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October 31, 2008

We're Open for Testing, but Please Don't Tell Anyone!

One of the things I like best about playing the role of early adopter is getting the chance to test sites before they reach the general public. Sometimes, I can help guide an entrepreneur to consider new features, or suggest changes to their interface that I feel could help make the difference between confusion and success. Often, this process is done before a product launches, and at other times, it is done after the product launches, and gets iterated. But what rarely occurs is for the product to be open to the world and yet, we still don't talk about it - a position I've found myself in the last week.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet with a sharp entrepreneur with decades of experience launching new services. He's taken one company public and sold it, and started others. He walked me through the new service, which incorporates many of the social media tools I enjoy and use.

As he passed his MacBook Air to me in Palo Alto as we ate breakfast, I clicked through each of the tabs, and tried to find holes in the product. There were some, of course. UI issues, unexpected behavior, and complicated menus that probably weren't intuitive. But despite the issues, it was intriguing to see the incoming data manipulated and displayed and filterable in new ways. I asked my unfair share of questions and got solid responses.

Of course, I asked when the service would launch to the public, and as I planned to write about it, when any embargo would lift, so I could take a note and be ready when he was. The answer? The product is live now, with no restrictions, but... please don't write about it, as it's too early.

The combination of being open but without the option to cover is unusual. Typically, you're either open for business, or you're not, so, despite my above story, I'm not yet ready to tell you about it. When it does go live, it should be an interesting player, one that brings new ways to get connected to people and topics. I can test it, and use it, and there are no restrictions on getting in for those of you who might figure it out. But it's not yet time, and for someone who likes to help spread the word, it's an odd position to be in.

Web Service Logos from AOL to Zuula Get Spooky for Halloween

Google is the best-known Web company that gives its logo a frequent revamp for holidays and other occasions, Halloween being no exception. But the search engine giant is far from alone in their creativity. Last year, I highlighted YouTube, Technorati, Yahoo! and FriendFeed as companies who went the extra mile to add pumpkins and other Halloween gear to their logo, and in 2008, many are back at the drawing board.


This Year's Entrants to the Halloween Logo Ball

As of midnight Pacific time on Halloween, Google has once again carved out a jack-o-lantern, replacing its two O's with the pumpkin and a seed scoop. The L in google? A candle dripping with wax.

In an attempt to seem similarly hip, AOL turned their O into a pumpkin and their logo is infested with bats. Yahoo! is displaying a Flash-based Halloween scene with pumpkins aplenty. Ask.com, an also-ran in the search rankings, tries to win out by making their entire page Halloween friendly, showing trick-or-treaters on a Fall day.

FriendFeed is back at it, with more attention to detail, as a youth in ghost costume springs up as the "n", arms aloft as one shoelace dangles untied. The two "e"s are jack-o-lantern ies, with toothpicks keeping the letter intact. Meanwhile, their real-time search engine has its unfair share of cobwebs.

Zuula brings up the rear of the alphabet, but doesn't lag in design with its own silhouetted pumpkin and Halloween scene.

Unlike last year, YouTube and Technorati are not yet in the Halloween spirit, nor are other brands, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or the long-forgotten portals of Excite and Lycos, which deserve their own cobwebs, if you ask me. Also not participating - Digg, Reddit and SocialMedian.

Added via the comments:


PopURLs: http://popurls.com/

Find any good Halloween logos this year? Let me know in the comments. And have a Happy Halloween!

October 30, 2008

FriendFeed Offers Twitter A Chance to Play Lifestream

When FriendFeed first gained significant traction early this spring, coming at the same time as Twitter was struggling with uptime issues and a reduced feature set, bloggers were abuzz with the idea that FriendFeed could replace Twitter outright. The excitement around the social aggregation site at times was so white hot, it was thought the team would soon render popular tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google Reader unnecessary. Rather than eliminate other services in the ecosystem, FriendFeed has instead, over the last several months, added support for many more services, and introduced upgrades that have made it even further integrated with those same sites, Facebook and Twitter.

Today, FriendFeed introduced a set of features that lets users update Twitter with all their FriendFeed activity, based on their own preferences - be it with native FriendFeed entries, or shares from popular sites, be they Disqus, Last.fm, YouTube, Flickr and many more.

The result essentially turns the lifestreaming functionality on its head. Rather than just have Twitter play a major role in inputting entries in user's feeds, FriendFeed now gives Twitter the chance to do more than operate as a microblogging tool, taking your personal FriendFeed, and mirroring it back Twitter's direction.


I've set up a number of services on FriendFeed to reflect back to Twitter.

Despite having served as one of the more vocal proponents of FriendFeed, I don't see that everything I do on the site needs to fill my Twitter stream. I won't be adding my FriendFeed comments to Twitter, nor will I be adding the vast majority of my social activity around the Web, including Google Reader shares, Delicious bookmarks, or comments, be they on FriendFeed, Disqus or BackType. After a certain point, the ensuing waterfall of updates would be certain to leave my in box full of Qwitter notifications.


A native post I made to FriendFeed was bounced to Twitter as well.

What I will be doing is notifying Twitter on native FriendFeed shared items, including all the iPhone pictures I take of the twins and send in via e-mail, as well as new blog posts, SmugMug shares and YouTube postings. This will effectively eliminate my need to use TinyURL for new blog posts, and probably will erode my use of Posty, TweetDeck or other Twitter applications. But as the integration is with Twitter only, Identi.ca and other microblogging services don't get any of the love.

Will Twitter's new role as a mainstream erode FriendFeed's differentiation? I don't believe so. The site is still all about following friends' feeds, and not just aggregating your updates. It's also become a strong platform for discussion and engagement. As links back to FriendFeed begin to increasingly populate Twitter, it should drive even more traffic their way, as both services aid one another, padding their lead in their respective markets.

October 29, 2008

Yahoo! Co-Founders Quietly Come Out Against Prop 8

Last week, Apple and Google made headlines for announcing their opposition to California's Proposition 8, which aims to restrict marriage to couples of different genders. At the time, following Apple's announcement, some, including Valleywag, asked why Yahoo!, still a thought leader in the Valley despite their many troubles, was remaining quiet on the issue. The company's Pride page features a "Vote No on Prop 8" link, but the company's leadership hasn't made the same headlines as Apple and Google have with their visible opposition.


Yang and Filo Both Donated $15k Against Prop 8

Without drawing attention, Yahoo! co-founders Jerry Yang and David Filo have both donated $15,000 apiece, opposing proposition 8, according to public contribution records. (See: San Francisco Chronicle) In fact, the $15,000 donations make each of them the highest level donations in the city of Sunnyvale, almost double the third highest entry, which provides $8,000 in favor of the initiative passing.


The Pair's Contributions Lead Sunnyvale Donors

The controversial initiative is seeing money flow into the campaign for both sides, and recent polls have the initiative running with an even chance of passing, despite Silicon Valley's vocal opposition.

While Yang and Filo have made personal contributions against Prop 8, Yahoo!, aside from their Pride page, has made no official statement. My previous discussion on Prop 8 can be found here. And while I have heard some small buzz in the "Yes on 8" circles that they will boycott companies that oppose the initiative, at the rate it's going, they might not be able to search the Web or even use an iPod, so maybe they should at least rethink that strategy...

The full database of donations for and against Proposition 8 can be found at the San Francisco Chronicle's special page: http://www.sfgate.com/webdb/prop8/

SportsBlogs Nation Raises Funding Round to Expand Platform


Long-time readers of louisgray.com know that behind tech, one of my most avid passions is that of sports. Be it baseball, college football, or basketball, I'm a huge fan. I have my team loyalties and want to know all I can about my favorite teams. As part of this sports obsession, I found Web communities like SportsBlogs Nation and Ballhype to help me get the latest and best sports news from fellow fans around the world, as well as engage in community around our shared passion. As I recounted in July, the Ballhype team was acquired by Future US for $3 million, and yesterday, the SportsBlogs Nation team announced they raised a funding round in the single-digit millions of dollars, without more details being disclosed. The funding round was led by Accel Partners, the same team who helped bankroll Facebook, and by Jim Bankoff, former AOL programming chief. The funds will be used to further expand the rapidly growing sports blogs network, and help improve the platform.

Overnight, I connected with SportsBlogs Nation president Tyler Bleszinksi, who I've known through his family of sites since 2005, and consider a personal friend. Below is part of that Q&A done over e-mail:

LG: How large is SportsBlogs Nation today in terms of individual sites and users?

TB: We currently have 152 and we are growing that number weekly. We are very deliberate in our approach in that we only invite the highest quality bloggers, with established track-records, to join our network. Therefore, we will never rush to launch sites just to grow our blog numbers. We don't release any details about our registration base. I can tell you that internal numbers show that we have about 2.5MM people using the sites each month and that we're seen explosive growth across our entire network in all metric categories (in some cases doubling our metrics every six months.)

LG: What is helping to drive the growth of the network?

TB: The growth is likely driven by several factors:
  1. positive macro-trends as new people discover and engage with our blogs each day
  2. more engagement with our existing users as we add great new writers, features and technology - including our new blogging platform which is a huge success. Just last week for instance, we added two of the top sports bloggers on the web: Jeff Clark/Celticsblog and James Mirtle/From The Rink
  3. the declining investment by newspapers and other media in local sports coverage, which makes us the go-to source, particularly for mid and smaller market teams like Oakland for instance
  4. the traffic-driving network effect of intelligent cross-promotion across our network and the general sports and blogging ecosystem
  5. our team/tribe focus where we enable fans to publish and discuss within specific communities built around their passion.
On that note, one important and overlooked fact is that we are the leading regional independent sports network in many areas. For instance, in the Bay Area we have the top sites (Athletics Nation, McCovey Chronicles, Golden State of Mind, Niners Nation, etc) for just about every team, add it up and we're bigger than just about any other media property focused on Bay Area sports. Same can be said for other markets like Chicago, Texas, etc.

LG: How much funding did you raise, and what will it be used for?

TB: We're not releasing the amount, but we basically went after an amount that would allow us to become the top sports social community on the Internet. We're still cheap, even more so in this economic climate, and running this company on a shoestring, only spending where there is a measurable return.

We plan on using the money to further advance our sports-centric social media and publishing platform, which is already, in my opinion, the best blogging platform ever created for sports publishers, contributors and audiences. We want to iterate on it and continue to invest in advancing an open platform for sports fan activity streams.

It will also allow us to expand our leagues much more quickly by getting more man hours working on bringing the best bloggers on board. Our aim is to truly have the best team blog for every team in every sport and we need our league managers to be spending more time working on bringing the best bloggers in.

The other thing is that it gives us a talent like Jim Bankoff on board. And Bankoff is a supremely skilled executive who is laser-focused on making SportsBlogs Nation a large and profitable business. He knows this space well considering his past experience at AOL. He's already working to bring aboard other executives who will be focusing on business partnerships and generating revenue opportunities.


I have been an active participant on SportsBlog Nation for the better part of four years now, and have enjoyed the community at sites including Athletics Nation, Sactown Royalty and California Golden Blogs. My user ID can be found here: http://www.sbnation.com/users/louismg.

Also see:
SportsBusiness Journal: Tech Leaders Back Sports Blog Network

Social Median Launches Dedicated Election Coverage News Hub

Social Median, an online news site and social activities aggregator powered by your peers, is launching a special election site, in partnership with the Washington Post and other content providers to help users get even more ramped up in advance of next week's presidential election. The new site, found at http://election.socialmedian.com, aggregates election news from a wide variety of news sources, as well as social tools, including Twitter, Flickr and YouTube, hoping to provide a single social hub for what will prove to be a big day for either Barack Obama or John McCain next week.




As Twitter has done with its own Election 2008 site, Social Median is taking what so far has been a network with rich topic diversity and helping to add focus. Social Median, as with its core service, divides the Election page into four main sections:Also new, as of Wednesday morning, is the introduction of a widget that users can post to their own blogs, taking the Election discussion with them. Already signing on to display the widget are The Washington Post and The Guardian, which will highlight user-submitted news and reports. (Get the code here)



In what's been a hotly-contested election that has seen partisan voters claim bias from both sides, and few trusting the media, why not get away from a single person choosing your news, or even a single paper? Social Median and Twitter are helping you find the election news with a little help from your friends.

October 28, 2008

Avoid Issues at the Polls With Twitter Vote Report

By Jesse Stay of Stay N' Alive (Twitter/FriendFeed)

On Wednesday, a new site is set to debut, hoping to help ensure everyone's vote gets heard on election day. Twitter Vote Report is a volunteer effort which will allow anyone at the polls report problems they may have while voting, by using tools including Twitter, text messaging, or their iPhones. The site was inspired by a TechPresident post citing the benefits of using Twitter for election day voting problems. A collection of blog posts ensued, resulting in a collaborated effort between software developers, designers, and marketers to make it easy for you to report any problems on Election day.

The concept is simple. To report how your voting experience went on election day, prefix your experience with the hashtag, #votereport. Have a serious issue? Use the following hashtags:
  • #EP{two-letter state code} - e.g. EPNY for New York, EPOH for Ohio (for serious legal issues only)
  • #machine - use this tag to signal a problem with a voting machine
  • #registration - use this tag to signal problems with the registration process, people being turned away for paperwok reasons
  • #wait:time - use this tag to signal a long wait. Add a colon and the wait time in minutes - e.g. #wait:30 for half an hour, #wait:120 for two hours
A team of volunteers will be monitoring all reported codes and reporting noted patterns to the appropriate channels. At the same time, going to http://twittervotereport.com on election day will enable you to see the wait times at the poll locations near you, problems users are having around the nation, and perhaps you could even help a fellow citizen with a question. According to their Wiki:
Imagine a nationwide web map with pins identifying every zip code where Americans are waiting over 30 minutes to vote or indicating those election districts where the voting machines are not working. Collectively we will inform each other when when the lines too long and ensure that media and watchdog groups know where problems exist.
Twitter Vote report is partnering with partners such as Election Protection Coalition, Rock the Vote, Credo Mobile, Common Cause, Plodt, YouTube, Twittervision, NPR’s Social Media Desk, Independence Year Foundation, The Center for Community Change, Student PIRGs, PBS, Video the Vote, Election Suppression Wiki, Women Donors Network, and Demos. In addition, Current TV will be using the #votereport information as part of their special election coverage throughout the day.

You can also update your voting situation via an iPhone app that will soon be available via the iTunes app store, by sending a text message to 66937, calling (567) 258-8683 (258-VOTE) (to leave a message), or to talk to a human you can call their partner at (866) OUR-VOTE. It's not too late if your business would also like to get involved - see their Wiki for details.

Twitter Vote Report is an incredible use of social media for the use of ensuring that everyone gets their vote out on election day. Services like Twitter give everyone a voice, and this election season that voice can actually be heard. Let's look forward to a record-setting election season as we use these tools to be sure everyone's vote is accounted for.

Hat tip to Myrna the Minx for sharing this with us!

Read more by Jesse Stay at Stay N' Alive.

AideRSS Rebrands as PostRank, Launches New Features, API

Since its launch, AideRSS has aimed to leverage social tools to help determine a publisher's most popular content, through analysis of individual posts and their related activity, including Diggs, bookmarks on Delicious, links in Google, and total comments. RSS advocates suffering from information overload have even turned to AideRSS to act as an intelligent filter, providing them the best stream, rather than the default firehose. With today's new announcements, along with a rebranding as PostRank that saw the launch of a new Web site and look, the service has added tags, keyword filtering, and other tools that will get users to the data they are seeking quickly.

(See from December 2007: AideRSS Judges Feed Posts as Good, Great, Best)


PostRank Shows Posts With Audience Engagement Have Higher Score

The first major enhancement to the new PostRank is keyword filtering. As Ilya Grigorik wrote, users have asked for the ability to customize and filter any RSS feed with specific keywords. For example, you could get all posts from The Unofficial Apple Weblog that mention iPhone, or posts from Matt Cutts that mention SEO.


I Tagged TUAW as iPhone and Filtered for Only iPhone News

You can also now tag feeds you import into PostRank, helping to build out what the team calls "custom content channels" based on those tags and keywords. All feeds tagged with BlackBerry would be in the BlackBerry channel, etc.

Most interesting to developers may be the introduction of full API access. According to Grigorik, all operations possible on the new postrank.com site are accessible by API, making it easy to utilize the filtering capabilities seen in their service on other applications.

As a blogger, the new PostRank offers better ways to see if specific posts do better with readers and the social services based on keywords. As a consumer, you can now read fewer feed items and still be sure you don't miss those that are most interesting to you. You can find PostRank at http://www.postrank.com. Of course, going to the old AideRSS.com will push you there as well...

October 27, 2008

NoiseRiver Developer Ditches FriendFeed, Claims Service to Continue

Editor's Note: An earlier edition of this post said NoiseRiver had shut down. But as mentioned in the comments, the site is expected to keep running at www.noiseriver.com, while the noiseriver.com domain was unresponsive. See Also: The Inquisitr: NoiseRiver developer quits FriendFeed, says LOLCats to blame.

In the A-List vs. Z-List world of social networks, the gap between those that get the lion's share of attention and those who get almost no attention can be huge. After months of participating on FriendFeed, and getting less of a response than he had hoped, one developer is leaving. Karim, known as "directeur" on FriendFeed, posted a long article on Google Docs called "Why I Quitted FriendFeed", saying that too much attention was paid to "top" users and "top" items, adding, "I'm quitting. No one will notice after all, maybe."

Also: Why I'm leaving Friendfeed, or how I surrender to the power of the ninja LOLCat

You name the service, and there will be complaints. Even those most popular, most widely adopted services have people who can't stand its features, its user interface, or the active community. Last week saw Mashable's Mark Hopkins leave FriendFeed due to what he saw as a hostile place for those who shared his political leanings. (See Rob Diana's comments here) Others have found the noise to be too much, as they couldn't find easy enough ways to filter and hide entries to get down to the items they were most likely to enjoy. And even more use the site just to aggregate their data, but don't participate, or sign up to take a look, but don't return - as many do for many other services.

Directeur's leaving FriendFeed is noteworthy because he was one of those working on a solution to the site's weaknesses, namely the ability to block specific terms, or to use your own interests to best anticipate new entries that would draw your attention. It turns out that not even his own service could prove to help him find a way through the noise and gain acceptance to a level he wanted to keep going. (Previous Coverage: New NoiseRiver App Adds Interest Filters to FriendFeed Stream)


NoiseRiver Back In June

He writes: "Tina (a kind friendfeeder) once said that friendfeed is what you make it. I tried to believe, and tried to prove it to myself. It didn't worked. I strived, I really tried, and it didn't worked." (sic)

Not every service is for everyone. Those which I use, including FriendFeed, make sense to me. And there are definitely people who make very real attempts to participate on a service, only to not get much interaction, thanks to low personal brand recognition, or other factors, and it's likely there will always be a gap between those socially rich and those socially poor, so to speak.

Looking at directeur's feed doesn't seem all that quiet compared to many I've seen. Practically every item receives likes and comments, the two major actions FriendFeed users can utilize to engage. But it looks like it wasn't enough.

Poll Tracker '08 By Slate Brings Election Updates To Your iPhone

With the United States' presidential election looming next Tuesday, daily polls at the state and national levels are growing in importance, as Barack Obama looks to maintain and increase his lead over John McCain, and McCain and his team hope to repeat the Republicans' success in the last two elections, by securing votes in the swing states and holding their base. While the dual party competitiveness and strategy is not new, the fact I can track the day to day moves on my iPhone is. When not in front of the computer, checking out Electoral-Vote.com or FiveThirtyEight.com, I can see the most recent polls by using an app called Poll Tracker, which runs at only 99 cents.



The Electoral Vote Count, If All Polls Are Accurate, Is Displayed

Poll Tracker '08 By Slate has five major tabs within its application, including "Battleground" for hotly contested states, as well as the national poll, "Recents", showing the most recently updated state results, "A-Z", showing all states alphabetically, and one for each of the candidates, "Obama" and "McCain", represented by their respective party mascots, donkey and elephant. Those two tabs show the states with the candidates' greatest lead differential, from highest to lowest. For Obama, that's Washington D.C., where he leads 82% to 13%, and for McCain, it's Idaho, where he leads 62.1% to 29.5%, according to the last poll.



You Can Display Trends By State Or Nationally

While the latest snapshot of poll numbers is the most accurate measure for how next week's election may turn out, it's the individual state graphs I find most interesting. By tapping on any state, be it Florida, Ohio, Virginia, or Missouri, you can see how the state's residents have been surveyed over time, and get a good idea as to which candidate is trending in the state. Enough blue graphs on the upswing, and you can guess Obama is doing well. But if it's red you see headed up and to the right, it's the Straight Talk Express on the move.

Poll Tracker '08 admittedly has a sort shelf life. It might get a whole lot less interesting in about 10 days, and it won't give you the minute by minute updates we'll all be biting our nails over next Tuesday, but at $.99, it will deliver good value until the last vote is counted.

You can find Poll Tracker '08 By Slate on Apple's iTunes Store.

Google Reader Unveils Individual RSS Consumption Statistics

Google is sitting on a goldmine of data around RSS feed reading and consumption. As most universally accept that Google Reader is the most popular feed reader, Google likely has a plurality of information showing when bloggers post, when people read, and what the most popular feeds, items, etc. are. So far, despite having all this detail, the Google Reader team has been largely reticent to reveal their knowledge, choosing instead to promote RSS as a standard, rather than setting bloggers up with yet more ways to measure one another.

Today, a crack opened in the stone facade, as Google Reader delivered charts for every feed you are subscribed to, which shows when the feeds publish, by day, date and time, as well as how quickly you get to read the items themselves. The data, which leverages the last 30 days of activity, rather than the duration of the feed, or when you first subscribed, highlights the total posts per week, the total subscribers known to Google, and when the feed was last pinged. This part is not new.


Google Reader says Mondays have been busy here.

What is new are a set of bar charts showing what days bloggers post, what time of day they post, and when you read the pieces. The resulting charts can show gaps in a blogger's schedule, whether you wait hours to get a feed, or if they are filling your RSS in box overnight as you sleep.


Google Reader Shows Scoble Skips Days and then Spikes

For individual bloggers who post 1-2 items a day, you can see two or three day holes in their publishing, but for more high-volume sites, like Techmeme, TechCrunch, or Wired, for example, the resulting curve of information begins to take on a liquid form with fewer spikes. It's us individuals, who actually don't read RSS feeds 24 by 7, as much as we would like to, who have the holes in our consumption of that data.


Google Reader Shows Techmeme's Activity to be Fluid

To access this information, go to your Google Reader, click on the feed name of any item, and then click "Show Details" in the top right corner. Last 30 days will show what dates the author published (and you read it). Time of day will show the time the author published (in your time zone) and when you read it. Day of the week will show the day the author published (and when you read it).

We already had aggregate statistics, and now we have individual statistics by feed. It's tempting to guess what other mountains of data the Google Reader team is sitting on, and to wonder how we can tap in.

October 26, 2008

Twitter - the Portal of Web 2.0?

By Jesse Stay of Stay N' Alive (Twitter/FriendFeed)

A lot of discussion is going on around the blogosphere right now about whether Twitter may not be around much longer, because they have not yet implemented a business plan and have no immediate plan for enabling access to the "firehose" of data. It's a valid concern - yet at the same time, it's beginning to go "mainstream", with the adoption of sites like CNN.com and by pop figures like Britney Spears, people and businesses are really beginning to rely on this service. Will it have been in vain?

I asked on Twitter, "How many of you use Twitter as your sole update source? (e.g. you don't update Facebook with it, you're not on FriendFeed)". Surprisingly, of the responses I received, not one of them used Twitter as their sole update service. Here are the responses I received:
@bethevans: Not me. On FriendFeed.

@Bwoolley: Primarily Twitter, some Friendfeed

@shylie: I only update through twitter. I have it linked to Facebook and I have Pownce, FriendFeed, etc. accts but I rarely use them.

@jojeda: I use all, but most with effort and reluctance; only Twitter feels easy and fun.

@kenburbary: On FB, on FF, but use Twitter to update them for me. Twitter is the dashboard

@AgentJon: I use twitter to update my facebook, that is all...also when i send a twitpic i also send to facebook as well...

@erikmagraken: I use Twitter along with LinkedIn

@tatango: I have facebook also

@mclaughj: I'm on FriendFeed but the only thing I update is Twitter, not sure how that fits in...
As you can see, every single person responding was using Twitter as a gateway into some other service that they use. Some were using it to update their Facebook. Others FriendFeed. Others use Twitter, but at the same time they use a service such as LinkedIn, which has its own status feed. Not a single person was using Twitter as their sole source for networking and updating friends. No one seems to be completely reliant on Twitter, but they all seem to think they are.

Back in the late 1990's, when I was working tech support for my Uncle's Freeservers.com, at the time a fledgling startup in the back room of an old skating rink trying to compete with the likes of Geocities, it seemed that the topic of portals would come up regularly. Back in the day, before the "first bust", everyone predicted the future would be full of "portals", where people would come to one or two sites to get all the information they needed. Everyone wanted to be that site, and advertising was going to power it all. Unfortunately many of those portals did not succeed, and we saw sites like AOL.com and Netscape.com quickly fail as users wanted content from the source, through means such as search and RSS.

What this study on Twitter has made evident to me is that, whether that vision of portals ever really came true or not, Twitter itself has become one of those portals in regards to community. While each individual has their own community on Twitter, it would appear, were there a way to organize that community into groups, each individual on Twitter's network is nothing but a set of fragmented communities from other sites. Twitter has built a portal around the combined communities. No other community considered "mainstream" out there is so fragmented such as this.

It's an interesting concept, but as technology evolves around this concept will better ways of managing those communities come about? I'm worried that Twitter is in a fragile state that, while it disguises the whole community as its own, seems to really have no unified community in reality that can truly say they only care about Twitter. Having each user on Twitter belong to a subset of multiple other communities seems like a fragile state to be in.
Read more by Jesse Stay at Stay N' Alive.

October 25, 2008

Today Marks Ten Years Working In Silicon Valley

On October 25th, 1998, during my senior year at UC Berkeley, I started my first job in Silicon Valley, as an eCommerce Analyst for Internet Valley, a small startup focused on search engine optimization, technology trends and eCommerce. Today marks the tenth anniversary of that first day, making me one of those people who can sit around the table and claim a decade's worth of experience. Though my role has changed quite a bit from the first time I sat down for work in Burlingame, California, growing to take on traditional outbound marketing roles, including public relations and demand generation, the initial journey is worth commemorating.

As my senior year at Berkeley commenced, I knew I would need an off-campus job to help pay for rent and books, having left my position with the school newspaper, where I was Online Editor and a news reporter.

Not entirely sure what I wanted to do, I drafted two versions of my resume - one to be a journalist, and the other, to be a Webmaster. The journalist piece I sent to places like the Mercury News and MacWeek, and the one for being a Webmaster went just about anywhere I thought made sense, provided it was close enough to Berkeley, and offered flexibility that let me finish out my coursework and get the dual degree in Mass Communications and Political Science.

It being 1998, it was no surprise the Webmaster position found the most traction. That Internet Valley took a chance on me, an unproven kid at the age of 21, without a formal degree, helped lay the groundwork for my making a home in Silicon Valley and starting on a track toward a career that later encompassed Marketing. To give you an idea of how things have changed just in the last ten years, here's an excerpt from a note home to my dad, titled, "First day of work":
The company has ordered a Micron PC for me at work, and while it is a Windows 98/NT machine, it has some strong specs, such as: PentiumII 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM, 6.4GB of hard disk space, a 32x CD-ROM, and built-in Zip Drive.
That's right. In 1998, 6.4 GB of space and 64 MB of RAM was considered "strong specs".

I had interviewed at Internet Valley on October 13th of 1998, somehow getting from Berkeley to Burlingame without a car, using a combination of public transportation and my own two feet. And interestingly, my initial impressions of the Internet Valley site, and its methodology, provided some interesting hints for the way the future Web would be consumed.

From a previous e-mail, after 2 a.m. on October 14th of 1998:
(My boss) said that when he organized the site, he had done it with the intent of separating from print media, instead focusing on users who do not "read" documents, but "scroll" them. The typical Web site containing basic text was not to be found. The site instead contains words in a variety of colors, font sizes and heavy use of the bold tag. Some might call it ugly. ... He laughed about how he had dropped half of his age in a week if the letters were to be believed. But when scrolling down the site, a user can have their attention caught by the unorthodox methods, and will stop to read. Otherwise the words highlighted will give an idea of what the topic was being covered.
While the site itself was tough to digest, it brings to mind the way many of us consume news now, through a "river of noise", or scanning RSS rather than reading in full.

The stay at Internet Valley was not all that long, as the seed investor would have preferred revenue more quickly, but I managed to stay on with their sister company, 3Cube, reporting to the team's new vice president of Marketing.

Working at 3Cube during the dotcom boom, and eventually, through the bust, set the stage for how I approached business. Whether in operations, engineering or marketing, the team worked late, and was focused on doing what at times seemed to be super-human work, as we could ask a pair of coders to do what had taken a team of dozens at a competitor more time. And at age 22, I was responsible for running the Web site, and much of the copy, including FAQ's for these new products, even as I found myself sitting at the table with people who had been in the software industry since the time I was born.

As a young employee at both companies, and where I work now, I often found myself intimidated by my colleagues' experience and history. When they could talk in decades, I could merely talk in months, or maybe a year or two. With time, this has changed, of course, as I took on more responsibilities, including direct reports, gained experience, and have found myself at a place where many employees are younger than myself.

After the dotcom bust, I worked through the 2001-03 recession, and came out the other end with more knowledge on how to operate when times were lean. It looks like we may have that opportunity again, with the global markets being tossed to and fro. But even as we see our day to day challenges, or try and hit milestones that lie directly ahead, I can do so knowing that, after ten years of trying to make a difference, it's me who has a decade's experience in the Valley, the first of what should be a handful. I can't even imagine trying to work outside of the Valley. It's all I know, and all I want to know. Here's to thirty more years.

Filters and Belief Systems

By Rob Diana of Regular Geek (Twitter/FriendFeed)

Some days, there is a minimal amount of news and discussion. Yesterday was one of those days. Today, however, is different. In the morning, I read my feeds and had two interesting posts that will spark much discussion today.

First, Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins has quit FriendFeed. I am disappointed, but he puts it concisely, "Unfortunately, I just don't think I can take it anymore." In Mark's case, it was a political discussion that went awry that broke the camel's back. He lists the usual problems with any internet discussion, people not doing any fact checking and just spewing opinions, people insulting your intelligence and people calling you a racist. Disappointingly, the internet is full of people with different opinions and many discussions end in this manner. He does summarize his feelings nicely though:
As I said before, it's not a blanket indictment of everyone on there, but of the community spirit on the system. Almost everyone I know uses FriendFeed, and that includes my best friends. Somehow, though, when all my friends (and their friends, and their friends) get together in a conversation, something goes horribly awry.
The second blog post came from Louis Gray where he talked about his dilemma of being a Mormon, a Democrat, a friend of gay people and how to vote on California's Proposition 8. Prop 8 is a highly divisive issue because it is about eliminating the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Louis' dilemma stems from the idea that "Politics and religion make tough bedfellows. (No pun intended)." As a Democrat, he should obviously be against Prop 8, but as a Mormon he should obviously be supporting Prop 8. So, what do you do? This dilemma is true of any liberal-minded person who is also religious, because most religions are against same-sex marriages. The problem really comes down to something Louis mentions:
In theory, politics should be based on one's studying of the issues, and reaching a conclusion through a combination of facts. Religion, while often largely fact-based, also asks you to make decisions based on faith in things not fully understood and unseen, while trusting leadership who give guidance said to be of divine source.
Of course, Louis is already wondering what kind of response this will draw on FriendFeed. So, what do these posts have in common? Politics and religion. What is the common bond between these two topics? Belief systems. As much as people want to believe Louis' assertion, politics is based on studying the issues and reaching a conclusion based on facts, most people base their politics on their religious beliefs. These types of topics are very volatile because disagreement becomes an attack on "everything we believe".

The Importance of Filters

I have talked previously about the importance of filters when using an application like FriendFeed. Filters are mostly talked about in how to find information in the flood of noise. However, filters can also be used to avoid things you do not want to listen to. Anyone who follows me on FriendFeed can find that I rarely take part in conversations about politics or religion. There is a very good reason for this. Look at any of the political discussions lately on FriendFeed. You will find that the conversations may start as intelligent but eventually degrade into name calling. This is not always true, but it happens often enough. When belief systems are involved, I tend to avoid the conversation because I want to enjoy my experience, not argue.

This is the main reason I am disappointed with Mark Hopkins' decision to leave FriendFeed. His disgust with some of the conversations is his own making. Not because of his political views, but because he partakes in the political discussion. I value the benefits of FriendFeed too highly to allow the political discussions to bother me. I hide most political items because I am not on FriendFeed for that purpose. I may find some interesting political article to read, but I not discussing things there. The main reason is because I do not want to leave FriendFeed.

With services like FriendFeed and Twitter, you really do need some method of filtering. One of the obvious methods is a FriendFeed list. For Twitter, you can use software like TweetDeck to group users. The difference is that using application filters can improve your experience. That is why they exist. The other part of the filter equation is you. You may need to filter yourself. What I mean is that if you really like something, there may be compromises that need to be made. In Mark's case, maybe this means not getting involved in as many political discussions. If you do not like what Louis said in his recent post, then just hide the post.

The most important ingredient in the filters is you. If you do not like what is being said, you do not have to listen.

Read more by Rob Diana at RegularGeek.com.

Prop 8 Tangles Religion, Tech and Politics

Though I typically limit the amount of politics or religious discussion here, California's Proposition 8 has garnered the attention of many people across the social networks I participate. It's seen elite tech companies pledge their opposition, and quite visibly, the church I belong to has asked its members to support the initiative.

Prop 8 is the perfect storm of a debate, one that touches on everything from civil rights to equality, morality, faith, and idealism, with people sitting on the fence being very rare indeed. I wanted to see if it's possible to take such a volatile topic and have an intelligent discourse, although it's easier to slip into finger-pointing and name-calling. Positive discussions have already taken place a few times on FriendFeed, but most blogging and tweeting has taken one extreme side or another, without those talking trying to find why we have differences of opinion.

Yesterday, Apple pledged their opposition to the initiative, and offered to fund its defeat. This came weeks after Google similarly voiced opposition, at a time when the current polls show the state's voters to be divided. (See: FiveThirtyEight.com: Prop 8 a Toss-Up) Combined with accusations on both sides of shady behavior, ranging from blackmail letters to signs being stolen and, in a local case, an SUV labeled "bigots live here" being placed in front of a Pro Prop 8 home, it's a case of a divisive issue pushing people further apart.

Politics and religion make tough bedfellows. (No pun intended)

In theory, politics should be based on one's studying of the issues, and reaching a conclusion through a combination of facts. Religion, while often largely fact-based, also asks you to make decisions based on faith in things not fully understood and unseen, while trusting leadership who give guidance said to be of divine source.

Looking inwardly, there are multiple factors in play. On a personal level, many of my closest friends are gay, a pair of them being good friends who I've known for 15 years, each of whom came out in college after we had sparred over girls in high school. Some of them are in long-term relationships with their partners, which, were they straight, would be marriages by now. Also, two weeks ago, our family attended a same sex marriage between my mother's life-long best friend and her partner of 19 years in what was a beautiful ceremony in Berkeley. On a political level, I am a Democrat through and through. I share an almost complete affinity with the party's platform. On a religious level, I am Mormon, and know the church's teachings have brought a lot of clarity to the way I operate my life, and offer good guidance on how to have successful family, personal and business relationships.

That my political and personal leanings are in assumed conflict with the church's support for the initiative is extremely trying. Assuming I were to ever seek public office as a Democrat (should I ever want to), my public support for Prop 8 could be used against me. But also, public opposition for Prop 8 as an active church member would have me associating with groups that run contrary to the church, which I would like to avoid.

The LDS church considers itself apolitical. It doesn't tell its members how to vote, and doesn't endorse candidates (See their letter this year). But they have seen the Prop 8 battle as a moral issue, in the same way that Prop 8's opponents see it as a civil rights issue. They have asked members to support the initiative with their time and money, although the church itself is not funding the campaign directly. As a member, every time the church becomes entangled in politics, it makes me uncomfortable, and at times I find myself having to explain "their position" rather than "my position", which can often make me seem significantly more conservative than I am. But, again, as with many parts of religion, as was discussed last Sunday in our weekly sermon (for lack of a better word), as mortals, we know we don't have all the facts. I don't understand how two men or two women being married would ever negatively impact my family, and if I were running the Yes on 8 campaign, I certainly wouldn't be focusing on the children and school angle, as I don't think it's the schools' role to teach marriage to kids anyway. Teachers are busy enough as it is.

As a political observer, I see that Californian voters have a history of choosing exclusion over inclusion. Proposition 8 came to bear only after the existing Proposition 22, which mandated marriage as being between opposite genders, was overturned by judges' rule. That proposition, which was on the ballot in 2000, passed with a 61.4% to 38.6% margin. Similarly, back in 1994, Proposition 187, a ballot initiative aimed to deny illegal immigrants health care and school attendance, passed with 58.8% of the vote. When it comes to pitting a majority against a minority in this state, the wedge issues always seem to find a backer, and I think, despite the high profile opposition, Prop 8 will likely see the same fate, bringing an end to the same-gender marriages that are happening now, and bringing very personal sadness to those thousands of couples in the state who thought the doors had finally opened up.

It certainly would be a lot easier if the ballot initiative didn't exist, but you can't exactly put the cat back in the bag once it has escaped. The resulting back and forth discourse has stirred up a lot of emotion and distrust of people from different parties, different religions, and belief systems. That the LDS church has been a vocal supporter of Prop 8 and has encouraged members to stir up support themselves has made the topic one that is coming up at fellow members' homes as we talk about our own thoughts and wrestle with having to choose to honor those commitments where we promised to support the church leaders, unequivocally, rather than choosing those topics we like a la carte. I've had conversations about Prop 8 with my parents, with my wife, and at friendly gatherings. It's become a can't avoid topic. For some, usually those raised out of state, the request to push forward is easier. For others, usually those of us who have spent a lot of time in the Bay Area and have close gay friends, the interpersonal conflict is very real.

As Mormons, we believe strongly in what we call "free agency". We have the option to choose between what's seen as right and wrong. Nobody can force us to act in accordance with commandments given by God, or to follow, to the letter, the requests from our church leaders. For those of us who have to make this choice, by supporting Prop 8, we risk telling our gay friends and left-leaning peers that we've voted to take away something from them that is beautiful and wonderful, and for reasons we may not fully ever know until our Earthly lives are finished.

Can public endorsements from Apple and Google, two of the most respected tech names on the planet, be enough to overcome one's religious beliefs? I think it's absolutely important that both institutions show support for their gay employees, and that they, as companies, are doing the right thing. If I were running those companies, it's what I would do.

I don't have a crystal ball saying what's going to happen come November. Given California's history, and the public polls showing a dead heat, I would bet Prop 8 is going to pass. As I told a close gay friend earlier this summer, the community always gets "so close" to having full marriage rights, only for something to come and take it away. It seems at times inevitable that they may never have the identical privilege, thanks to a majority's opposition. But for those who are calling the opposing side bigoted and full of hate, it's far from that simple. I just wish we knew, with clarity, the right thing to do.

What are your thoughts? Is it possible to take something so volatile and find common ground when the positions seem so entrenched and opposed?

October 23, 2008

Gmail: Eight Articles With Useful How-Tos, Tips and Tricks

By Mona Nomura of Pixel Bits (FriendFeed/Twitter)


Even if I've had past issues with Gmail, I am still a huge Gmail junkie and advocate. I'm always on the hunt for any uselful tips, tricks, HOW-TOs for a better user experience.

I've listed 8 Gmail related articles compiled from the "Goodies Room" on FriendFeed. Even if you're a seasoned Gmail user, every article is filled with Gmail goodness and perhaps like me, you may learn something new. Enjoy!
  1. "13 Gmail Extensions for Firefox 3"
  2. "5 Gmail Labs Features Everyone Should Try"
  3. "Tip: Read Your Mail Without Touching Your Mouse"
  4. "Check if Your Gmail is Hacked with Activity Monitor"
  5. "Import Your Hotmail Messages into Gmail"
  6. "How to Make Your Gmail Contacts as Stand-alone"
  7. "Three Solid Gmail Productivity Tips"
  8. "Gmail Advanced IMAP Controls"
And as most of you know, Gmail now has auto-reply, dubbed "canned responses."

Do you have any tricks or tips I might have missed? If so, do share!

Read more by Mona Nomura at Pixel Bits

Social Media Workflow on the iPhone

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

I wanted to write a slightly different type of iPhone app review today. Instead of focusing specifically on one or two apps, I wanted to bring you with me as I walk through the tools I rely on daily as I check out the social media ‘scene.' Also, I'd like to prefix by stating that the iPhone has been an amazingly capable and flexible platform for web-based activities such as this. Not only does it work better for me than any mobile smartphone I've used in the past, but has completely replaced my trusty Nokia 770 internet tablet.

E-mail

When I pick up my iPhone in the morning, the first thing I check is new e-mail. Not very exotic, but this is something that needs to be done well on any smartphone. I'll disclose here that I've never used a Blackberry for any length of time, so I won't argue that it's the best mobile e-mail platform. However, the iPhone has a very strong, capable e-mail client. In fact, it has really come a long way from the 1.0 release on the original iPhone. Good attachment handling including PDF and Office documents, support for multiple POP/IMAP accounts, and good integration with other iPhone apps and even many 3rd party apps. Plus, Apple has their own tightly-integrated service called MobileMe.

One small issue I have with the e-mail client is the steps involved with switching between e-mail accounts. In essence, if you are looking at a particular e-mail, you have to hit the ‘back' button 3 times to get out to the account list. Why isn't there a shortcut to straight to the account list, or better, switch directly to a different account? Every other mobile e-mail client I have used has this simple feature.

FriendFeed

Personally, I check FriendFeed all the time to get a feel for the topics of the day, and to see if any ongoing discussions are happening that I can contribute to. FriendFeed has an excellent iPhone web client that is more than adequate for this job. I usually keep a browser session open specifically for FriendFeed so I can check it at different points in the day.

friendfeedhahlo2

Twitter

There are so many resources for accessing Twitter on the iPhone that I can't cover them all here. Twitter itself has a nice, clean mobile site if you point your mobile browser to m.twitter.com. However, I use an iPhone-optimized free service called Hahlo, it is really leagues better than any other web site in the same class, and even better than most Twitter iPhone apps! It supports everything you can do on the main Twitter site, plus integrates Twitter Search (formerly Summize).

If for some reason you don't love Hahlo, here are just a few of the other apps and sites you can check out: Twitteriffic, Twinkle, Twittelator, TwitterFon, Twittervision, Twitfire, and LaTwit. Also, Summizer is a mobile version of Twitter Search and Fring is just all-around amazing.

Google Reader and RSS

I am a huge fan of the Google Reader feed reader utility. It has social features as well as an intuitive keyboard-accelerated, web-based interface. In fact, I would argue that most of my real absorption of the social media space comes from the feed subscriptions I follow in Google Reader. Their team has also provided an excellent iPhone-optimized web site. As long as I have some network connectivity via wireless or cellular, this is my preferred way to catch up on my feed reading.

However, there are times when I know that I'll be out of all network access and I may still want to read some articles. Up until recently, there wasn't a good way to do this. However, a great iPhone app called Byline that was created specifically to sync with Google Reader and allow perusal of articles at leisure. Any annotations that are made, like ‘share with note' or ‘starred,' are synched back up when reconnected to the internet. Plus, Byline just got a big 2.0 interface makeover and is a pleasure to use. I recommend it if you prefer to use an app over a web site.

If you aren't a fan on Google Reader, there are a lot of other RSS readers for the iPhone (this is by far not a complete list, and App Store links all): NetNewsWire, SyncRSS, Web Feeds, Free RSS Reader, The Black RSS Reader, Daisy Feed, and NewsStand.

google_readerlinkedin

LinkedIn and Facebook

I tend to check both of these sites regularly to see if there are updates from my friends or colleagues. Both of Facebook and LinkedIn have superb iPhone apps developed by the respective companies running those sites. However, both companies also have really nice iPhone-enabled web sites! So you have a choice if you want to go for the ‘heavy' app interface (LinkedIn, Facebook) or the lighter web interface (LinkedIn, Facebook).

Other Sites

brightkite I am signed up for a lot of ‘microblogging' and other social sites, but I don't check them nearly as often as FriendFeed and Twitter. Luckily, they all have some sort of footprint on the iPhone, either via app, optimized web site, or mobile site. See the list below:

Video?

Although there are many applications and web sites (like seesmic) that will let you watch video on the iPhone, there is no direct support for video recording.. yet. There is hope though. Recently, Qik has been working on their iPhone client intensely and it should be in the iTunes App Store any time now! According to Kevin Rose and Chris Pirillo, it's looking like a winner.

Wrap-Up

So as you can see, there is a huge amount of support for the iPhone when it comes to social media. And I haven't even touched (no pun intended) on the plethora of iPhone-specific social networking applications out there that are GPS-enabled. There are so many, in fact, that they have their own iTunes App Store category.

If you are looking for a way to take your online presence on the road, this device is a one-stop shop. Due to the lack of video recording capability and not-quite-business-class e-mail support, you may end up going for a different phone. But no other phone gives you the breadth and diversity of activities that are available with the iPhone.

As a final note, I just wanted to include a link to a fantastic free WordPress plugin that gives you an instant, gorgeous iPhone optimized theme for your site. It's called WPtouch and it I recommend it highly.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.

October 21, 2008

iTranslate: Language Translation App for the iPhone

Between Yahoo! Babel Fish and Google Language Tools, Web surfers have grown accustomed to having easily accessible solutions for text translation between many languages, for individual words, phrases, or even entire Web pages. But on the iPhone, Google's own application doesn't include Language Tools, opening the door for iTranslate, a simple application aimed to bringing the same capabilities to Apple's increasingly popular microcomputer masquerading as a cell phone.

The application, free on the iTunes Store, is the first one released by Outer Space Apps, an independent iPhone developer team based in Austria, which includes Alexander Marktl, the founder and original developer of ReadBurner. Additional applications are planned by Outer Space Apps, including two currently in stealth mode for social networks both in the United States and Europe.


The iTranslate Interface In Action.

iTranslate, leveraging the Google Translation API, offers two-way translation between sixteen different languages, including Bulgarian, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norweigian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.

To translate a word or phrase, select the language you want to translate from on the left, and the language you want to translate to on the right. iTranslate will display the current setting, for example saying "English to Spanish", "Spanish to Italian", etc. Then tap the entry field at the top of the app, use iPhone's on-screen keyboard to put in the term, and hit Search. The application also saves your most recent query, as you can see in my example of translating "Where can I buy bread?" into Spanish and Italian.


iTranslate Results In Two Different Languages

The results then show the before and after on top of each other in the same screen, helping you to not only find the answer, but possibly learn the phrase yourself. While the application is free, it does leverage AdMob, as many iPhone applications are these days, to help monetize it and deliver some revenue.

To get started with iTranslate yourself, you can download it from the iTunes Store here.