The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: mobile

An open letter to the Internet in defence of, well, letters

Dear Internet,
I’ve noticed you never get letters anymore, it’s a shame. The only thing that comes through the letter box now is generally a bill. The electronic version of the letter, the email, is also in grim condition. It is either a spam infested wasteland or a firmly stodgy business tool. The current champion of email – Research In Motion has made millions from business email but has struggled to make a similar dent into the consumer market.

Young people, it appears, have decided that email is a big business shill and do not use it for social purposes preferring to use instant messenging and social networking sites. I find that sad as a young person who actively likes email. I think email is the letter of the internet – you write it all in advance, address it and send it off, to get a whole message back.

Letter writing is nice, email is a little less formal – there’s no chance to open an envelope and it can be lost among adverts for various enhancements. Since the email is so much like the much appreciated letter, except less expensive and quicker, it is sad to see that it has been relegated to the position of “work tool” by the young people of today.

Although email is undeniably a fantastic tool for work, as is the traditional letter, and many technologies rejoice to be adopted as one because it will be written into compliance specifications and generally hand around for future decades it does mean that Joe Teenager will not be so keen to go for it. That means that when Joe Teenager becomes Joe Office Worker email genuinely will only be a work tool to him.

RIM has made excellent money from showing how useful not much more than always having access to your email can be but remains very much a corporate business – it only recently put cameras on its phones because of corporate policies against cameras. The Blackberry, however, is a household name – they are quality devices and Barack Obama loves them which are just two substantial points in their favour.

The mobile phone, in my eyes, is not the easel for the next great letter, which should rather be penned in an attic flat, next to a window while it’s raining to really set the scene but with all teenagers (seemingly anyway) possessing phones with email capability this could be the scene of the resurgence of the letter. Next time Joe Teenager (or Joe Twenty Something, or Joe Thirty Something or…) is on a bus for a few minutes with nothing to do he should sit down and start to write a letter, using his phone and sending it off by email. He should occasionally resist the temptation to send a quick text now and again because you can say much more in a letter.

Yours,
A blogger

Twitter as a legal blogging tool

Twitter is a microblogging system which is currently getting heavy media coverage. Microblogging is exactly what it sounds like – it’s small blog posts. Whereas you might need to sit down and fire up the word processor to write a blog post you should think nothing of firing off a quick status update if you’ve got a spare half minute. The integration with various other bits of modern computing is particularly impressive – I have a Twitter client built into my notification panel on my desktop and mobile Tweeting is highly polished. Twitter provides an API for anyone to hook their system with whatever front end program that they care to make and that’s very good and means we might see some very interesting applications which include it.

Twitter is great for status updates, and this is also something that it’s been criticised for – with the typical argument being why would people be interested in knowing what you’re doing all the time? It’s built around the SMS text message standard and that means that there’s a size limit on the messages – 140 characters. 140 characters is this much:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut at diam. Sed odio odio, aliquet ac, luctus ac, suscipit sit amet, sem. Nulla jus

How much content can you fit into that? Quite a lot actually but it’s quite hard at times and it’s very hard for legal discussion.

The 140 character limit

This is the biggest problem of Twitter while at the same time it leads to its biggest strength. It’s hard to say very much of anything in 140 characters and needs a marked change in style – phone users have adopted an entirely novel code of abbreviations to eke out as much room as possible in the same space but that’s not suitable, I think, for serious debate.  On the other hand we’re taught that conciseness is a virtue it’s a nice change to start thinking about your thoughts in smaller pieces but sometimes you just need that extra space to set out your thoughts, and particularly arguments. It’s hard to fit a balanced, reasoned argument into the space you’ve been given and, as an adult living in a complicated world, I’ve found very few issues come down to a straight uncontested yes and no. Lawyers might be paid to only fight one side but that naturally involves being able to see at least the two arguments in question (and then shoot the other one down, but the adversarial system’s another issue). Some knotty issues are extremely hard to express in a couple of sentences and that doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to discuss these hard topics, just that Twitter isn’t the best medium for them.

What Twitter is fantastic for is simple fact reporting: [So and so] spotted in [such and such a place] doing [something], for example, or Govt to pass new law doing [something]. It’s short, it’s sharp and it doesn’t require any superfluous characters for opposing points of view. Opinion Tweets tend to need sharply edited just to fit into the space allowed. Twitter has been used to great effect to provide election observers with a forum to quickly get their updates out to a large group of people.

The problem of reporting quick, up to the minute facts has often been plagued by the lack of communications links – in fact, for a very long time the quickest way to get news communicated was to write a note and give it to a man with a horse, only recently replaced by running to the nearest phone. Twitter skips over any concept of having to go back to the office because it can be used anywhere. The biggest strength of Twitter is simply (and like many things that are simple to use that’s very complicated to actually make work) that it can be used from everywhere that gets mobile phone reception.

Mobile use

You can tweet from any mobile phone by using SMS or you can access the web site on newer phones. This means that you can use Twitter even where other modes aren’t possible – for example Stephen Fry, a hugely popular Twitter user was stuck in a lift for a few minutes and took the chance to keep up a running commentary of what was happening which he posted on Twitter. That sort of speed isn’t just useful in cases of comedians stuck in lifts, it’s good for matters of life and death. There was a case of a man lost on the mountain who was tracked down through his mobile which was itself tracked down by Twitter. Sadly that proved too late for the lost soul but it’s a far cry from only being able to email from a desktop computer stuck in an office which used to be how people accessed the online world.

Social networking

I’m not the biggest fan of social networking in its current form – I think the people who post every detail of their lives online for anyone to read are unwise and those posting every detail of their lives online for them to be sold to advertisers are being taken advantage of but I quite like the Twitter follower system. It’s less a friend list and more a whitelist for content – you only receive tweets that are written by people you actually want to see. There are options to communicate with users (eg using Direct Messages, @replies and so on) which are extremely useful for users who want to debate. I think the debate capabilities of 140 characters are again difficult to get used to but are very good for instant reply. It’s effectively a public chatroom where two people can talk and be watched by others. That harks back to the philosophers of ancient Athens. There’s no need to go away and write a thesis, you can simply send a quick tweet back from wherever you are. Does that improve the quality of debate? I’m not so sure. Firing off quick answers is no way to debate the laws of physics, for example, but it’s good for softer topics where strict fact checking isn’t as crucial.

The hashtag is a particularly interesting concept though which allows people to tag, just like I’ve tagged this blog post, tweets by topic.  For example, #pmq is intended to be used by people discussing Prime Minister’s Questions and particularly while it’s going on.  Rather than having to have added everyone who talks about Prime Minister’s Questions prior to them making their statement so I get it I can simply filter all tweets with this #pmq tag and read them.  This makes sense to me because it lets you focus on topic rather than users and I simply don’t know all users on Twitter and what they’ll post on but I do know about topics I want to discuss.

Conclusions

I’m not convinced by Twitter. I like it and I use it and I’m using it increasingly as a communications tool rather than a way of simply announcing new posts on the blog (although I still do that) but I think that there’s still advantages in being able to set out what you think in as many words as you need. Judges should never think about reporting back decisions over Twitter, for example. Twitter is good but still for a very particular purpose. It’s very good for pushing out facts to an increasingly mobile audience but it has natural constraints that make it difficult to debate that awareness you’ve raised.   It is a very good awareness raising tool for the lawyer but it is not itself a forum for academic debate.  As part of a lawyer’s online presence I think a healthy, interesting and popular Twitter feed can only be a good thing but it should not be overestimated and may only be of marginal help in attracting professional trade (the Twitter userbase is statistically still small) but not useless and provides a good platform for attracting traffic to a website – my figures have increased somewhat since using Twitter to announce blog posts.

Tagging is a concept that I find particularly interesting as a way of sparking topic centric debate, helping other users find debates they’re interested in and collecting news they’re interested in.  i think this, combined with mobile access, is the killer application of Twitter.

An example of a good legal Twitter feed is, as in most things online and legal, Joel Fights Back.  The students representing Joel provide regular Tweets which keep the campaign’s profile up and often provide hooks to interactive material on the project website.

Typewriters II

My search for a reasonably priced typewriter continues apace . It’s absolutely incredible seeing the online market for typewriters – anyone who has ever tried to sell a computer they bought brand new for thousands of pounds a few years later will have discovered that computers are not an investment piece. As it happens there is still a huge amount of interest in the humble typewriter (I’m a case in point) and the prices these machines, generally considered to have been made obsolete by the personal computer, can still command is genuinely surprising in the days of the EEE PC netbook. The days of a typewriter costing a week’s wages are admittedly nearly entirely behind us but they can still command a not insubstantial price.

While I’m only looking at the low end of the manual market I’m still trying to buy something that will stand up to me punching away on it for a fair few years to come and some of the models that appear to be quality typing machines that I’m looking at on Ebay have taken a surprising leap past the £50 mark. An astonishing figure considering that a lot of the sellers suggest the typewriter would merely make a “good talking point or ornament” as opposed to a production machine used for typing. I’m particularly interested in machines which come with a reasonable stack of consumables because the global trade in typewriter ribbons is not as rosy as it used to be and I’m not certain of my ability to track down a replacement with nothing more than the spindles on the typewriter as a clue, not to mention the fact that being able to lug the typewriter onto my desk and begin using it immediately is worth a lot to me.

Additionally the courier fees on these huge pieces of cast iron and steel are also high, with the large desktop machines (that I’m admittedly very interested in owning), especially those designed for larger paper sizes, tipping the scales at nearly 20kg and being primarily solid metal. Savings can be made by buying one of the smaller portable models, which still aren’t hugely portable compared to a 638 gram Sony P but remain a portable possibility when moving around the house or on extended trips, which I hear are less able to keep up with fast typists and are somewhat less solid than their big office bound cousins but are perfectly usable.

Since I’m actively moving to a typewriter to slow myself down and force me to take more time with my work this is not necessarily a bad thing but I think I’d still appreciate the bulk of a desktop typewriter as a visual statement. This is simply to appeal to the Cro-Magnon male in me which whole heartedly believes something can’t be serious until it makes your desk creak.