a sufficient number of members don’t buy extended features to feed the company cash, this hip service will die before it even gets a chance to appear on the radar of most Facebook or Twitter users.

Probably the best way of describing this quirky social network was provided by a commenter on Gizmodo: “THERE’S A NEW SOCIAL MEDIA OUR PARENTS HAVEN’T RUINED YET!”

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Curt Robbins

[Also check out a follow-up post: Ello in Real Life.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Social Media’s Anti-Socialization Myth

Last November, I was visiting my in-laws in Maryland for Thanksgiving. After dinner, during a kitchen table conversation regarding the effect of internet-connected mobile devices and social media on the six grandchildren in her house, my mother-in-law asserted that these elements were detrimental to the face-to-face socialization opportunities and practices of the ten to fourteen-year-olds scurrying around her.

She was concerned about the amount of time they were spending using their iPod Touches, iPads, and Nexus tablets to engage in social media using services like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram, and Kik. I’ve heard this exact perspective shared by others—often older folks or those who engage with technology less than the average bear. There’s also those who simply don’t share the wanderlust of modern millennials toward their back pocket smartphones and wi-fi-connected touchscreens.

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With all due respect to my mother-in-law, I say pshaw and call BS on this perspective. It’s an attitude and fear that is increasingly pervasive among paranoid helicopter parents and those who spent the bulk of their lives without this technology (whether it was the result of poverty, preference, or simply the lack of its existence). Unfortunately, ignorance breeds fear. The myriad online virtual communities, especially when combined with broadband bit rates, are not corrupting the social skills and manners of our children. In fact, I contend that they are enhancing these brick-and-mortar skills.

Before you call BS on me, let me explain. Via school, marching band, volunteer activities, neighborhood friends, shopping, the library, and other activities, I believe the average middle class child of today gets plenty of face-to-face socialization. Instead of replacing in-person interactions, mobile device-based social media are actually supplementing them. We’re augmenting what we’ve always done as humans. We’re still sitting around camp fires telling scary stories, but we’re now also telling those stories on Tumblr, Facebook, WordPress, and Twitter.

My 13-year-old daughter can slam out text on her iPod Touch faster than any human I’ve witnessed. She owns the iOS keyboard on that little four-inch screen, making it beg and whimper as she hits a words-per-minute level that’s probably in the top five percent of her peers. But this mastery doesn’t come cheap. Practice makes perfect, as my grandmother used to say, and this girl has spent more time locked into her mobile device and sucking down virtual companionship and cultural enrichment from our 20 Mbps AT&T broadband connection than I’d care to estimate. (See? Even a middle-aged tech zealot like me echoes the theme of overindulgence among teens when it comes to social media.)

Considering the huge investment of time and effort she’s made in these app-based networking services, are my daughter’s social skills lacking? Hardly. She’s probably the most social member of our family. I contend that she has twice the social skills of some Amish kid cruelly deprived of technology and modern social media. She can pull it off in-person with a cute charm that will make even a jaded curmudgeon smile, while also maintaining a dynamic and complicated world of relationships on social media. And yes, Aunt Mildred, that’s all without negatively affecting her grades or volunteer activities.

Not only does social media not put a ding in the real-world social skills of these kids, it often directly enhances them. My daughter, when using Instagram to communicate her love for a particular pop band, made a friend in Canada who actually paid us a visit in the States. OMG, social media benefited the real world! People enjoy making black-and-white arguments and ignoring the thousand shades of grey that compose any issue of serious consideration and its real-world ramifications (and effect on our loved ones). The virtual, i.e. social media world feeds our “face-to-face” reality, and vice versa. Ignoring such a detailed dynamic gets a Luddite button pinned to your chest and moves you painfully close to those who believe the Apollo moon landings were filmed in a studio in Southern California.

riley for framing 2This is like arguing whether women or men are better athletes. To address roughly fifty percent of 7.2 billion people in a way that assumes they all have similar attributes or qualities is simply foolish and shows that more of these misguided souls need to take basic stats and psych classes in college. Some kids are really social, and it will show in both their physical and virtual social worlds—which will surely interact. Other kids are shy or introverted, and they will probably exhibit these characteristics in both their online and real-world personas.

In fact, if anything, a virtual or social media-based existence allows those who may be somewhat agoraphobic or simply lack the self-confidence of the average person (sometimes common among teens) to engage with likeminded others in a way possibly too intimidating if performed face-to-face. Working with social media “training wheels” may actually help young people engage in real life, proving to them that they can successfully conduct and gain enrichment from interactions with others—regardless of the forum. Having options is good. Today, our kids have more varied and dynamic social opportunities than at any time in the history of humans.

Another criticism of modern social media is the detrimental effects of the spasmodic multitasking that often accompanies a teen’s use of several different services at once. I would actually contend that juggling a variety of social media helps teens learn the reality of modern life and its requirement of multitasking. The merits, costs, and benefits of multitasking can be argued until the cows come home. Regardless of the inherent effects of multitasking, kids who are active in social media are going to, on average, be better suited to the realities of a task-juggling world—especially fast-paced work environments and cubicle farms, which are largely digital and screen-based (even for non-technical jobs).

Let’s not allow the pros and cons of multitasking (or any element of modern internet-based culture) to obfuscate the fact that the United States is so lacking in competent high-end technical skills that it must import them from countries like India and Pakistan. I would argue that social media often help children and teens to gain an acceptance and comfort level with technology, inviting them into a world where they desire to understand and maybe even create and manage the technical underpinnings of their incredible mobile devices and hyper-dynamic internet-based social networks.

Our children’s socialization skills are surely critical as they mature and enter educational institutions and eventually take on careers and families of their own. But assuming that social media, multitasking, and virtual online communities are somehow nefariously harming the face-to-face lives of our children is bogus. For sharing ideas, educating themselves, being entertained, seeking mentoring, chatting with peers, and otherwise engaging with likeminded people, social media brings an efficiency and cost/benefit ratio that is often impossible in the real world. This is especially true for those separated by great physical distances, like a kid in Tokyo who wants to talk about the TV show Supernatural or the band Panic! at the Disco with a kid in Cleveland.

Is negatively criticizing young people for harnessing the opportunity to dynamically interact and share ideas—across borders, cultures, and stigmas—really the approach we want to take?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Tweetin’ ‘Bout My Generation.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.