Friday, 6 February 2009

How I learned to stop worrying and love the sidebar...

A few days ago I decided to go back to trying Twitter after ditching it when they dropped SMS updates. Prior to this Twitter was useful to me as a kind of passive group messaging service among friends - a way to give presence information out into the ether and see what came back.

I did try and keep using it post-SMS but it never really had the same attraction, and I watched from the sidelines as it became more and more popular with net and non-net 'celebs'. My decision to give it another go has been hard thought, I've seen several blogs turn down hill as well-thought out posts give out to a stream of consciousness series of tweeted links and "on the train" type comments. 

So why go back? Well I have gradually begun to understand that that 'passive group messaging' function is still just as useful in a work environment. With Twitter, it's not necessarily about conversation (although it can be) and more about the quick and easy posting of thoughts and statuses. Ok, some are totally useless for some followers but they're aimed at others and they are - most importantly - easy to ignore.

One of the reasons I hear for people using Twitter (or Jaiku or Yammer or one of the other similar services) is that it forgoes the question 'what do you do?'. I tend to meet a fair number of people who work in ways which are non-traditional, who scowl when people say "You work in a Library? You must read lots of books!". For those of us who cross boundaries (and for the few who enter entirely new frontiers) job descriptions become quickly irrelevant.

Of HTML and Meta Headers...

Anyway, how does this relate to the sidebar? Well as well as pretty much writing off Twitter I'd also written off the role of the Sidebar in Firefox - what's the point? I thought, it's just chopping the side off your browser for bookmarks or history (two things which generally deserve to be hidden).

That was, until, I started using Twitter again. After a brief purging of my old tweets I set about looking for a good desktop app (I settled on Twhirl in the end) and started following a few notable people I've met along the way. Great stuff, I thought, as I watched the tweets (about #uksnow, mostly) roll in.

Then I went into work. Ah, well - with some things you can cope with having a service in another window but after a few hours of ALT+SHIFT+TABing to check on Twitter I was getting fed up. After a bit of surfind around I eventually found this post which described how to get twitter in your sidebar.

So, now I have an effective use for that stupid slice on the left of my browser and Twitter's low maintenance mobile solution can sit there and only catch my eye when it changes. One thing I noticed was that the mobile interface doesn't refresh - good on a costly mobile connection, but not for me. The solution was a short html file stored on my local machine and bookmarked in the browser:

<meta http-equiv="refresh" content="120" />
<frameset cols="0,*">
<frame src="#">
<frame src="" name="showframe">

A brief bit of dodgy HTML and I now had a pretty effective Twitter interface with zero installation requirement. It's amazing what you can find on the web...

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