Category Archives: Internet

Is Craigslist a mess?

There’s a recent piece in Wired entitled, “Why Craigslist Is Such a Mess”. The answer according to the article is that Craig Newmark is a pretty weird dude. But while it’s an interesting profile, the real question about Craigslist isn’t “why is it such a mess” but “why, given that it’s a mess, is it so widely used?” And as the article mentions, people use it because (a) it’s free, and (b) everyone else is using it, so it’s the best place to find what you’re looking for. But “Craigslist is widely used because it’s widely used” isn’t terribly satisfying as an answer.
What I really want to know is: how do people find anything at all on Craigslist? Because I just can’t do it, but it certainly wouldn’t be popular if everyone else was in the same position. And indeed, the comments on the Wired article are overwhelmingly people objecting to the title alone, protesting that Craigslist isn’t a mess. So lots of people find it a useful tool.
Nevertheless, every time I’ve tried to use it (and I’ve looked at it at various times for apartments, job hunting, and dating) I’ve given up after encountering a spectacularly low signal-to-noise ratio. Because there’s no cost to posting, and it lacks sophisticated filters, I end up with a huge and unmanageable stream of nearly-undifferentiated posts. And while there’s something to be said for its free-form character, this seems to lead to listings that are either unhelpfully vague or hyper-specific.
So I feel like I’m doing it wrong. There must be some techniques out there to using Craigslist successfully (hopefully some Craigslist power users in the readership can tell me what they are). I have some guesses as to what might work:

  1. Liberal use of the search box. I always feel like my search terms narrow the field either too little or too much. But maybe a clever selection of search terms, applied in lots of variations, would improve things.

  2. Less reading, more skimming. Just because it doesn’t filter for me doesn’t mean I have to read every post. If I learn to recognize useless items and move on quickly, I could move much more quickly through the stream.
  3. Persistence. I know that some people read Craigslist painstakingly every day, looking for the perfect bargain. (From the Wired article, this seems well suited to Craig Newmark’s style.) I don’t have the patience for it, though, and I generally don’t believe the perfect bargain exists. (Or rather, when they do appear they get snapped up immediately.)

Any other advice? Anyone else find Craigslist unusable?

Rise (and kneeling) of the machines

Via Tyler Cowen, this looks like a good way to scam people who subscribe to a very odd theology:

Information Age Prayer is a site that charges you a monthly fee to say prayers for you. A typical charge is $4.95 per month to say three prayers specified by you each day.
“We use state of the art text to speech synthesizers to voice each prayer at a volume and speed equivalent to typical person praying,” the company states. “Each prayer is voiced individually, with the name of the subscriber displayed on screen.”
Prices, however, are dictated by the length of the prayer. As noted in the Information Age Prayer FAQ, “A discounted prayer will cost less than other prayers of similar length.”

The scam is not that they don’t provide any value: presumably they supply some kind of peace of mind to the sort of person who goes for this, although I’m not sure it’s $4.95/mo worth of peace of mind. The actual potential for scamming here is there’s no way of verifying that they’ve performed the promised service at all, short of visiting their physical location (if it even exists). Then again, verifiability is unlikely to be a dealbreaker for someone credulous enough to find this idea attractive. It seems to hinge on some unusual assumptions about prayer, specifically that it’s a kind of magic spell that needs to be vocalized, but having a machine vocalize it is a valid alternative to doing it yourself. (On the other hand, to hear Fred Clark tell it, the notion of prayer-as-magic-spell is a prevalent feature in the bestselling Left Behind series, so maybe this isn’t such an unusual assumption after all.)
Entertainingly, the Yahoo News article goes from reporting on this service to cataloging occurrences of praying robots in science fiction, naturally including the Cylon religion in the recent Battlestar Galactica. However, Information Age Prayer seems to be less akin to the frakkin’ toasters than it is to, well, ordinary toasters.

Unfriends forever

Today the New York Times, in its role as the paper of record, investigates one of the most pressing questions of this point in history: the etiquette of deleting people from your Facebook friends. This seems to be prompted by Burger King’s recent promotion wherein the fast food chain invited Facebook users to remove ten friends in exchange for a free Whopper. Contrary to normal Facebook procedure, but better for spreading the promotion, the ex-friends would be notified that they had been dropped for 10% of a burger.
Personally, I thought this was awesome, and was halfway tempted to do it even though I had no interest in actually eating at Burger King. However, apparently the Whopper Sacrifice has been axed by Facebook, who seem intent on keeping the act of unfriending as silent as possible.
So the correct approach, apparently, is to quietly drop people from our lists and hope they don’t notice. This works until it’s brought to their attention by, say, a mutual acquaintance using the “suggest a friend” option. This actually happened to me (as the unfriendee, not the unfriender), although rather than being offended by the realization I just laughed at the fact that someone had made the suggestion—this was a case where it was pretty clear why I had been unfriended.
On the other hand, in some situations a message about the reason for the removal may be justified, and even helpful. This is the case for one of the best reasons for deletion: irritating status messages. These come in many forms: the all-caps shout with twelve exclamation marks; the incredibly pedestrian messages that get updated every five minutes; the message that gets reposted every day but is essentially the same. If you unfriend someone because of their status messages, be sure to tell them why so they might stop annoying the rest of their friends. I was impressed by the person in the Times article who said this:

“I believe it was based on a passive-aggressive update of yours to which I sighed, kinda shook my head and pressed ‘delete from friends,’ ” she confessed by e-mail. “I find negativity a bit tiresome and don’t have the patience for it.”

This is excellent and we should all follow her example. In fact, there should be a “delete from friends” button next to every status message so that the option is readily available. This might even make people think twice before posting something lame. As they say, an armed society is a polite society.
Wait, no, this is the internet. Here, an armed society is the Hobbesian war of all against all. Maybe Facebook’s quiet deletion policy really is for the best…

Internet ads are annoying

Internet ads are always annoying, of course, but some ads are more annoying than others. I hardly notice the Google text ads to the right of my e-mail, but I’ve had to restrain myself from putting a fist through the monitor when those Circuit City flash ads spawn directly on top of the page I’m trying to read. Happily, they went bankrupt, and it serves them right.
One of the webcomics I read had an ad running for a while (for another webcomic) that was so visually irritating that I seriously considered buying up the ad space to displace it. Since the space in question was managed by the Project Wonderful service, the cost of doing this was displayed right below the ad, and seemed like a completely reasonable amount to pay to clean up the page.
This strategy would require rather more funding to take on the current plague of the Internet: the ads for the “one rule to a flat stomach” diet. While these started out as innocuous Google text ads themselves, remarkable only for their questionable grammatical choices, the initial campaign must have been successful: I think sometime last week they succeeded in buying up every ad space on the Internet. (Since then they’ve scaled back to only about half of all the ads I see.) Too bad they didn’t use some of their advertising money to hire an actual marketing firm; instead the ads remain amateurish and off-putting, mostly consisting of shoving large, grainy pictures of exposed stomachs into our faces.
The usual impact of these ads is for me to navigate away from the page as fast as possible. But a better strategy might be to actually click on the ad. After all, charging for click-throughs is a pretty common pricing scheme in internet advertising, and since I’m not actually going to buy whatever snake oil these people are selling, every click from me is a small loss for them. It’s even tempting to write a script to repeatedly hit their ads, but it seems like this could get me in trouble. My best hope is that nobody buys their product in the middle of a recession, and their advertising binge sends them the way of Circuit City, but unfortunately I suspect the insatiable demand for miracle diets will keep them in business for a while.
So I guess I have no choice but to endure it, and spend my time contemplating which of their ads is the most appalling. Is it the one with the badly-animated jiggling flab? Or the one which shows a normal, healthy woman in the “before” picture who then looks like a famine victim in the “after”? It’s a tough choice.

The Yahoo/Microsoft thing

So, Yahoo rejected Microsoft’s buyout offer, but it is apparently still likely that Microsoft will devour Yahoo in the end. This raises several interesting questions, such as: How much is Yahoo really worth? Will a combined Microsoft/Yahoo be an anticompetitive force on the internet, as Google alleges? Or can we expect this to spur a new round of increased competition with Google, leading to new and better services from both sides?
Regarding these questions, I have no idea and can say very little. I’m more concerned about the one Yahoo service I actually use, Flickr, being assimilated into the Microsoft collective. I’ve always liked Flickr’s clean and simple page layout, and would rather not see it turn into MSN Flickr with a look more like this. Hopefully Microsoft will do what Yahoo did when they bought it and leave Flickr with some independence.
Actually, I use a second Yahoo service: del.icio.us. It’s true that I almost never posted there since I opened the account, but last week I revived it, and I’m contemplating cross-posting those links to the main blog. (More on this later.) However, del.icio.us has always been ugly, but at least it’s ugly in an uncluttered way, which is basically the opposite of Microsoft Ugly.
Anyway, here’s hoping Microsoft takes a hands-off approach to Yahoo’s Web 2.0 acquisitions.

Proxy class warfare: Facebook vs. MySpace

This essay about the class division underlying the Facebook/MySpace divide has been linked all over. The basic claim is this:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other “good” kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we’d call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.
MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, “burnouts,” “alternative kids,” “art fags,” punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn’t go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

I’m on both networks but it’s not obvious to me whether this is true, since I’m outside of the relevant demographic—I just don’t know that many teenagers online or off. There is a clear divide between which of my friends are on which network, but it’s much more due to their different origins: for the most part, my friends who are still in academia are on Facebook, and the rest are on MySpace.
Since I joined Facebook roughly a year ago (I was already on MySpace) I’ve considered it to have a couple of clear advantages. One is that from a design standpoint it’s vastly superior: it’s much easier to navigate, and easier to keep track of developments in one’s social network. (I’m one who really likes the News Feed.) Meanwhile it takes loading two or three pages to do anything on MySpace, and that’s assuming the user doesn’t just encounter a random error in the process.
The second point in favor of Facebook is the fact that it doesn’t make my eyes bleed when I read it. The visual layout is clean and simple, in direct contrast to the garish hideousness of MySpace, even before users take the opportunity to crowd their profiles with so many animated GIFs that they induce seizures. I invite you to go to just the front page of MySpace, where an advertisement for the Bratz movie has apparently been loaded into a shotgun and fired at the background.
But, as the essay points out, this preference just reveals my bourgeoise values:

Most teens who exclusively use Facebook are familiar with and have an opinion about MySpace. These teens are very aware of MySpace and they often have a negative opinion about it. They see it as gaudy, immature, and “so middle school.” They prefer the “clean” look of Facebook, noting that it is more mature and that MySpace is “so lame.” What hegemonic teens call gaudy can also be labeled as “glitzy” or “bling” or “fly” (or what my generation would call “phat”) by subaltern teens. Terms like “bling” come out of hip-hop culture where showy, sparkly, brash visual displays are acceptable and valued. The look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens. This is even clear in the blogosphere where people talk about how gauche MySpace is while commending Facebook on its aesthetics. I’m sure that a visual analyst would be able to explain how classed aesthetics are, but aesthetics are more than simply the “eye of the beholder” – they are culturally narrated and replicated. That “clean” or “modern” look of Facebook is akin to West Elm or Pottery Barn or any poshy Scandinavian design house (that I admit I’m drawn to) while the more flashy look of MySpace resembles the Las Vegas imagery that attracts millions every year. I suspect that lifestyles have aesthetic values and that these are being reproduced on MySpace and Facebook.

The author has a point here. What I’m praising Facebook for above is essentially enforcing its users to follow a conformist, generic white-bread design template, resulting in exactly the blandness one would expect. Pottery Barn, indeed. No wonder the more artistic types prefer MySpace. Now if only its interface weren’t such a trainwreck…

Blogroll pruning

I recently cut down on the number of blogs I subscribe to in order since I wasn’t able to keep up with all of them. This required me to remove a number of very good blogs that I simply didn’t have time to read. In some cases I am relying on the fact that good posts from certain prolific bloggers will be linked by other blogs that I do read. Anyway, I’ve updated my blogroll to reflect what I’m actually reading now.
One addition to the blogroll is Zifnab’s new blog Labyrinth.
I also removed the media links on the sidebar since I haven’t been updating them.

Spring RSS Cleaning

My first act of spring cleaning was to declare RSS bankruptcy (mark everything in Google Reader as read and start fresh), and then remove the subscriptions to blogs I hadn’t checked on in the last month or so (roughly since the March Meeting). As a result my RSS throughput has been substantially reduced and I probably have room to add some new blogs. Anything I should be reading?
Second act of spring cleaning will be the e-mail inbox. Actual physical cleaning of things may have to wait until after my qualifying exam (two weeks from tomorrow…)

Gunnerkrigg Court

During a bout of bored web-surfing, I followed a guest-artist link from Dr. McNinja to Gunnerkrigg Court, where my boredom rapidly evaporated. By somewhere in Chapter 2 I had already decided to blog a recommendation for this webcomic. By the time I finished reading the archives, in one enthralled sitting, it was pretty much my favorite thing on the internet.
The genre is British boarding-school fantasy, but Neil Gaiman is a better point of comparison than J.K. Rowling. (In fact, Gaiman himself has also recommended Gunnerkrigg on his blog.) It’s a wonderful exploration of the interface between myths/magic and science/technology. Start at the beginning—it’s not a joke-a-day webcomic but an online graphic novel with an ongoing story.

The brilliant unintentional comedy of Conservapedia

I don’t normally go reading crackpot right-wing sites for my own amusement, but Conservapedia is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’d be certain it’s a parody if not for Andrew Schlafly’s presence as a major editor. As the name suggests, Conservapedia is supposed to be a “fair and balanced” (in the Fox News sense) alternative to Wikipedia, which apparently suffers from liberal bias. The editors of Conservapedia have helpfully (and hilariously) listed their grievances against Wikipedia, which include such major offenses as:

1. Wikipedia allows the use of B.C.E. instead of B.C. and C.E. instead of A.D. The dates are based on the birth of Jesus, so why pretend otherwise? Conservapedia is Christian-friendly and exposes the CE deception.

and

5. Wikipedia often uses foreign spelling of words, even though most English speaking users are American. Look up “Most Favored Nation” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts the spelling to the British spelling “Most Favoured Nation”, even there there are far more American than British users. Look up “Division of labor” on Wikipedia and it automatically converts to the British spelling “Division of labour,” then insists on the British spelling for “specialization” also.[3]. Enter “Hapsburg” (the European ruling family) and Wikipedia automatically changes the spelling to Habsburg, even though the American spelling has always been “Hapsburg”. Within entries British spellings appear in the silliest of places, even when the topic is American. Conservapedia favors American spellings of words.

Now, this project is still fairly new so one doesn’t expect to find extended entries on many topics. Nonetheless I was disappointed to find that many entries are… well, “half-assed” doesn’t quite describe it. It’s more like 1%-assed. A lot of entries consist of a single sentence lifted from an appropriately slanted textbook (sample title: Exploring Creation With Biology). (I want to mention that I hit the “random page” button once to find that example.) And a lot of the more likely fodder for entertainment (such as the entry for evolution) has already been edited by visiting liberals in an attempt to either correct or parody, either of which makes it less funny. Nevertheless, the best examples of teh crazy occur where you don’t expect: these guys object not just to evolution but to relativity, and there are some other gems as well. (I’m linking to people who have quoted them, since the original entries have probably changed by now.) I recommend just clicking random pages until you find something good.
Although the temptation to troll the site is immense, I have to agree with those who say we liberals should leave it alone and see what develops. The intra-wingnut edit wars alone should be worth it.