Too Good To Be True

Well, easy come, easy go. Such is the way of web life and reliance on cool, free web tools. I just wrote the other day (link here) about the great third party bookmarking service called Xmarks, successor to Foxmarks, that syncs your bookmarks across browsers, plus offers lots of other goodies and features. Today, I saw this blog post from Xmarks (link here) in the news. I’ll just cut to the chase with the following quote:

By Spring 2010, with money running tight and options fading, we started searching for potential buyers of the company. Over the past three months, we have been remarkably close to striking a deal, only to have the potential buyer get cold feet. We also considered refocusing Xmarks as a freemium sync business, but the prospects there are grim too: with the emergence of competent sync features built in to Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome, it’s hard to see users paying for a service that they can now get for free. For four years we have offered the synchronization service for no charge, predicated on the hypothesis that a business model would emerge to support the free service. With that investment thesis thwarted, there is no way to pay expenses, primarily salary and hosting costs. Without the resources to keep the service going, we must shut it down. Our plan is to keep the service running for another 90+ days, after which the plug will be pulled.

Oh well. The loss of a bookmarking service and resulting collection is hard to swallow, as Magnolia users will attest. Sorry to see you go, Xmarks – it was good while it lasted. Hurry up and back up your Xmarks!

Instant Legal Assistance? Just Fill In the Blanks

While the practice of law will always be a professional pursuit, the purchasing of legal services is becoming more of a consumer product, whether or not we lawyers welcome this shift. Take, for example, Legal River (link here), a website devoted to providing lay people with just enough legal assistance to get them going.  It is a web locale designed to faciliate “connection” between lawyers and business people. The free service has been around since 2009. What are they all about? Take a look at their own explanation, from their site:

Legal River brings legal information to the consumer. We at Legal River understand how confusing it can be to run a legitimate business and still not fully understand the law. Legal River was created to solve this problem.

Whether you are a small business owner, an attorney or an individual, there is a place for you on Legal River. As a small business owner or individual, you can find legal information that will save you countless hours later trying to figure out how to fix an issue. Also, you can ask any law question you might have. As an attorney, you can use Legal River to learn about laws in different geographical regions or areas of law. You can also submit guides and answer questions; these will help you win points, unlock badges and reach new clients.

Interesting, huh? On the surface, Legal River looks to be part information repository, part social network and part video game, complete with badges. Underneath, Legal River is a form of referral network, matching attorneys with business owners, although this is expressly disclaimed on their site. Their “referral” page promises to “let the right lawyer find you” as well as a response from five attorneys on legal questions within 24 hours. There are more than 300 law firms connected with the site and it appears their distinction (compared to Findlaw or lawyers.com) is their rapid turn-around on RFPs.  

But, if you aren’t so interested in getting hooked up with fee-based representation, there is a lot of information just laying around the site. The search box on the home page invites users to “find questions, answers, topics, or guides on legal matters.” “Insurance” gave me very general information on workers compensation, licensing agreements, sole proprietorships and C corporations. I was also offered an opportunity to “vote up” an article or comment on it. Or, I could peruse previously-answered questions on various topics, filtering them by recency, month or all-time popularity.

There are tabs for questions, guides, tags, badges (more on that in a minute), open questions, a guide submission form, and a place to ask questions. The badges are interesting, to say the least, ranging from good to super questions or guides submitted to various levels of generalist, researcher, professor, paralegal, law student, law clerk, senior associate, partner, name partner, and LSAT through Bar Exam.

Very, very interesting.

At the top of the page, I noticed two links: terms of service generator; and, privacy policy generator. Apparently, Legal River rolled out this feature within the past year. If you doubt Legal River’s handiwork with respect to terms of service, just take a look at their own very lengthy TOS on the site. To get your “document”, Legal River invites you to simply fill in the blanks – the appropriate document is returned online quickly. The user also ges an HTML code version and an emailed copy.  As can be seen on the header for the page, the tools are a combined effort of Legal River and General Counsel, P.C.

For what it is worth, Legal River is not alone in this endeavor. Other firms have offered similar “fill in the blank” document generation, likely in an effort to win customers with freebies. Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, P.C. host a similar Term Sheet Generator. Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP launched their version about a year ago. Private investors are interested too – Legal River secured two infusions of seed funding within the first year.

What does it all mean? While it is hard for old school attorneys like me to stomach the implications of “one size fits all” when it comes to legal document crafting or any aspect of lawyering, the new school part of me recognizes that this is where all services are going – law is moving towards commoditization. Lawyers must develop sensitivity to cost concerns in response to the concerns of web-savvy consumers. While some of Legal River’s trappings make me smirk a bit (read, badges and points for intellectual output), the gist of what they are trying to do makes more and more sense as our economy moves on-line. If we are comfortable living and sharing in social networks and virtual worlds, why wouldn’t we feel comfortable shopping for legal information in similar venues?

I will be watching to see where this move leads us. Perhaps down the Legal River, hopefully with paddle firmly in hand.

Podio's Virtual Office Solution

Office applications suites are not new. So, what sets the competition apart? How about social connection and extensbility through your own, custom-built apps?

Podio (link here) is a new social office platform, invite only at this point, that offers customization of your virtual office suite with application add-ons. Through these applications, Podio allows you to modify your virtual office to better fit your particular needs. You can then invite people to join your workspace to get your particular job done.

The basic set-up includes “Activity”, “People”, “Calendar” and “Tasks.” It looks much like a “Facebook for the workplace”, but it doesn’t stop there. On top of the basic, you can create your own, function-specific applications yourself, or you can search the directory of applications offered by other app-creators. Open API is coming for further third party app innovation. Add-on applications currently include a wide variety of tools, from recruiting, bug reports, sales leads, meetings, ideas, team blogs, workshops, milestones, moodboards, PR trackers, projects, photos, brainstorms, investors, and scripts to inspirations, votes, mentors, menus, sprints, suppliers, and tons more.  

The overview of workflow on your various projects appears in a familiar stream format. Of course, you can like, comment and share within the stream, a la Facebook. Very social. Tasks can be integrated into other apps to assist workflow, or can be connected to individual objects, like meetings. Contacts are created from the groups of individuals with whom you are working. The Calendar is smart – it pulls tasks, deadlines and other important data from your schedule to keep you notified of what’s next. Spaces are virtual “work rooms” – you can incorporate your coworkers, your internal team, your customers and your outsourced developers or vendors.

With an open API coming, any third party can come in and develop apps to extensify the basic set-up.

Podio seems a very smart implementation of the tools required by a virtual office, with more than a little nod to the social networking format to which we have become accustomed. Looking forward to seeing where this innovative service goes.

Curatr: Making Curated Education Fun

Hot on the heels of Bill Gate’s pronouncement that, in five years, the best education will come from the web (link here), I stumbled onto this e-learning tool called Curatr (link here). Seems not only will the web afford the best education, it will afford the most fun, engaging and social education, if Curatr has any say in the matter.

Curatr is a social learning platform that is designed with three goals in mind: connection; engagement; and, curation. Combining a visually-pleasing interface, gaming theory and social elements with a “museum” metaphor, Curatr hopes to push educational endeavors by tapping into peoples’ basic pleasure triggers. Instead of a bland list or web page look, Curatr uses “nodes” to encourage click-through behavior. The nodes, which represent learning objects, remind me of the look of social sharing site Pearltrees:

Nodes are rated and positioned in the hierarchy based on reliability. Rating and positioning is based on popularity, relevancy, and fit with other learning objects within the museum.

A Curatr product can be themed to a learning institution’s look. Users and objects are added to make the learning relevant to the institution. Classes are known as “museums” in Curatr, where the scope can be as broad or narrow as the institution decides. The Museum’s leader is called the Curatr, and he or she offers the most information in his or her gallery. Each user within a museum also has a “gallery” in which the user can curate his or her content, or learning objects  – either new or repurposed from other users.

Users can also create collections, exhibitions and the more linear guides, all promoting the subject matter of the museum. Users are also encouraged to interact and share through implementation of gaming theory within the Curatr product, with experience points and badges, because as developer Ben Betts says, people love awards.

Switch from learning object view to peer view to see the users or learners within a particular Museum. You can see the biggest contributors and locate friends, as well as identify who the knowledge experts are.

Curatr content is kept fresh with real-time updates. There are alerts for changes and actions taken in connection with a particular user’s information. Real-time means that there will always be something to see, so users are encouraged to regularly interact with the content. The Curatr site is accessible from Android and Apple-powered mobile devices, including the soon-to-be-top-dawg in the edu-world, iPad. This, of course, is a big plus – learning is no longer limited by time and location constraints, but can happen anywhere, at any time. Interestingly, Curatr is Flash-based, so you need Android 2.2 or higher. Obviously, Curatr has come up with an iOS-friendly version to get around the Flash issue.

Why am I spending so much time investigating a new learning platform like this on a legal blog? Because I am visualizing how a law school or continuing Legal Ed classroom could shine with such a product. We are well past the days of passive lectures – just imagine how much richer and engaging the content presented by such a novel learning approach. I know there is some wishful thinking on my part going on here, but I would be far more interested in the “living” subject matter of a 1L course presented within the context of Curatr, than presented within the context of a two hour, post-lunch, one-sided lecture.

Here is a vid quick overview of the platform in action:

Want more? Check out Mr. Betts’ explanation of what makes Curatr special in the vid below. And maybe you will see Curatr in action soon at an institution of learning near you.

Supersonic Social Search

Really. What’s the point of being social on the Web if you can’t figure out what the social is? Fortunately, there are third party developers more than willing to improve on the rather lame search functions built into most social venues. That is a good thing.

MakeUseOf (link) highlights some of those search engines. I have used a couple, but there are some new ones in the list that I am looking forward to trying out. You can search mutiple sites all at once with Socialmention (link). Check out their ratings for strenth, sentiment, passion and reach of a given search term.  Find other peoples’ social life with yoName (link). It serves up an impressive list of profiles in tabs for many of the most popular sites. Like graphs and checkboxes? Check out snitch.name (link) – a social white pages of sorts which returns a lot of results broken down by social categories. For Google-powered social search, check out Followen (link) and Google Social Search (link). Samepoint (link) looks at social interaction from the vantage point of conversations – it will show the social conversations based on your search term topic.

There are more than a few that didn’t make MakeUseOf’s list. Some have been mentioned before in the Studio, such as 123People (link), Scoopler (link), and OneRiot (link).

No matter which engine you choose, these options can provide you with great topical, personal profile and real-time information to assist your own social web efforts. Monitor your own brand, your near and dear topics, and the brands of competitors and clients more effectively with these search tools!

New Mr. Tweet – From Recommender to Social Director

Since the early days of the public microblogging service Twitter, it has been a challenge for users to figure out who to follow and whose tweets to read. The challenge is getting, well, even more challenging as the number of Twitter users grow. If only someone could just tell you “hey, go follow @so-and-so, they are talking about EXACTLY what you want to be hearing.”

I started using the third-party Twitter directory Mr. Tweet very early on in my Twitter usage, and I am coming up on three years of tweeting. I previously blogged about Mr. Tweet here in the Studio way back in the beginning (link here). I periodically go back and use Mr. Tweet when I feel the need to follow some fresh ideas and, for the most part, I appreciate the personalized suggestions the service yields.

Apparently, Mr. Tweet has not rested on its laurels of more than 400,000 users of the service. The Mr. Tweet blog (link here) just announced that there are major changes to the service on the way. An example of the new Mr. Tweet is live (link here). Mr. Tweet claims to have been listening to users who don’t really want to follow celebs on Twitter and would prefer to connect with members of their “communities of interest” in a more meaningful way. Gee, what a good idea!

From the screenshots, it appears the “new” Mr. Tweet will be more than a simple recommended user-type service. The new interface looks much more like interest-based social communities growing out of Twitter. You can post discussions, get answers from other members of the community, and see top users.

 

You can filter by current discussions, not yet answered, and all activities.

You will still be able to secure old-school Mr. Tweet service at http://classic.mrtweet.com.  But kudos to Mr. Tweet for its innovation – the new service looks to be a promising means for distilling down your Twitter-actions into the topical areas of greatest interest. By doing so, Mr. Tweet will allow you to see the top users in action, including how interactive they are with members of their chosen community. Looking forward to checking out this new, more social version of the service.

The Devil Is In The Details

Why should lawyers take precious time to learn computer-driven or web-based tools, to make on-line connections, to participate in on-line communication? Professionals averse to the experience cite their impressions that engaging with the hardware feels like a child’s interaction with a new toy, while engaging with on-line communities feels like time wasted at the water cooler.

I am not suggesting a direct and measurable connection between putting effort into your on-line presence and putting money in your wallet. Traditional networking and advertising can’t promise such direct results either. I do suggest that there is real value in spending time building your web presence, reaching out to your connections via social sites, and making new connections. At worst, you might learn something new. At best, you might actually profit in a measurable way; profit being a term far broader than financial compensation in my usage.

Take, for example, my recent project – updating my Twitter background. Twitter is a regular haunt of mine and there are lots of great ways to spiff up that web outpost. I previously used a tool called Free Twitter Designer (link here). This is a great app for someone who wants to upgrade from the stock Twitter background and include some customized, personal information on their page.

But, as someone who occasionally dabbles in computer illustration and graphic design, I felt somewhat limited by this tool and decided to create my own background in my vector program. I played around with it on Sunday and loaded it up on Monday. Along with a new Twitter profile picture that matches my new Facebook profile photo.

I always ask for feedback from my online friends and was not disappointed. One such friend, @Legaltypist, complimented me on my new Twitter photo. I pointed out that I had also updated my background. She replied that my new background was not showing properly on her screen resolution and that she was having a hard time reading the font I had chosen. I was grateful for the feedback, and made changes in the background later that day.

While I was doing so, I was monitoring my Twitter stream for good information. Sure enough, another Twitter friend, @uMCLE, posted a link to a blog post on how to customize your Twitter background. The post, entitled 4 Major Tips to Personalize Your Twitter Background (link here), was written by @wchingya and was quite informative. The great information I found in the article included a link to a website called Twitter Background Checker (link here). This web app allows designers to try out draft backgrounds across the most popular screen resolutions! How timely!

While I ultimately was unable to make the background work flawlessly with the smallest screen width (sorry @Legaltypist), I ultimately was able to make design changes that optimized the background for most resolutions.

Along the way, I learned about an excellent blogger on topics of interest to me. So I followed @wchingya on Twitter.

This morning, I found both a Twitter follow notice and a Facebook friend request from @wchingya. I immediately accepted the friend request and we communicated. She complimented me on my Twitter background, while I complimented her on her excellent article. She told me that she got my Facebook profile from my new background (obviously an effective vehicle for communicating contact information) and we both agreed that we were looking forward to our connection and learning more about each other.

Is this money in my pocket? Well, no, not exactly. But if you value feedback, topical information, and new connections, the simple act of updating my Twitter background was a rich experience indeed. Sometimes, the win results from paying attention to the details

Speak Like A Native With The Web As Your Guide

Almost too beautiful to be true. Forvo (link here) is a web tool offering hundreds of thousands of words and their pronunciations from more than 200 languages. How cool is that? A word may have several different suggested recorded pronunciations and, in true wiki style, you can add your own suggested pronunciation. Community voting pushes the best options to the top. You also can ask for assistance from another Forvo member who natively speaks your desired language. There are almost 60,000 users and 200 editors. There are tabs for categories, pronunciations, languages and users, as well as a tag cloud to help you find what you are looking for. Social, (semi)scholarly and crowdsourced! Check out the languages included in the recent pronunciations box:

You just never know what you’ll find. Hat tip to ResearchBuzz.

Wanna Chat? Check out Pip.io

There are so many places to hang out on the Web. There are the big two: Facebook  and Twitter . There are other larger planets in the solar system, like LinkedIn  and MySpace , as well as countless other satellites that revolve around these two, such as Google Buzz ,  Plaxo , Friendfeed , Plurk , etcetera.

So, you probably aren’t thinking right now: “Gee, where can I spend even more of my on-line time publishing, communication and connecting?”  But maybe you should.

Check out Pip.io (link here). It is a relatively recent social tool that just came out of beta last month. More than a social network, Pip.io  calls itself a “social operating system.” I call it Google Wave  for the masses. Pip.io’s format is very chat-like – you create your profile and then set your “availability” for your connections to see. When you communicate via Pip.io, you can set your parameters narrowly (e.g. a private chat with a single individual) or broadly (a public broadcast to all friends of Facebook and Twitter and YouTube). You can also “target” someone’s stream with a post: not quite private but focused communication intended for a specific user or group. Pip.io gives you tools to be both efficient and private in your web communications at the same time. Sort of like your own dashboard for your social web communication.

Just this weekend, a Twitter friend was telling me that he communicates differently on different platforms, that he holds back more on Facebook because the audience dictates more discretion. With Pip.io, you can set who sees what across platforms by creating groups for certain types of communications, thereby eliminating concern with your degree of sharing.

But that is not all. You can form rooms and invite others to join you to discuss or share on topics. There is also a video chat feature. Pip.io has its own version of a retweet – you can reshare within Pip.io or send the content forth to your own social outposts. “Friending” on Pip.io is like Twitter and Friendfeed, where you can follow anyone without their express agreement or any obligation to follow you back.

I still struggle with Twitter as a communication platform. I agree as well with my Twitter friend that my Facebook population does not promote the same “free” communication I might employ elsewhere. If your desire is to streamline your communication on-line, to implement better channeling and discussion, and break down boundaries to that discussion, Pip.io may well be the best option. At the least, it affords a simple “one stop” locale for managing chat, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activity. At the most, it appears to provide a true communication forum for social interaction.

Check it out. I would love to hear what you think.

Looking To The Crowd For App Advice

LauraKGibbs on Flickr

LauraKGibbs on Flickr

If you are reading this blog, chances are you are somewhat familiar with the social aspects of the web. We look on-line for all sorts of reasons – community building, promotion, news, research – the list goes on and on. I think my listed reasons are pretty compelling in varying degrees for most people.

How do you feel about the possibility of combining these purposes when searching out applications to assist you in negotiating the Web? I am not talking about the “hunt and peck” method required for sussing out information on Twitter or the other more general purpose social sites and aggregators or running searches in your favorite engines. I am talking about “one stop shopping” sites that combine social community with reviews and recommendations on specific tools.

The Web is moving towards specialization and some sites are taking full advantage of that trend. There are two I will highlight here, and one I will briefly mention as it is unfortunately down for revamping at the moment.

First, consider oneforty, a recent invite-only site dedicated to providing a forum for twitter applications. There are hundreds of applications that touch on or fully incorporate Twitter. Oneforty seeks to organize, highlight, provide ratings for and promote these applications through the input of the community of members on the site. Calling it a directory is too simplistic, as it offers community feedback and even “App Store”-like tendencies. Users can search for, rate and purchase applications (if they have  cost associated with them – many are free). Your Twitter persona is your oneforty persona. Ultimately, oneforty may well become a forum between developers and users, which should enhance user’s ability to find the right apps and affect their future development. While it is in private beta, you can request an invitation at the site here. Follow oneforty on Twitter here.

Next, check out Appolicious, a similar venue for iPhone applications. Ever try finding apps through the App Store interface? By joining the site and loading up your applications, Appolicious will make recommendations for you. Appolicious will also make general recommendations based on its own app preferences. You also can load your friends into Appolicious and receive recommendations from them. You can also turn to the Appolicious community user base for their recommendations. Searching a specific application will bring you to reviews. You can view the day’s top stories about apps, and a real time stream of users comments about apps. While it may sound a bit overwhelming, it would be difficult not to get all the info on a particular app on Appolicious from trusted sources. Follow Appolicious on Twitter here.

Another site, Unwrapp, combined similar elements but encompassed all sorts of applications and tools. Unfortunately, a trip to their site showed that it is being worked on – hopefully it will return soon.

Like oneforty, Appolicious combines social activity with information gathering on the specific topic of iPhone (or Twitter) applications. Who better to turn to than a community of experts or friends? I am impressed with this trend of community-based information sharing, and can only see this model growing in popularity on the social Web.