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September 29, 2014 / carlispina

Ello – A New Social Network

Ello LogoLast week Ello suddenly burst into the collective consciousness of many tech-savvy social media users as the next hot network. While it has been around since last March, it didn’t go viral until last week, when Mashable reported that Ello was “receiving anywhere from 4,000 to more than 30,000 requests an hour.” Suddenly, traditional social networks are full of people looking for invitations to the service, which is still in invitation-only private beta, and publications as diverse as The New Yorker, Gawker, and The Atlantic are reporting on it. Much of this interest comes from the perception that Ello offers a stark alternative to Facebook. Ello initially launched by posting their “manifesto,” which starts with the phrase “Your social network is owned by advertisers” and ends with the phrase “You are not a product.” As privacy concerns and advertising presence has increased on Facebook, many users are suddenly searching for an alternative. However, the jury is still out on whether Ello will really be able to fulfill this role. Even if it is able to build a sufficient user base to compete with Facebook, some have raised concerns about Ello’s lack of privacy features and the fact that they accepted venture capital funding, which leads some to believe that the network won’t stay ad free and committed to its principles for long. The company has responded to these concerns by listing several privacy features in their Coming Soon section and stating that they plan to make money by selling premium features (including privacy features) in the future.

Intrigued by both its sudden popularity and all the commentary swirling around it, I decided to try Ello out myself. Many are describing it as some combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, and some elements do feel that way. The layout and look and feel are much more pared down than the average social media site, which has impressed many design fans. The minimalist design consists mostly of black and white with the only colors coming from users’ avatars, items that are posted on the site, and the banners that are hidden at the top of each users’ profile if you scroll up. When you follow people on Ello, you can sort them into Friends  or Noise and they will never know which category you assign them, which offers a way to focus more attention on some users and less on others.

However, with this spare look and approach comes a distinct lack of some features, at least as of right now. For example, the site doesn’t currently support hashtags or any other way of organizing and connecting content, the search functionality has never worked for me (and I haven’t heard of anyone having luck with it), and the user interface isn’t terribly intuitive, which leaves a lot of users feeling like they are blindly clicking around a lot of the time. Some of these limitations are definitely because of the site’s sudden explosion in popularity. While every new user is given a large number of invites to share with friends, the site has had to close off new accounts when it has hit capacity at least once since I started using it less than a week ago. The list of features that are under development (which includes mobile apps, video and audio integration, and notifications of whether someone is online or offline to name just a few) suggests that these growing pains may be short-lived, but it is hard to know whether those features will address all of the concerns people have with the platform and also how much those features might cost given the business model that Ello seems to have in place. As the site becomes more widely known, I’ve seen many people saying that they are starting accounts to reserve their username or to see what everyone is talking about. The true test of Ello will be whether it is able to move beyond this current bout of novelty to become something that users continue to come back to over and over again. For now though, it is an interesting new approach to social networking and if you do check it out, you may be happy to know that Ello has an option to delete your account, though their privacy policy notes that your data “may” remain on backup serves for an unspecified period of time.

September 25, 2014 / carlispina

Send Audio Messages to Friends With ChitChat

ChitChat LogoChitChat is a new iOS app from IDEO that allows users to share audio messages with others who also use the app. Using the app is as simple as allowing it to access your contacts so that you can find which of your friends use it. You can also search for users on the app if your friends aren’t identified from your device’s contacts. From there you can connect with people you already know who use the app. Once you have identified such friends, you can send them a message by touching and holding their circular icon within the app. As long as you keep holding the icon, you can record a message, which will be sent to them when you let go.

Messages can be sent to a single person or to a group as long as all participants have the ChitChat app. When you get a message, you will see a number on your icon and you can click through to select the message or messages you wish to hear. Messages can be listened to as many times as you wish, but as soon as you leave a message, it is automatically deleted, prompting comparisons between this app and SnapChat. However, ChitChat goes beyond simply offering self-destructing voicemail; because all messages are delivered via the app, it is a nice way to share messages that aren’t time sensitive when you don’t want to interrupt the recipient with a phone call. Although the app will send you a notification that pops up on your phone screen and a number will appear on the app’s logo on your iPhone’s homescreen when you receive a message via ChitChat, both of these notifications are far less intrusive than a phone call. I think this is a nice option for sending voice messages, particularly if you wish to send them at times when a phone call might not be convenient.

September 22, 2014 / carlispina

Turn Your Presentation Into A GIF With GifDeck

GifDeck LogoIf you frequently make slides and upload them to Slideshare, GifDeck is an interesting tool that will allow you to share your slides in a new way. GifDeck turns slide shows into GIFs that can then be shared or embedded anywhere you would normally share GIFs such as on Twitter, in emails, or on a website or blog. The resulting GIF automatically cycles through the slides in the slideshow creating a dynamic and automatic viewing experience.

Using GifDeck is extremely simple. All you need is the link to any Slideshare slide deck, which can be pasted into the box on the GifDeck site as seen below. This means that you can make a GIF of anything shared on Slideshare, not just your own slide decks. Clicking on the gear icon to the right of the box allows you to specify the length of time each slide is displayed, how many slides from the deck are included in the GIF, and the size of the GIF.


Once you have generated the GIF, you can download it to your computer as a .gif file, which can then be shared just as any other GIF would be. This is a neat alternative for sharing slides, though right now it only works with slide decks that have already been shared on Slideshare and there are only three size options for the GIF. If GifDeck sounds interesting, you can try it out for free or you can check out the code on GitHub.


September 18, 2014 / carlispina

Explores Van Gogh’s Works with Touch Van Gogh

Touch Van GoghThis week on YALSA blog, I wrote about Touch Van Gogh. This app from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which was recently expanded to include three additional paintings, offers users a chance to explore Van Gogh’s works in depth and to learn more about his techniques, his time period, and the canvases that he used. The app is a lot of fun for fans of both art and history; I would definitely recommend checking it out. You can read my full review over on YALSA blog.

September 15, 2014 / carlispina

Explore Depression Era Photographs With the Yale Photogrammar

Yale PhotogrammarBetween 1935 and 1945, the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information commissioned thousands of photographs by a number of well-known and highly skilled photographers. These photographs document life throughout the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Currently held and maintained by the Library of Congress, these photographs are now available online via the Yale Photogrammar. This website not only provides access to them, but also offers unique ways to search through the images and visualize the locations they document.

Users who wish to search through the 170,000 images included on the website will be pleased with the search features that are included on the site. In addition to a simple keyword search of the full text associated with each of the images, users also have access to advanced search features that make it possible to search through the collection by the name of the photographer who took the picture, lot number, classification tag, location, or date. Search results show a thumbnail of the images retrieved together with their titles, dates, and the name of the photographer who took them. Clicking on an image will take the user to a page with a larger version of the image, the full metadata for the image, and thumbnails of other, similar images.

The site also offers users the ability to navigate through the images geographically. Two different maps show the photographs organized by either county or by photographer (as seen in the image below). From either map, users can limit their results either using the dropdown menu to limit the visualization to only images from a single photographer or by using the slider to visualize only images from specific years. The maps only visualize about 90,000 of the images, since the rest do not have geographic information associated with them. However, despite this limitation, they provide an interesting way of viewing the images in relation to one another.

The Yale Photogrammar includes this Dot Map, which organizes the photos by photographer.

The Yale Photogrammar includes this Dot Map, which organizes the photos by photographer.

The creators of the Yale Photogrammar are also interested in finding new ways to visualize this collection and have therefore included a Labs section on the site. This area of the site, which will have more tools added to it in the future, visualizes the metadata associated with the images in the Metadata Dashboard section (currently only for California, but with more states under development) and offers a tree map of the classification system that Paul Vanderbilt developed for the photos in 1942.

Whether you are a history buff, a scholar, or a photographer, this site will offer endless hours of fascination as you explore not only the images but the relationships between them. It is already an impressive effort and the promised future developments will only make it more impressive.

September 11, 2014 / carlispina

See Wikipedia in a Whole New Way with WikiWand

WikiwandWikipedia is a great resource for learning new facts, settling disputes about trivial knowledge, and even kickstarting research projects, but many users would agree that its interface isn’t up to the standards of many modern websites. WikiWand aims to solve this issue by rearranging the great content that has made Wikipedia so popular in a new, more engaging and attractive manner. This browser extension, which is available for SafariChrome, and Firefox, completely updates the look of Wikipedia entries, pulling photos to the forefront where available and eliminating some of the extraneous information found in the side and top menus in Wikipedia. While these aesthetic touches are nice, perhaps the most useful aspect of WikiWand is that it also moves all of the article navigation and section headings to a persistent side menu that is visible no matter where you are on the page. Making it much easier to navigate within articles, particularly those that are quite lengthy, without having to scroll to the top to find the article outline. WikiWand also uses a responsive format that rearranges and resizes the content to optimize it for the size of your screen or browser window. While I did encounter a few minor layout issues caused by this approach, it will be an improvement over the the current standard Wikipedia layout for users with some devices. Users will also likely appreciate the slideshows that WikiWand automatically generates for each article’s images. The top menu on each WikiWand page also makes it easy to navigate to entries on the same topic in different languages and to search Wikipedia for other information.

Though WikiWand does offer a nice, clean layout for Wikipedia articles, its reach does not extend beyond this to other content. While there is a dropdown menu that provides links to edit an entry, to view the history of an article, or to visit the article’s talk page, all of these link users to the standard Wikipedia site without this improved look and feel. Similarly, if you click links to Wikimedia Commons content, these pages will open in a new window and appear in the standard Wikimedia format. My one complaint about WikiWand is that I find it unfortunate that it somewhat hides the editing option. Given that many Wikipedia users don’t realize that anyone can contribute to Wikipedia even in its current format, further burying the editing function may lead to even more confusion and a loss of potential contributors. Overall, even with its limited scope and the way that it obscures some of Wikipedia’s functionality, I think WikiWand is a nice tool for those who find the current look of Wikipedia off-putting.

September 8, 2014 / carlispina

Make a Timeline with Histropedia

HistropediaWhile at Wikimania, I learned about an interesting new tool that takes advantage of Wikipedia content to make it easy to create timelines with ease. Currently in beta, Histropedia allows users to search for anything they want to add to their timeline in the included search bar. If it is in Wikipedia, it will pop up. Any entry that has a plus sign next to it can be added to the timeline with a single click. If an entry doesn’t have a plus sign, it just means that dates are not available for that entry. In that event, users can add their own date information, at which point the entry is available to be added to their timeline and any future Histropedia user’s timeline. I found that it took me only minutes to create a timeline of famous artists that was both professional looking and dynamic. Even if your selected entry can be added with one click, you can still opt to customize the information associated with it, including editing the dates and selecting from all of the images included in the Wikipedia article.

Once you are happy with your timeline, you can share it via a URL or embed it on another website. Viewers of your timeline will be able to click on individual entries to activate the pop-out reader, which includes the full Wikipedia entry as well as tabs that display Twitter content on the topic, as well as related books, films, music, and videos. While I like the integration of the Wikipedia entries, I did find myself wishing that users had the option to opt out of the other tabs in the reader since they may not be appropriate in all situations, particularly all educational settings. However, despite this limitation (which I hope may be addressed in future releases), I think Histropedia is a nice way of creating and sharing educational timelines on a wide range of topics. One other note: to facilitate the sharing side of this equation, all Histropedia timelines are a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 license, which is important to note, both if you want to use an existing timeline and as you create your own timelines using the platform. If you think this sounds like an interesting tool, check out the video below to see how it works.


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