Saturday, 8 January 2011

My life online

I have been using electronic communication for many years, dating back to my first encounter with email back in 1985. Around the same time I was able to access the French Minitel system. Getting online to send emails and accessing Minitel in those days was a cumbersome process that involved using a dial-up modem linked to a BBC Microcomputer, but it worked. I was able to communicate by email with a group of colleagues with whom I was working on a project and to display authentic Minitel pages to our students of French. The big breakthrough came after my college joined the JANET network, and in 1993 I was able to send my proposal for a conference keynote presentation to the University of Victoria, Canada, by email. My proposal was accepted by email and all the subsequent correspondence with the University of Victoria took place by email. Not a single piece of paper was posted in either direction.

I began using the Web in 1994. It required the use of a dial-up modem and it was S-L-O-W. Pages took an eternity to download, and I often switched off the display of images to speed things up. But it was fascinating - all that information at one’s fingertips, although it was only a tiny fraction of what is available now, and sound and video did not exist in the early days of the Web.

How things have changed. I am now retired and I spend a lot of time online - but mainly for leisure and pleasure. I am so glad that I am no longer under pressure to keep up to date like many of my younger colleagues. My computer is my window on the world. This is how I spend my day:

I begin my day by checking my email. Thank to my efficient ISP I get very little spam. Most spam is blocked before it reaches my computer, so I never see it, and the odd spam email that sneaks through is trapped by my MailWasher Pro filter. If an email requires a reply that I can deal with in less than a minute I answer it immediately. Emails relating to my business partnership and consultancy work take priority, and anything that requires a longer reply or research goes into my pending box until I find time to deal with it.

My next task is to look at the 30+ discussion lists, blogs, wikis, Nings and fora that I follow. Thanks to RSS and Google Reader this does not take long. I skim quickly through the subject lines and read only those contributions that look interesting - which is usually a small fraction of the total. I reply to one or two if I have anything useful to say.

I then take a quick look at my Twitter account. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. On the one hand I love the way in which Twitter’s 140-character limit forces people to be succinct, but I hate the flood of messages piling up one after another, often with no easily discernible threads. If people keep bombarding Twitter with stuff that is of no interest to me then I just unfollow them - and I protect my tweets in order to cut down spam. I do, however, find Twitter useful. I pick up many new interesting Web links and announcements via Twitter, especially via the #mfltwitterati and #flteach hashtags.

I then take a quick look at my Facebook account. I use Facebook mainly to keep in touch with my family and friends worldwide, but many of my Facebook followers don’t seem to realise this. They follow me expecting pearls of academic wisdom, but mostly I post personal messages, links to amusing YouTube videos and photos that are of interest only to my family and friends. I find that my Facebook friends are more likely to engage in communication than my Twitter friends. This is probably because most of my Facebook friends are people whom I know personally, but I think it also has something to do with the interface of Facebook, which makes two-way communication easier. In addition I belong to several closed groups (e.g. EUROCALL) on Facebook, where the information exchanged is viewed only by members of each group, i.e. it's quite separate from the information that is broadcast to my family and friends. I use the groups mainly for educational purposes and for keeping myself informed about specific topics in which I have a personal interest.

I also have accounts on Flickr, YouTube and LinkedIn. I have posted a few videos that I have made to my YouTube account and a small collection of photos to my Flickr account, but I only do this occasionally. I use LinkedIn to build up a list of professional contacts. I thought it might be useful in picking up offers of consultancy work, but so far I have not had a single offer.

By this time it’s mid-morning and time for coffee. I take a break for half an hour walking around most of the time. I do this at regular intervals during the day. I used to suffer from back problems, which my doctor diagnosed as the result of sitting at the computer for long intervals without a break. In 2006, following major surgery, I was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT often follows surgery and it is also associated with sitting in the cramped conditions of long-haul flights. But DVT can also be triggered just by sitting for too long. Yes, sitting for too long at a computer is not good for your health. See this story: Computer game teenager gets DVT.

After my coffee break I update the two websites and the Ning that I maintain: Camsoft (my business and personal site), the ICT4LT website and the joint EUROCALL/CALICO Virtual Worlds SIG Ning. Mainly this involves adding new links and information that I have picked up via email, Twitter or Facebook. Once a week I use Xenu Link Sleuth to check my websites for broken links.

Time for lunch and an afternoon walk with our greyhound, Brett. I walk at least a mile every day. We are fortunate to live very close to beautiful National Trust woodland and common land, so this is an enjoyable part of the day. When I get home I usually have a nap for half and hour, and three times a week I go for an afternoon swim in our local Holiday Inn pool.

At around 5pm-6pm I pop into Second Life. This is a good time as my American colleague, Randall Sadler, is usually up and about and I often engage in text chat or voice chat with him - and other colleagues - at the CALICO/EUROCALL HQ. I can also access Second Life via my iPhone, using the Pocket Metaverse app, but only for locating friends and engaging in text chat with them; it’s not (yet) in 3D.

Around 7pm I usually shut down my computer. The evening is for relaxation: a couple of drinks, listening to music and a long and leisurely dinner, followed by viewing TV. Most of the music we listen to now is relayed from iTunes on a laptop in our lounge to my ancient (1994) but powerful Kenwood hifi system, using a small transmitter device - a wonderful blend of old and new technologies. The Sky+ Box that we bought a couple of years ago has totally changed the way in which we watch TV. Most of the broadcasts that we watch, apart from the news, have been recorded on the Sky+ Box’s hard disk, which can store 40 hours of recordings. It’s a very efficient and easy-to-use system, and I can even program the box remotely from my computer or iPhone.

I usually sit with my iPhone by my side while watching TV. I find a couple of iPhone apps particularly useful: namely Google and the International Movie Database (IMDb), and I occasionally use the Twitter or Facebook apps on my iPhone. My memory is not so good as it used to be. For example, while watching Elizabeth: The Golden Age neither my wife Sally nor I could not remember in which way Elizabeth was related to Mary Queen of Scots. Google gave us the answer - they were cousins. We often forget the names of actors too, but the IMDb can quickly provide us with this information. All I have to do is search for the name of the film and call up a complete cast list, a summary of the plot and selected reviews.

Well, that’s about it. How do you spend your life online?