Gravity: A Cure For Social Network ‘Check-In’ Fatigue?

Posted on 09/23/2011

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Social networks these days seem to be a dime a dozen, at least to my not so social self. From the ubiquitous Facebook, to potentially disruptive upstarts like the big Gs Google+, and everything in between like Twitter, Foursquare, Gowalla, GetGlue and Linkedin. Even Google Reader, a reinvention of the aging RSS feed, has a bit of a social bent to it, being tied in to the Google network.

I use a number of these services, focused on primarily Twitter, followed by Facebook, GetGlue, Foursquare and an on-going love-hate, ‘what the hell does this thing do’ relationship with Google+. I also dabble with Linkedin and falling back in love with Google Reader.  With the exception of Twitter which is very random but surprisingly engaging stream of thoughts, ideas and richer content, and the very content orientated Google Reader, most networks are characterized by the ‘check-in’ paradigm. With some it’s pretty obvious, I was here, I recommend this restaurant, I am listening/reading/watching etc, but what is the status update if not a loose, all-encompassing check –in. Google+ hasn’t ‘matured’ enough yet, but look at your Facebook news feed and I’m sure that even though Facebook dropped the once obligatory ‘is’ years ago, most status updates follow the format of a check-in.

The one problem, obvious even from the few that I named above, is that there are way too many of these things, each doing essentially the same thing, sharing with friends, acquaintances and stalkers followers, and fulfilling some kind of acceptable 21st Century voyeurism. Jokes aside, my concern is once you build up a portfolio of networks, mine sits at seven, how do you keep them all up to date. On most platforms these days, there is a myriad of official and third party apps to fulfil that need, and with the mobile shifting towards the smartphone end of the spectrum, there are mobile sites and web apps, should an app not have been created for your platform (this of course does not apply to iOS and Android users, where the total apps developed for those platforms has crossed the  million app mark).

I’m a Symbian user, recently dabbling in Android, but even without official support in most cases, I have an app for six of my seven networks, Google+ being the exception, which I access using the browser should I ever feel the need to (the web app does not play nice with the much maligned Symbian browser, hence my love-hate relationship with the network). Once I reached power user level with Twitter, I took the plunge and spent a lot of money on Gravity, one of the finest apps I have ever used and one I reviewed earlier this year. I always think of Gravity as THE Twitter client, but the developer Jan Ole Suhr, has put together what is fast becoming a Swiss Army Social Networking App, and one that with the latest (very stable) beta build (1.61 (6832)), covers over and above Twitter, Facebook (tick), Google Reader (tick), Foursquare (tick) and two that I am not familiar with StatusNet and the Chinese network Sina Weibo.

Multiple account support in Gravity

As you can see Gravity, a single app, can theoretically handle four of my social networks under one umbrella. So with that in mind, I set out to give Gravity a little challenge: cure my check-in fatigue. As much as my N8 handles multitasking rather nicely, how much better could it be to access most of my ‘checking in’ in one application instead of having to switch between multiple applications? The key thing here for me would be how feature compliant each of the networks contained within Gravity is compared to a dedicated client, in my case fMobi, gNewsReader and 4squick for Facebook, Google Reader and Foursquare respectively. We know all about Gravity’s prowess as a specialist Twitter client, but how does it fare when tasked with all-rounder duties, no small feat I must add, with each network having specific demands that surely not a single app should be able to handle.

So for 24 hours I endeavoured to use Gravity and Gravity alone, even in moments of strife for my social networking needs and this is how I thought it fared.

A Tweet A Day…

I won’t go into too much detail about Gravity’s brilliance as a Twitter client. You can have a look at my review of the 1.50 Alpha posted way back in January to get an overview of what it does, suffice to say that it remains the Twitter champion on Symbian, and having dabbled in Android for the last month or so, nothing on that platform comes close. The closest you can get on Symbian is the innovative Different Tack, but once the novelty of the unique interface wore off, I found myself craving the smoothness and intuitiveness of Gravity.

What I recommend for anyone new to Gravity is to first follow Jan Ole Suhr’s profile @janole, and then to download the latest beta. Ordinarily I would not recommend delving into the beta software realm, but Gravity betas, occasional bugs aside, are some of the most stable builds of apps that I have seen. The latest version is 1.61 (6832). As a fully fledged Twitter client it supports everything Twitter does, post, reply, retweet with or without comment, DMs, follow, unfollow, drafs, schedule tweets, lists and saved searches. Over and above that, here’s a list of killer features that Gravity brings to the plate:

  • Spam Detection: Once you get into the swing of Twitter this is an absolute necessity and the Gravity system is incredibly smart and very little gets through
  • Photo uploading: Gravity has a centralized image management system pulling photos from your memory and allowing uploading to Twitpic, MobyPicture, TwitGoo, Yfrog, img.ly and Twitters own service Photobucket powered service. Additionally it also up0loads to Posterous and a life saver for me Flickr. Continuing with the image theme, if people you follow upload pictures using these services, Gravity can preview the images within the app. Nice touch.
  • URL Management: I use Twitter as a content aggregator and need to be flexible with with how I manage my links. Gravity has a built in browser to open links or you can use open in the phone browser, and good news if Opera is set as the default browser it will use that. I open URL with Opera Mini and Gravity gives the option to copy the URL to the clipboard. Links can also be posted to Delicious or added to Instapaper and Read-it-Later.
  • Improved Text Entry: Long before Anna brought split entry and portrait QWERTY to Symbian, Gravity was rocking these extras. Even better, Gravity auto-completes hash tags and mentions. The only thing missing is prediction but it is very easy to swicth to the default keyboard, and auto-completion still works.
  • Media Player: I don’t make much use of this but Gravity does have an embedded youtube player and can play MP3s if a direct link to such an item is posted.
As you can see, Gravity delivers on the Twitter front and then some, and it is done in a visual pleasing and intuitive manner. The app supports gestures, witth up/down scrolling to read posts, and sideways scrolling to go through tweets, DMs etc. It is worth it just for the comprehensive Twitter access.

Google Reader

For Google Reader I have been using the rather excellent gNewsReader, now available in Nokia Store for a small fee. I have been using the official Android app as well and I must say, gNewsReader is another excellent example of a dev plugging a hole in Symbian’s app catologue and doing so very well indeed. But for the purpose of this exercise, gNewsReader would be abandoned if only for a little while.

I wouldn’t say I am a power user for Google Reader, in fact, until gNewsReader was developed I had basically avoided the service, with little to no support for Symbian. I have a short, about 20 or so, list of feeds  that I like to keep abreast of,  properly organised into folders for easy sorting.

When opening up Google Reader in Gravity, you are greeted with a Dashboard view, that shows you all items total unread count, folderswith an unread count, starred items, shared items and search.

Google Reader Dashboard

Going into each section will show you the unread items which is fine for the all items view, but within folders there is no option to view individual feeds. Sometimes I just want to get a digest of an individual feed, especially in a folder with six or seven feeds. This is something that I hope will be considered in future revisions.

Exploring a Folder

That slight niggle aside, Gravity handles each article pretty well. Tap on a article drops down an option list, much like with tweets in the Twitter section, tap read to open the article. In line media is stripped out, which I have no problem with, and other than  than that the feed item is a you would expect. The only other niggle here is that if you want to do more with the feed, like open in browser for example, you have to leave the article and return to the list, then tap the article to get the options again. You can mark article as read, favourite, which is the same as star in reader, share in reader (no note support) or tweet back to your followers. Lastly the URL option has all the goodies from Gravity, open in browser, clipboard, posting to Delicous, and adding to Instapaper and Read-it-Later.

Sharing options in Gravity

Also to note is that Gravity will not be display all items in a folder,  you’ll often the unread count displayed as ‘(19/45)’ for example. In the list just hit options and tp on Catch Up to bring up the rest of the articles. You can also update folders and mark all as read.

Google Reader in Gravity is less intuitive and has less features than gNewsReader but it’s actually a pretty good alternative and would recommend to casual and moderate users. Probably not for power users though, but I found it more than sufficient. The only two options I would ask for are being able to view articles in a single feed and the option to share to Facebook.

Foursquare

Foursquare options are rather limited on Symbian, served primarily by the sadly underwhelming official client but to the rescue came the phenomenal 4squick. But of course nestled in our all-rounder is access to Foursquare.

My general need for a good Foursquare client is speed, one of the reasons why I use 4squick. Time to check-in is at a bit of a premium and it’s not the sort of thing one does casually, like say scrolling through 200 twitter posts. You fire up the client, get a list of venues, check-in. Occasionally you might want to browse share a tip, a shout, or maybe uplaod a photo or two, but I’ll be honest I have never really done much of that. On device, I aim to check in as quickly as posible.

Foursquare in Gravity is incredibly brisk, by far the quickest check-in process you can think of. Part of that is due to the bare-boned no frills setup. In this case, and for what I believe Foursquare on device is for, no frills is exactly what you need.

You are simply greeted with your dashboard, which shows a little bit about you, mayorships, badges, total check-ins and your leaderboard score, at the top. Tap on that and you get the standard drop down Gravity options list with options to SHout, History, Badges, Map and Check in Here, which curiously did nothing for me. Map data is from Google Maps so will be reasonably up to date but will use data.

Beneath that you get ‘Places Nearby’ which leads to a venue search based on currentl location. And below that a list of your friend’s recent check-ins, tapping on each check-in gives you options to view the location on the map or to check-yourself.

Places Nearby

In places nearby, there is a slight delay for the list to be populated, as the app tries to fix your location using the GPS. Alternatively you can search for the location yourself. Tapping on a location gives you the option to checkin, private checkin, shout- where you can share your checkin to Facebook or Twitter, or view the location on the map.

Sharing to Facebook and/or Twitter

And that is that in terms of functionality but you know what, I like it. A lot. And I think this might just become will become my preferred method of checking in to Foursquare. It is slick, incredibly user friendly, and provides all the necessary tools for a fast check-in. Everything else is superfluous to the Foursquare experience in my humble opinion and Jan Ole Suhr has struck a fine balance between minimalism and not hampering the experience.

Facebook

This I feel is probably the most tricky part of the challenge and is also Gravity weakest point. But it’s not all that bad. Let me explain by walking you through what Gravity does and doesn’t deliver for the Facebook experience.

Personally I feel that so much of Facebook is bloatware, but a lot of users have come to rely on so many of the features that have been introduced. SO a developer is between a rock and a hard place trying to decide what to include and not to include. Some users might be happy with a streamlined approach and others will want every single feature available to them, even something they use once in a blue moon. Just having it there makes the app future proof in their eyes. I use chat so rarely and in fact leave it off most of the time on the desktop so it’s one of the last features I would look for in a Facebook app but I could never do without photo uploading for example.

We Symbianites have been lucky to have been blessed with fMobi an app that aside from some API restrictions imposed by Facebook, no replying to messages, and no way to manage friends, either add or delete, is as comprehensive as any app out there and is as good in my eyes at least as the official app on  Android. Gravity be warned does not reach nor aim to reach that scope. Like Foursquare, the aim is to provide the quickest Facebook experience while providing enough functionality. Speed vs Functionality, it is such a fine line, and while it works with Foursquare, it is not so successful with Facebook.

The Default view for Facebook is the News Feed which all Facebook users will be familiar with. The operation is like with Twitter, scroll through your feed, tap on an item to get more options to act on the item, comment, like, more and a link to the posters profile. Swipe left and right cycles through the views, News Feed, Status Updates, Messages, Notifications.  The distinct between status updates and news feeds might seem superfluous but it makes sense to me, the News Feed includes everything, links, videos, photos etc, while status updates distills that simply to what Facebook is about from the beginning, your friends. Messaging is nicely implemented, you can read and reply, and notifications are as they appear on the website.

The News Feed

And that’s it.

If you’re a serious Facebook user, you might have noticed the flaw here. No direct access to your friends’ wall or even your own wall. This means no access to old links, photo albums, videos, etc. The experience is severely limited. Notifications too are handled inconsistently. Sometimes tapping on a notification will send you to the post, sometimes you just get an option to view the profile of the last person mentioned in the notification. It is a bit inconsistent, especially when you want to comment on a post.

One thing that is well handled by Gravity is uploading photos, utilising the same excellent method used for Twitter. In the photos section of Gravity, clicking on a photo, there’s a big Facebook button. Clicking through, you can add a comment and upload away.

Upload to Facebook

In summary then, Facebook on Gravity is more of a snapshot of Facebookville, nothing more. It is literally for you to glance at what’s going on i your world, a little bit of interaction here and there, but try to delve any deeper and you are met with a brick wall. Power users will be frustrated and I would guess that even someone with very little need for much of Facebook’s bloatware might find it limiting.

So for 24 hours I tried to use Gravity as an all-in-one client, eschewing my specialised apps. I have to say, and this is credit to the developer, four three out of four use cases, I never felt like I was missing out on anything. Facebook was a bit difficult but I soldiered. As an all-rounder Gravity scores a solid B+, let down in only one aspect but a big aspect nonetheless. It remains a superlative Twitter client and to that add a brilliant Foursquare client and a very good Google Reader client. And you know what, with a little bit of work on the Facebook side of things and some refinement of Google Reader, one of the most loved apps on Symbian could become the ultimate hero app.


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