Precious vs. Expendable Bits

This tweet by @timbray sums up why I don’t think either Google Plus or Facebook pose any real threat to Twitter. The two can wrestle with each other all they want, but Twitter stands alone because of a singular feature: we can waste our tweets.

There’s something about the strict conformity to conciseness that allows users to 1) overshare, 2) devote entire Twitter accounts to be vertically functional as opposed to generally informative, and 3) jump in an out of the content stream without caring what we’ve missed.  

That means Tweets are the opposite of precious.  It’s like using a machine gun. You can spray the field with your content and almost rest easy knowing something will hit where it needs to hit, when it needs to hit.  Those bullets (or bits) are expendable. Whereas Plus and fB are more like a hand gun.  If you’re going to aim at something, you’re trying to hit it with as few bullets as possible before you have to reload.

If the New York Times can use Twitter as database, tweets aren’t precious. If people can create Twitter accounts solely devoted to code commits that amass 100+ followers, tweets aren’t precious. If 71% of tweets receive zero reaction from a community of 200 million users, tweets aren’t precious.

The Precious Differences

  • On Facebook and Plus if I overshare information that adds no value, my friend and family get pissed off or people stop following me. On Twitter, people just stop paying attention because ‘noise’ isn’t as obtrusive. When it does become obtrusive people, then people will unfollow.
  • The character limit of Twitter allows me to scan a lot of content quickly. On Facebook and Plus if I see a big block of text that’s well formatted with a lot of comments, I feel inclined to actually read and engage.
  • Because I’m aware of the above, before I post to Facebook and Plus, I try to think of how I want to use the precious bits of attention people are lending me on those platforms.  Maybe I’m unique, but I feel more inclined to be a bit more respectful of people’s time.
  • One could argue that Facebook’s news feed allows for an excess of noise because they give you the filters to tune it all out.  However, I don’t post my short messages to Facebook and aggregate them with Twitter.  I post to Twitter and aggregate across multiple social networks, Facebook included. Twitter is my vehicle of choice for pushing shortform thoughts.  
  • If you give me a box that has no limit, I feel like there’s an expectation to fill as much of that space as possible.  Twitter gets rid of that expectation.  

Google Plustags vs. Hashtags

I consider myself served.  Last week I wrote a post about Google’s unwillingness (or inability) to leverage it’s own existing infrastructure to finally get social right.  A few days later GooglePlus drops and the web implodes because we finally have the Facebook alternative we all dreamed of (Do GooglePlus Huddles dream of Diaspora Sheep?).

+1 for the home team. Still there are a few things that don’t make sense to me:

  • Buzz conversations are relegated to a useless backchannel.
  • +1 is integrated across a lot of Google properties but ‘like’ isn’t and the two have yet to be integrated.
  • I don’t like Sparks.  It seems to just aggregate based on keywords (much like GoogleNews). I’d prefer they incorporate Google Reader and RSS somehow.

That said, I love GoolgePlus so far. Here’s one feature that I’d like to see extended.  Right now on the social network, to tag a person in a message (think @twittername or @Facebook Name) the user simply types ’+username’.  We’ll call that a plustag. 

The problem is GooglePlus is circle-centric.  And while it’s great that I can cc my friends on the fly with a ’+’, wouldn’t it be cool if I could tag messages to my circles of friends?  The syntax might look like this:

“Hey peeps! I’m on Google+! *friends *following *acquaintances.”

…where ’ * ’ represents a circle and messages tagged as such only go to the designated circles.  That would allow me to easily cross-post content from Twitter and other places and have it target the right groups on GooglePlus.  The current way to do this is through the GUI which is cumbersome. 

That’s all I’ve got, can you think of some other cool shortcuts Google should add to Plus? Better yet, tell me on GooglePlus!

Weekend Project: Turn WordPress into Techmeme

Weekends for me are usually spent doing one of two things, working or hacking. Hacking is learning and usually I do it to inform decisions I need to make for real projects.  In this case a client asked me to build a website aggregator in WordPress.  He wanted something more like a news portal in the vein of the HuffingtonPost, but a lot of the features he was requesting reminded me of TechCrunch.  So to help me figure out the best way to accomplish doing this client project, I decided to build my own aggregator using WordPress.

Step 1 – PostRank

Techmeme is a website that uses algorithms to determine early trending stories related to technology.  The algorithms used to accomplish this have to be pretty sophisticated, looking at comments, in and outbound links, re-tweets as well as other things like credible tips and story leads.  They have minimal human input and let their tecch do most of the work.  I wanted to do the same.  Understanding how much of a pain this type of programming can be due to my work with SwiftRiver, I knew I wasn’t about to attempt to come up with any custom algorithms for a ‘toy’ project like this.  Instead I decided to leverage a platform that already does this, PostRank

PostRank offers a number of free and paid web apis that can be used to process content to determine influence and popularity online.  They started out about three years ago as AidRSS, and have since grown to become a pretty awesome platform.  They also have a hosted platform that lets individual users add feeds that they then begin ranking for social influence.  It took about an hour to add about 25 feeds and get them indexed. 

PostRank then returns a new feed of ‘ranked’ content.  Best, Great, Good and All are the four methods with which you can filter your feeds.  As the titles suggest they filter based on how popular the sites content has been online.  For example, best means that a blog post has had a lot of delicious.com favoirtes, a lot of Twitter retweets and a lot of comments.  The others would be less.  Each item in the feed has to be given a score and these scores are used to filter out other content that don’t meet certain criteria as determined by PostRank.

Now I had 25 feeds, all optimized to only allow the best content through.

Step 2 – Yahoo Pipes

I didn’t want to pay PostRank for access to their advanced API (which would allow me to get one feed back from all of the ones I added in the previous step).  So, instead I took each of those PostRank’d feeds and added them to YahooPipes.

Is a free service for creating web mashups with minimal programing skills necessary.  My pipe (which can be found here) is pretty simple.  It takes several of the ranked feeds, mashes them together and orders them chronologically, re-orders them in descending order by popularity, strips the ‘PostRank’ number from the title and outputs a new feed.

This new feed will consist of only the most recent popular content.

Step 3 – Feedburner

Feedburner is a Google service for RSS feed processing and optimization.  Yahoo Pipes is great but for some reason in the past three years, Yahoo hasn’t figured out, or bothered to figure out how to output feeds that validate. Also, Yahoo Pipes doesn’t offer any sort of analytics, branding or advanced syndication options.  So I took my newly created Yahoo Pipe feed and added it to Feedburner.

Here I was able to make sure the feed validates, rebrand it with a title and description, set-up auto-mated email blasts and ad ‘flare’ options for sharing content via Delicious and Facebook.

Step 5 – WordPress

Assembly in WordPress was dead simple and took about an hour.  I used the P2 Theme which makes WordPress look a lot like Twitter.  Then I added the following plugins:

  • Akismet – spam filtering, never press without it
  • FD Feedburner – for redirecting subscribers to my Feedburner feed
  • Feed WordPress – advanced aggregation for WordPress
  • Feed WordPress Duplicate Post Filter – all aggregators need to filter out duplicates
  • Shorten2Ping – shorturls for all your posts (ex. t.co, is.gd, bit.ly)
  • U-Cron – Cron Jobs (automated tasks) made simple for WordPress

WordPress also has a Javascript bookmarklet called ‘PressThis’ that I can use to add non-syndicated content to the mix.  So on occasion I can add my editorial input to the mix.

Step 4 – Yourls

I wanted my aggregator to have it’s own short url.  I decided to go with a.fricame.me  (Africa Meme) because my aggregator showcases trending topics related to African tech.  With Yourl you simply buy and configure your domain name then setup the script in the root folder.  It’s just like setting up WordPress. Dead simple, took all of five minutes.  You can get it here.

Once I had Yourl configured, I used the Shorten2Ping plugin to automatically create a short URL for all my posts.

Step 6 – Twitter and Ping.fm

Finally, I had a completely automated aggregator that was only finding the most popular trends about African tech.  Awesome.  Next I needed to automate the process of broadcasting.  I setup a new Twitter account @africameme and a new Ping.fm account.  Ping.fm is a service that ‘pings’ multiple social networks with the same updates at once.  If I wanted to blast Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Email and a plethora of other services at once, I could use it do so.  I opted for just having it ping Twitter whenever new content is aggregated. (I only needed Ping.fm because the Twitter updates for Shorten2Ping are no longer working due to Twitter moving to Oauth only authentication.)

In six easy steps, and about as many hours you can easily set up your own Techmeme-type news site on any subject!  To see it all in action follow @africameme on Twitter or visit us at http://a.fricame.me

On Silicon Valley, Changing the World and Pizza

I just came across a great article by Nathaniel Whittemore at change.org about whether or not Silicon Valley can really change the world. I have no doubt in my mind that there are some fantastic people in the Valley that, can will and are working towards doing just that. But I also know those are rarely the startup success stories that find attention at Tech Crunch, Venturebeat or similar blogs. Not to say that these blogs don’t do a great job at what they do, there’s certainly no obligation for them to cover any company other than what they deem editorially worthy. It’s just that (like Nathaniel astutely puts it) ‘it’s not even the same sport’. In other words, groups that are literally working towards social impact using technology aren’t even on their radar.

What I see is a Valley that’s somewhat oblivious to what it can actually do to change the world. Whether that be the startups that it could support or the entrepreneurs it could put forth as success stories, I really just don’t see enough people who actually are given enough credit for doing it in a way that doesn’t look like an Amazon or a Google. And yes, Amazon, Google, Zappos, Twitter etc. all changed the daily lives of people all over the world TREMENDOUSLY. But so have Ushahidi, FrontlineSMS, Open Data Kit and Samasource etc. It’s not a question of who’s changing the world more, it’s who’s world is being changed and how.

So now I can call up companies that don’t even sell pizza, order a pizza, and they’ll still deliver it to me. Great. (Editor’s note: really happened.)

But when it comes to offering people who’ve never in their lives had any sort of income, jobs via mobile devices, it barely registers.

Secondly, most companies that end up changing the world do it by accident. I’m sure when Twitter was invented, Jack Dorsey and company had no idea a young Ugandan would use it to microblog his way through a riot, bullets whizzing past, and tanks rolling in. Likewise, I really doubt Sergey and Larry dreamed of all the things Google would one day be used for. Nor, probably, did Tim Berners-Lee when he laid the groundwork for the web.

Finally, I’m not sure Silicon Valley needs to worry about changing the world. They’ve done such a good job of doing it without actually trying that change will inevitably come. With so many brilliant, successful people in such a small area, they can afford to not even think about it. Saying ‘we are here to change the world’ while not really supporting the claim comes across as a bit shallow if you ask me. If you want to really do that, great. But if you’re there to pocket a few million before you hit thirty, nothing wrong with that either.

The motivation of people around the globe looking for innovative solutions to the worlds biggest problems (or smallest), should be to create the same energy, enthusiasm and optimism that exists for whatever reason in Silicon Valley, wherever they are in the world. Whether that be Namibia, Bangalore or Lost Springs, Wyoming.

Hahlo or Twitterific To Follow Summize Acquisition

twitterific

hahlo

Now that Twitter has purchased Summize and corrected some seriously boneheaded moves, their next major moves need to be in the mobile spaceVentureBeat makes some interesting points on this very subject. If I were the powers that be at Twitter I would be looking to snatch up all of the best thirdparty applications using the API.  This would Include Hahlo and Tweetdeck, or possibly Twitterific (which has the feature-set of both).  Rather than spend more money and time trying to compete with these existing products, why not bring them into the fold? In addition, they need to take a hard look at the functionality provided by TwitterFeeder.  I use TwitterFeeder to announce that I’ve updated my blogs.  Without it, I have to do this manually. 

I’m not suggesting TwitterFeeder in and of itself is worthy of acquisition (the staff at Twitter could write this code in a heartbeat) but the functionality would be useful to Twitter users. It would also allow them to compete more directly with FriendFeed and Tumblr.

A History of the World

I had to share this, it’s from a conference a friend of mine attended. She shared the slides with me and for some reason I found this especially hilarious. It’s a timeline showing how social media measures up against the history of civilization. Click the image to see it larger.

Monetizing Twitter

twitter

This article discusses some interesting revenue model ideas for the Twitter team. In Ten Ways Twitter Could Appeal to Joe Average I touch upon ways that Twitter or it’s developers could bring ‘the average’ computer user into the Twitter fold.

I really like the Tiered Model idea of paying more to get rid of ads and for more features. This is the method Pownce, Flickr and other applications have taken and it seems to work well in both cases.

Ten Ways Twitter Could Appeal to Joe Average and Become Ubiquitous

With all the recent attention twitter.com has received many people have asked what the relevance of such a service is to the average user? Twitter is very popular among the early adopter tech crowd, but why would people who use their computers less than 20 hours per week ever have a need for such a service? In other words, how can Twitter benefit non-profit organizations, public institutions or everyday business? More importantly how can Twitter benefit the average person and become more useful than it is trendy?

Here are some ideas I had as for how embracing a ‘twitter-like’ service could benefit more than just the over-ambitious blogging crowd. These applications could be built using Twitter or any other microblog service. What I’m trying to do is demonstrate how developers can capitalize on the popularity of Twitter and possibly push it to the point of ubiquity (like Google).

  1. Tracking Packages from FedEx, UPS and other Postage Services.
    Just the other day I waited all morning for an important package to be delivered, constantly refreshing the FedEx tracking webpage to see what the latest updates were. It was actually my girlfriend who pointed out, “..too bad they don’t have Twitter!” which caused me to think about such a scenario. If shipping companies did employ service like Twitter, it would allow me to stay constantly updated to the progress of my packages. If I didn’t have access to a computer for instance, I could have the tracking updates forwarded to my cell phone or mobile device. The driver of the shipping truck would update status by simply waving a wand across his packages and typing in his location, expected delays or ETA. Far fetched? Not at all, this exactly how tracking info is gathered right now. What’s missing is an application that would turn these updates into messages or ‘tweets’.
  2. Amber Alerts/Emergency Awareness/Public Service Announcements
    So the state or federal government has a public menace that they need to make the public aware of. They often use traditional media (TV, radio) as well as some localized metods (highway LED Signs) but they’re notorious for ignoring the medium with the biggest audience of them all…the internet. In fact, if the government were to contract Twitter to relay these alerts it would be mutually advantageous as Twitter could send the occasional emergency alert to it’s users site-wide while the authorities could potentially reach new segments of the populous.

    You might recall a few years ago MySpace became a testing ground for this very type of collaboration.

  3. Film and Music Product Release Dates
    For all the paranoia that new media is stealing public attention from old media, there aren’t very many traditional outlets taking advantage of what control they do still have left. For instance, why does every record label or major film distributor not have Twitter accounts? Most of us actually want to know when that new album from our favorite artist is released. I’m also twice as likely to follow a companies’ Twitter stream than to join their newsletter. Of course ,the next step would be to offer a way to filter out all the stuff that I DON’T want to be notified of.
  4. GPS Breadcrumbs with Notes
    Say you’re a professional runner, national park sentry or hiking enthusiast and you’re hiking along a very rarely used trail. Perhaps you then notice that a bridge is washed out or you see some other danger you want to make people more aware of. You might pull out a GPS cacheing unit, geo tag the location, type a quick note about the incident and either store the message to be sent later or send it via satellite immediately. The people in your community or your colleagues following you would then have all the information they need to avoid the same area and teams could be sent out to rectify the problem.
  5. Sport Scores
    For you sports enthusiasts out there, if there was a way to get score updates that you’re interested in without having to check the paper the next morning or various websites, would you be interested? Similar to the application described in #3, if the end user could pick a handful of sport teams that they love and have those new scores appear in his or her Twitter stream (which can also ping your mobile device) it would save quite a bit of time. The user would also need to be able to easily deactivate certain teams or games, for those times when they’ve TIVO’ed it and don’t want to spoil the surprise.
  6. Grades
    Often times in the school system, grades and test scores don’t necessarily need to be kept confidential. In those cases, wouldn’t it be great if a student could ping a dedicated Twitter account with their name as a hashtag (ex. #jongos) and get a response back with their scores? Alternatively pinging the account with a #all hastag would retrieve a link to a page with all the grades of their classmates and would mention if a curve was applied. It would be efficient, save paper and save time.
  7. Voting
    One of my favorite Twitter applications is twitter.polldaddy.com which allows you to post polls to Twitter. Here’s a real world example: At my condo the HOA often takes votes on various issues: “Should we get a new fence?” “Should we buy that new flood light?” The HOA president could use a service like this to poll our neighbors.

    It’s not hard to imagine a world where a Twitter-like service could be used for more official votes like public office or internal company decisions.

  8. Health Appointment Reminders
    Do you have trouble remembering when your next physical is or when you scheduled that next teeth cleaning? While services like Remember the Milk allow you to to create to-do lists and manage tasks, I envision local dentist offices rolling out a service something like this themselves that solely exists to help you manage your appointments. How convenient would it be to receive a Direct Twitter message from a database at your dentist’s clinic reminding you not to be late?
  9. Home Security
    A number of people have their home alarms call them when it goes off. It would be smart for companies like ADT to offer a service that can be set up to text, email and or IM you, all things that Twitter does when prompted. The message could inform you of the time, address (especially useful if you have multiple homes) and the area in the home that was triggered. This of course would be a complimentary service offered in addition to the phone call that’s become the standard and the request to send out police.
  10. Crash Reports
    Lastly, something that might be useful for software developers, especially those using open source applications like Mozilla’s products or Linux, is an application that logs crashes or software bugs. Something like this application created by Kevin except the database would be public. Normally these messages are sent to huge databases where they may or may not be analyzed by engineers at the company that makes the product. I imagine a service that would send these messages to a web database that would take the users notes, along with the crash report and application info, archive them online and make it all searchable.

    The big concern of course is security, but that could be easily addressed by only making the most common errors and repair public. Hashtags and Twitter’s search option would allow programmers to find the relevant code.

Companies like Mosio are already harnessing the power of the crowd to answer questions. In his post “5 Ways to Use Twitter For Good”, Chris Brogan explores the possibilities of using the Twitter community to solve problems. This is where we start and as more and more developers build on the Twitter API applications like the ones I’ve described will inevitably come into existence. As they do, and as Twitter’s popularity increases, Twitter will venture closer and closure to that tipping point that will make it a household name for years to come.