July 31, 2008

Where You Get Your Tech News Shapes Your Tech Views

By Rob Diana of Regular Geek (Twitter/FriendFeed)

FriendFeed seems to be the source of most of my interesting conversations these days. Sometimes the benefit of FriendFeed is not even the conversation itself, but finding a link to a blog post that I normally would not read. This happened this week when Jesse Stay shared a post to a story on newspapergrl.com. I read a lot of what Jesse shares, but this site is one I had never read. I found the post interesting because it was about tech news and how slow things are:
I just got off the phone with my friend Chris and we talked about how we hardly blog anymore. Also about how nothing seems that exciting in tech lately. It's mostly about Google and the iPhone over and over. Are we just cynical or have things quieted down considerably?
I had no idea that this is what people thought. This was not written during the iPhone hype, this was written a few days ago. So, I decided to look and see what news was posted on Thursday, July 31st.

First, let us look at what TechCrunch had to offer.

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Out of 16 stories in our selection, 4 were tech financial news, 3 streaming video stories and the remainder (9) were about various sites and their features. For a technology news site, that seems very reasonable.

ReadWriteWeb tends to have more opinion and review posts than TechCrunch and their stories reflect that.

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You can not tell from all of the headlines, but of the 16 posts, 6 were opinions and reviews. 4 of the posts were about video, image or mobile devices. The remainder were about various sites and their features. Again this is a reasonable breadth of information.

The last "heavy" technical news site I want to look at is Mashable. They tend to be not as news-heavy as TechCrunch, and have more of a social application focus. So, what did they post?

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Out of Mashable's 16 posts, 5 were about video, audio or images and 10 were opinions or reviews of various sites. Lastly, there was 1 self-promotion post. Given the specific content focus, this is also reasonable. So, we have looked at the 3 popular tech sites that many early adopters read. In order to contrast what a mainstream user might read, I took a look at what stories Yahoo Tech News listed for the day.

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For Yahoo, we again sampled 16 stories. Of these stories, 5 were financially related, 2 were about cell phones, specifically controlling kids use and cancer risks. 3 of the stories were about server products (VMware, Microsoft "Midori", and SharePoint). 3 more stories were about video games, 2 of which were about WordScraper/Scrabulous. The last 3 stories were the Chinese internet censorship, a Blu-ray player for Netflix, and 6 Ways to Save on Groceries. A simple breakdown does not really show the difference, except for the groceries story. The 3 stories on server products were mostly business related. VMWare giving something away, another product trying to replace SharePoint, and what "Midori" could do for Microsoft.

Most of the stories on Yahoo contain little or no technical detail. You do not see anything about social networks or other social applications. There was no announcement for the SocialMedian release or the redesign of Delicious. So, why is this important? It is important because most people are not reading about the same things that an early adopter is reading. Obviously, there will always be some overlap, but the mainstream users care about very different things. Given the various discussions about passionate users, early adopters and mainstream users, maybe we need to take a step back and think about how we bridge that gap. If you do not agree, then find your most non-technical friend and explain why they need to use Twitter and FriendFeed. Do not be surprised if they ask whether they could find more than 6 ways to save on their groceries.

TweetStats Shows Impact of Instability on Top Tweeters' Activity

Much of the impact of Twitter's frequent downtime has been anecdotal. Amid some saying they're leaving the service for greener pastures, or developers pulling up their stakes in the Twitter community, statistics show that some of Twitter's most prominent and active users have dramatically reduced their activity on the site over the last two months.

The drop in total tweets by virtually every top user who was measured could be part technical - due to their simply being unable to login, or psychological, a result of lower activity and lower conversations which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. While none abandoned the site altogether, what could have been an "up and to the right" activity graph has largely stalled, and in many cases, reversed.

My own activity, rising month by month after I finally started using the service in January, stalled in June, and is still well below what it likely would have been had stability not been impacted.

Using TweetStats, a site which can show your total tweeting activity, who you most frequently message, and which hours and days you use the service, I polled ten top Tweeters to see how their June and July activity compared with April and May. Here's what I found:

Chris Brogan / @chrisbrogan
April and May Tweets: 2,896
June and July Tweets: 1,070
Change in Tweeting: Down 63%

Corvida Raven / @corvida
April and May Tweets: 2,669
June and July Tweets: 1,065
Change in Tweeting: Down 60%

Danny Sullivan / @dannysullivan
April and May Tweets: 1,281
June and July Tweets: 551
Change in Tweeting: Down 57%

Dave Winer / @davewiner
April and May Tweets: 1,535
June and July Tweets: 527
Change in Tweeting: Down 66%

Drew Olanoff / @drewolanoff
April and May Tweets: 2,131
June and July Tweets: 909
Change in Tweeting: Down 57%

GeekMommy / @geekmommy
April and May Tweets: 6,030
June and July Tweets: 1,419
Change in Tweeting: Down 76%

Jason Calacanis / @jasoncalacanis
April and May Tweets: 1,017
June and July Tweets: 562
Change in Tweeting: Down 45%

Leo Laporte / @leolaporte
April and May Tweets: 363
June and July Tweets: 237
Change in Tweeting: Down 35%

Robert Scoble / @scobleizer
April and May Tweets: 3,579
June and July Tweets: 746
Change in Tweeting: Down 79%

Michael Arrington / @techcrunch
April and May Tweets: 1,587
June and July Tweets: 1,079
Change in Tweeting: Down 32%

Across the board, Twitter's issues cut activity to the site by about half or more for some of the most visible users of the site. Others, like Kevin Rose of Digg (TweetStats) and Pete Cashmore of Mashable (TweetStats) saw only a less than 20 percent reduction in their Twittering activity between the two time periods. While there's no doubt many people, like Steve Rubel and Allen Stern, wish discussion of Twitter's problems would just go away, the impact it had on the site over the lsat few months has been very real, and we're just now able to take a step back and measure its impact.

SocialMedian Opens Up and Launches Beta

More than three months ago, this was the first blog to discuss SocialMedian, the social news service created by former Jobster CEO Jason Goldberg. In the last 100 days, the site has grown to encompass more than 4,000 users, who have themselves created more than 1,000 individual news networks, each tailored to sharing specific topics, driven by keywords, collaborative filters, and bookmarked items.

All this progress took place while the site was under invite-only alpha. As of tonight, the site opens up to all comers, in beta, which should set the service toward what will either be significant growth, or simply short-term curiosity.

SocialMedian is best described as an amalgamation of pieces from FriendFeed, Digg and Del.icio.us. Like in each service, you can bookmark external items, and share them with friends. Like with Digg, each item gets a total count for how many times it is "Clipped". You can see my own page to get an idea of what I've clipped over the last 100 days, who is following my updates, and who I'm following (like FriendFeed does).

SocialMedian's adherence to news topics so far separates it from FriendFeed. You can follow Web 2.0 or Politics or Venture Capital or one of the many news networks that have sprung up, and when you clip items, SocialMedian automatically assigns the item to one or multiple news networks.

But turning on the switch from alpha to beta wasn't just a matter of passing a date. In the last month, as SocialMedian readied for opening in beta, the service added mini-profiles, so you can learn about a person before following them, you can assign someone as a "newsmaker", the equivalent of a faux celebrity, and invite friends using your existing accounts on GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo! and other services. (Being frequently named as a "newsmaker" is what was behind my recent iPhone win)

When joining SocialMedian, if you choose to do so, it helps to register a nickname that matches your Twitter ID, if you have one. This triggers the service to autopopulate other sites, using the Google Social Graph API, and helps to automatically suggest to users who they should follow, based on those people they follow on Twitter and FriendFeed, and the popular friends of those users.

The site officially started development in February, and launched in alpha this April (when I first wrote about it). They've come a long way in just five months, and now that they've opened their doors, it will be interesting to see if they can get something resembling larger momentum. I've come across a lot of social news, aggregation and lifestreaming sites over the last few years, and SocialMedian is on my short list that frequently has me checking in. I'm eager to see how the site changes now that they are starting to get the attention of folks like TechCrunch and CNET.

See Previous Coverage:

July 30, 2008

Matthew's Story: From CenterNetworks' Future to Fired In A Month

Finding a writing position at a brand-name blog is hard to do, especially without having a significant resume, not to mention any references. So when Allen Stern of CenterNetworks offered my newborn son, Matthew, a position on his excellent blog, we of course struck at the deal. But in just a month, what at first seemed like a dream come true turned out to be a sordid tale of broken promises, unsafe working conditions and tears. A week after Stern publicly announced Matthew's firing, as a family, we've decided to tell our side of the story.

The fierce competition between East Coast and West Coast blogs these days is rivaling the old time feuds between East Coast and West Coast rappers. Based in New York, Stern has long been seeking the opportunity to open a Silicon Valley bureau, so this spring, when he learned we were expecting twins, he struck early, asking to sign up "whichever of the two kids was bigger". I naively accepted, not knowing that his request was due to the incredible stress that blogging and filing stories can be for a newborn.

Matthew Signed On to CenterNetworks In Days

Matthew and Sarah arrived on June 20th, he weighing a robust 5 pounds, and she, trailing at 4 pounds, 3 ounces. That made Matthew the candidate of record. The next four days were a whirlwind of deal-making, contracts being faxed from coast to coast, with little being given up on either side. Finally, the agreement completed, Matthew announced his signing, and was photographed with the world-famous CN sticker. The next day, Stern announced it to the world, and while he said "Of all the people I've hired over the years, this negotiation was the toughest," his listed demands were later proven to be a slap in the face.

Stern's Initial Set of Promises Included a New iPhone

But Stern Later Went Back On His Word

Over the next two weeks, Matthew made significant headway with CN, reaching out to Bay Area startups, reviewing alpha versions of Mac software and Web services, and even, somehow, transcribing quarterly conference calls. But while Stern publicly lauded his efforts in an update, the long hours, fatigue and strain were already becoming quite clear. As you can see from the follow-on post, Stern had openly reneged on the promised iPhone 3G, saying Matthew would get it "under no circumstances", despite it being promised in the initial agreement. Similarly, the promised crib with LCD panel and Wii Fit never materialized, which Stern attributed to "inventory shortages". Making matters worse, Stern would frequently call Matthew's home number at the start of East Coast business hours to talk strategy, despite it being only 5 a.m. Pacific.

The long hours and stress saw Matthew often falling asleep in front of his keyboard after filing a news story. He soon began to complain that he was unable to relax and casually visit his favorite sites, fearing an irate Stern would notice the gap in submissions and send yet another series of e-mails with even more assignments. And with every "like" or comment he placed on FriendFeed, Stern would just lose it - saying he was slacking off, or even worse, claiming he was manipulating activity on the site through creating hundreds of fake accounts. But it wasn't true, and try as Matthew would to explain he was just trying to catch up on the world outside of CenterNetworks, Stern wouldn't listen, ranting about how Mashable had scooped him on some new Facebook widget, or how ReadWriteWeb had gotten an exclusive look into a new AIR application that sent updates to Flickr and Twitter simultaneously, on Matthew's watch. The once promising job with significant career potential had spiraled into despair of inter-office politics and accusations that left Matthew depressed and unwilling to spend time with his sister or peers.

Matthew's Long Hours At CN Took Their Toll

It all came crashing down early last week, on July 21st. The first sign was when Matthew's CenterNetworks e-mail stopped working, and the daily shipment of Barnum and Bailey animal crackers didn't arrive. Then, two of the stories Matthew had filed were printed under Stern's byline, without his being mentioned as a contributing reporter. But Stern wouldn't take phone calls and Matthew was left to fend for himself. The next day, we realized what had happened. Stern, in a public missive, fired Matthew, without contacting him or myself, and continuing his rant about how Matthew was slacking off and creating FriendFeed accounts, accusations later proven untrue by FriendFeed interns Dan Hsaio and Ross Miller, who looked into the the service's logs following the allegations.

Stern's Hallucinations Fueled the Firing

Over the last eight days, as a family we've had to do a lot of soul-searching. Matthew, for one, swears he's had it with the blogging business, though it's not clear what line of profession he intends to take next. And if that weren't enough, on Monday, the long-promised Barney poster finally arrived, a stark reminder of one of the many unfulfilled promises by Stern and his crew. What should have been a case of spotting talent early, and helping to guide a young prodigy through the ranks instead was one that smacked of servitude, double-speaking and unhappiness. While we know we have a legal case against Stern and CenterNetworks proper over the unfulfilled iPhone, lack of proper advance notice of contract termination, and unfair child labor practices, we're going to swallow our pride and move on as a family. It's been hard, but we felt the right thing was to leave with our heads held high, without dragging this out through the morass that is the American judicial system.

So Pete "Peanut" Carreira, Stern may be whispering sweet nothings to you now and calling you a serious Seesmic star, but watch your back and protect yourself before what happened to Matthew happens to you as well.

New Facebook Design Confuses Many, Obscures Features

By Jesse Stay of Stay N' Alive (Identi.ca/FriendFeed)
(UPDATE: I wrote this post originally with the intent to show several missing features, which appeared to be missing to me over the last week or so. As you can read in the comments, I was very quickly corrected - either Facebook has recently re-added those features in place, or they are, as I mentioned in this post, just hard to find! I realized we had something bigger on our hands - If Facebook can confuse me, how many others will also be confused? I've modified this post to reflect that.)
With every new site redesign comes angry users ready to criticize the change. People just don't like change. I saw this first when I redesigned the site, SteepAndCheap.com (where I went by the nick, "SAC Hacker" in the forums). We saw every possible reaction to the new design on SteepAndCheap a few years ago, but in the end, people settled down, got used to it, and realized it was actually better for them in the long run. We're seeing this currently with Facebook's new design, even when only 5% of their users have actually switched to the new design! However, some of that outrage may be warranted, as you know (look in the comments), I originally wrote this thinking several features were missing, only to realize even I was confused at where to find them!

Facebook seems to have moved the Pages and Groups on users' profile pages. Now, to access Pages or Groups, one has to click one page deep from the main profile Page into the "Info" tab, and if you scroll down your Pages and Groups will be in the main section below. What's even more odd is that there is no way to drag those Groups or Pages around like there was before in order to put them higher up for users to see. Facebook evidently does not want users to see Pages and Groups as the first things users see when they visit your profile, as the company seems to be saving the business portions of Facebook for later. They seem have put low priority on them lately.

It's obvious that Applications have now moved to the "boxes" tab, and Facebook has made this clear in several announcements and blog posts recently. They did cut developers short however in the time frame they offered, and developers aren't happy either. For this reason you'll see most of your applications in that Boxes tab, rather than on your main Profile page, and applications like the FriendFeed app on Facebook no longer display detailed information in your news feed, but rather, "so and so has new activity in FriendFeed".

Lastly, up until just recently it appears (because there is an entire thread of people here that seemed to be missing it), a much needed and appreciated feature, the "ignore all" feature for applications was gone entirely. Facebook seems to be trying to remove spammy activity by applications, but somehow this was overlooked when they launched the new design it appears. It's a welcome sight to see that "ignore all" button back in your requests again.

As you can tell from the original revision of this post that I mentioned above, even I was confused by the new design (and I wrote two books about Facebook)! While I like how clean the new design is, getting to know where features are and aren't will take some time. This is going to confuse many of you, and there will be some backlash. My hope is, that with time, all this will work out for a better, cleaner, less spammy Facebook that we can all appreciate.

There are probably many more things that have moved or changed - please share them and your frustrations in the comments!

July 29, 2008

Facebook Still Banning Aliases to Avoid Becoming Fakebook

That Facebook has an itchy trigger finger when banning users or applications for assumed wrongs is not new or a mystery. People have been kicked off the site for adding friends too quickly, for using fake names, or trying to export data from the walled garden social network. And Facebook's adherence to this policy, especially when it comes to pseudonyms, puts them at odds with just about every other popular Web service out there. Just last night, a former colleague of mine, and now a Web friend, found himself on the outside looking in.

Vicky Chaudry (or Chau), whom I worked with at my current company from 2002 to 2005, is now the founder and CEO of StartupNewz, a Digg-like service focused on startup and technology news. To better highlight his immersion into Web 2.0 and social networking, Vicky took to calling himself Vic Podcaster, a name which has served him well, on LinkedIn, where he has more than 500 connections, on Twitter, where he is followed by more than 1,150, and on FriendFeed, where he follows almost 1,300. His pseudonym also didn't seem to stop his ability to get into the recent TechCrunch August Capital party (see pictures on Flickr) or the F8 afterparty for Facebook developers last week.

But eight months after opening a Facebook account under his name, Vic Podcaster, Vicky tried to log in to the service last night, to find his account had been disabled, "because the name it was registered under was a fake". Amusingly, this screen is surrounded by a note that "Everyone can join", and doesn't offer any kind of helpful link to challenge the ruling.

In the FriendFeed discussion that ensued after Vicky told everyone he had been banned, the once-banned Robert Scoble said, "Facebook sucks for just this reason.", while Jesse Stay suggested "One thing Facebook does still need to do, but I argue this is a minor thing, is make sure a human is reviewing disabled accounts before they get disabled."

Vicky's clearly not the only person using an alias on Facebook today. My high school acquaintance Bill Parnell is going by the name of Biznill Parnorell. There's even a user who friended me by the name of Daily Contempt. Surely that's not their given name?

I've been giving a lot of thought of late to the migration away from nicknames and more toward real names, especially as people are taking ownership of their blog posts, microupdates and comments across the Web. In most cases, users of apps like Facebook and FriendFeed are using their own given names, first and last, unless the user name is already taken. Facebook clearly didn't like Vic's changing his name to "Vic Podcaster", although LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed and GMail had no problems with it. But what constitutes fake? If Robert Scoble changed his login to Robert Scobleizer, would he be banned again? And while Michael Arrington uses his real name on Facebook, its the TechCrunch brand he's aligned with on Twitter. What if he went by Michael TechCrunch on Facebook? Grounds for banning?

Vic Podcaster Still Lives On LinkedIn

Aliases aren't the only reason you can get banned from Facebook, of course. Scoble was banned for using an early version of Plaxo software, and many have been banned for spam-like behavior. Alex Hammer, who I've written about before, e-mailed me three weeks ago, saying, "I'm working to get reinstated back into Facebook because I added too many friends too quickly." In their defense, he adds, he was warned.

So who's right here? Is Facebook wrong to stop people from using aliases, or are the other sites that have more permissive rules the ones who are making the mistake? Should Facebook have waited eight full months before banning Vicky? Couldn't they tell by his activity on the site that he's a real person with real connections? It seems to me at the very least, a human should have reached out to him and offered a way to change his last name to get it within guidelines.

The Gray Family Upgrades from Flickr to SmugMug

While SmugMug might not have the brand recognition of a Flickr, Shutterfly or Kodak's EasyShare Gallery, the photo and video sharing site has obtained a dedicated following of photographers who are serious about their work. The site has long received praise for its high-quality galleries, unlimited storage, security, and customization, and the company's small team of 30 employees has managed to be profitable since 2005, when many Web companies have been in the red, largely due to their not offering any free versions of their product. When Matthew and Sarah arrived on the scene, at first I was happy to upload the family photos to our free Flickr account, but the site's limitations, especially when it came to the total number of photos, and quality of those photos, made me think seriously about making the move to SmugMug.

Today, I'm happy to say we made the leap. The first batch of almost 150 photos, starting with my wife's very pregnant belly and taking us to the present day, including the first five weeks of Matthew and Sarah, can now be found at http://louisgray.smugmug.com/, where I plan to be maintaining our online photo presence from here on out.

Editing Images In SmugMug Is a Snap

While I still haven't made the leap to buying a professional camera (on the to-do list), I delved into my iPhoto, and exported the original photos taken since late June. All told, the 145 images totaled about 125 megabytes of space, no small chunk. But SmugMug's easy to use interface let me select the folder, and hit upload, and not too long after, I was seeing highest quality photography on the site.

With the photos on the site, I have a tremendous amount of flexibility for manipulating the images - far more than I could with the free version of Flickr. With Flickr, I could edit the title, the tags and the description of photos, but SmugMug lets me rotate the images, add captions, add a watermark, if I wanted, crop photos, and make color effects - for example, displaying the images in black and white, sepia tone or the negative, which can be flat out spooky. I found myself making a lot of bulk changes, rotating kids from laying on their side to facing straight up, and readying the pictures for display.

A Clip From a SmugMug Slideshow

Given I'm not the primary audience for these photographs, how friends and family can see our kids and their updates was key to the switch. First, you can do full-screen slideshows in SmugMug at very high quality, letting you pan right to left through the collection, starting with any photo, second, the thumbnails sent to FriendFeed are significantly better than those from Flickr, and thirdly, any of my relatives can select any number of photos to buy or print out in their preferred size. Now, instead of my relatives begging for prints, they can go off and make their own, assuming I have a good enough shot.

See How SmugMug Appears on FriendFeed

I've been watching SmugMug from the sidelines for the last few years. I've seen the company's great engagement with the blogging community. Don MacAskill has been a strong public face for the company, keeping friends appraised to service enhancements, community activities and any issues that may come up. The company has been very vocal about their support for "the cloud", and has even debuted a new application for the iPhone, called SmugShot. Once I finally get my iPhone, you know I'll be downloading it.

I don't plan to turn this site into a full-time mommyblog just yet, but if you want to see how Matthew and Sarah are progressing, be sure you check out the SmugMug site. There are even RSS feeds for recent photos and recent galleries. Pretty sharp.

July 28, 2008

Me-Too Software and Web Apps Often Find Their Own Niche

As the price to develop Web applications and communities has decreased, and investment in people is less-demanding, it's no surprise that we've seen a boom in sites with significant similarities - be they social networking, lifestreaming, status updaters, online file storage or virtual worlds. While the rule holds true in software as it does in Silicon Valley, that the vast majority of products may meet a less than optimal fate, the potential payout continues to draw development, with new brand names hitting our RSS feeds on a daily basis.

The seeming onslaught of new services had the omnipresent Chris Brogan asking frustratedly yesterday, "Who's writing all these me too software apps? Do they feel accomplished?" Brogan later gave the services Kwippy and Yokway as examples of two services that had recently come across his view, adding, "(I) just dont' see why we need yet another of something we have in spades. Where's the innovation?"

Sometimes, in this age of instant analysis, determining the differentiation and purpose of a new site can be hard, especially as the bloggers and technology reporters try and grasp the new site and place it in the context of existing applications that are more well-known. (See: Inquisitr: Yokway: Sort of FriendFeed Meets Del.icio.us for one example)

Whether it's in the name of differentiation or competition, it's rare that a developer or startup team will be aiming to make a carbon copy of an existing site. RSSmeme debuted, after ReadBurner, to show the most shared items in Google Reader, and progressed differently, offering a custom FeedFlare and featuring deeper index with more linkblogs than ReadBurner, while ReadBurner partnered with multiple RSS engines, including NewsGator and Netvibes. Facebook was like MySpace and Friendster before it, but initially just for the college set and later high school, before opening up, and later adding a development platform.

There is a long history of services and software that have striking similarities to one another. That a product exists doesn't mean that any potential competing product should walk away and cede the market, delivering a monopoly. As Disqus' CEO Daniel Ha told me back in June, the existence of competitors like SezWho, Intense Debate and JS-Kit help let him know he's in a worthwhile market to pursue, even if it's a rare blogger who has plans to implement multiple commenting engines. The existence of Digg didn't stop Mixx from debuting, and the existence of HotBot, Lycos and Excite didn't look like too much of a hurdle for Google to get going.

Rob Diana of Regular Geek, in the FriendFeed comment thread spawned by Brogan's question, said, "Until someone dominates the space you will see a lot of similar applications," while Clint Ecker wrote, "The market will bear out the niche products and the unsatisfactory ones will fade away and disappear until the community has selected the 'best' service."

But even the selection of a "best service" doesn't mean there won't be more developers trying to crack the market. Plurk and Identi.ca are two recent approaches to microblogging, taking on Twitter. And Cuil's entry into the search market came at a time when Google's enjoyed its largest market share ever. The likelihood of these challenger sites to replace the market behemoths is very small, both short term and longer term, but just about every site and service can develop a dedicated community who swears by it - arguably making the developers' efforts worthwhile. You recently saw this happen when the niche community sites of Ballhype and Showhype, arguably Digg clones, were acquired for $3 million.

From the outside looking in, developers don't see themselves as copycats. Instead, they likely see opportunity, finding weaknesses in a competitor's offering, or finding a new way to seemingly offer the best of both worlds. And just because they aren't enjoying a majority market share in a given metric by a certain time period doesn't mean their efforts were in vain. There's no hard and fast law saying you need to sign up for every lifestreaming service, every social network, every microblogging client and every RSS reader, but as more options and alternatives are out there, there will be a small group of people who prefers the new entrant, whether it be for its GUI, its compatibility with plug-ins, widgets or extensions, or implied productivity.

As an early adopter, I'll usually be checking out most of these services, and I welcome more. It's not about finding how much they're all the same, but determining the differences, and seeing what I can do that's new. I might, sometimes, never use a service again, if I don't find it to do what I had hoped. But often, when I check back in a few months later, I'll find a small community that's calling it home, or see the development didn't stop at day one, making it a richer experience. So, development community, keep it coming. Let's see those new apps, the new innovation, and the new services. It will never be enough.

Can Cuil, Built for the Long-Term, Win the "Instant Analysis" Battle?

Tonight's biggest technology story is the debut of new alternative search engine, Cuil (pronounced "cool"). In the shadow of the omnipresent Google, the search engine opened up to initial queries today, and so far, visitors don't seem that impressed. The site is already seeing some downtime, which they claim to be the result of "overwhelming interest", but even prior to the outage, its various limitations got the lion's share of attention, masking an otherwise interesting service. And this got me thinking, again, about how, often, blogs and users are keen to make a snap decision as to a product's worth, in the first minutes or hours of its debut. It can lead to a lot of people crying for "epic fail", and not waiting a few weeks, months, or even years, to see it develop, getting closer to its full potential.

More than two years ago, I wrote a post called, "Launching Products in the Age of Instant Analysis", which saw how initial response to Google Finance, Apple's Mac Mini and Microsoft's Origami UMPC platform was overwhelmingly negative, even before most people had ever had the opportunity to buy the latter two in stores. At the time, I noted how some bloggers had achieved their conclusion after only fifteen minutes of using a site, and even tonight, we're seeing the same conclusions reached, not just after fifteen minutes of using a product, but sometimes, even faster, after one failed vanity search or a set of keywords.

Out of curiosity, I of course tried Cuil myself, and came away less than impressed, but I don't have the feeling that this will be the last we'll hear from the Cuil team. While I'm not going completely off the wagon and claiming them to be the heir to the Google/Yahoo!/Microsoft Live Search throne, I'd expect they have plans to expand and tweak their database, invest in their infrastructure, and make their searches more relevant.

A search engine launch is not a one-night affair, and while tonight's debut has been sloppy at best, they might find a niche and gain traction. Don Dodge once famously reported that 1% of the search engine market is worth $1 billion, so finding a place to play and get share is serious business, even if it is against extremely formidable competition. Cuil looks like they lost the first night's chance at getting the "instant analysis" crowd to love their effort, but they've got attention, and maybe, with continued effort, we'll be seeing if the company, built for the long term, can overcome a few hours or days of distress.

July 26, 2008

Roll Your Own Blog Leaderboard With Google Reader Trends

Tech bloggers and readers are quite familiar with Techmeme and the site's accompanying leaderboard, which tracks the top 100 sources to the popular news-tracking site over the previous thirty days. Since the leaderboard was initiated, Michael Arrington's TechCrunch has held the top position, accounting for between 5 and 8 percent of all stories. As of Friday night, TechCrunch represented 7.03% of Techmeme's stories in the last 30 days. As a subscriber to the Techmeme Firehose feed in my Google Reader, I see 3,162 items reached Techmeme in the last 30 days, meaning TechCrunch's share was somewhere north of 200 items. But Google Reader does more than show me the items I've received, it also shows me the items I've shared, and the most often shared sources, in effect, giving me the option to record and display my own leaderboard of the top 40 sources that I've shared on my Google Reader shared items blog.

Anybody who uses Google Reader as their RSS feed reader of choice, and who shares items to a link blog can make their own personal leaderboard. While I won't be updating mine multiple times daily, as Gabe Rivera does on Techmeme, and I can only show 40 items, instead of 100, I will, starting tonight, be posting my own LG Leaderboard, for the previous 30 days, and will update this list every month, on the 26th of the month.

First, the dataset:

According to Google Reader, from my 336 subscriptions, over the last 30 days I read 16,386 items and shared 919 items.

Second: The leaders for July of 2008:

Like Techmeme, my #1 shared blog was TechCrunch, thanks to their frequent posting and high number of stories I believe those who follow my link blog would be interested in. Similarly, given my own bias, this blog is in the #2 position. I'd remove it from the leaderboard, but don't want to skew the statistics. Duncan Riley's The Inquisitr has made a strong showing at the #3 position, followed byRead/Write Web at #4 and Silicon Alley Insider at #5. All percentages shown are the result of taking the number of shares in the month per source, divided by the total number of shares. (In this case N/919)

PositionBlog% of Shares
3.The Inquisitr4.14%
4.Read/Write Web3.59%
5.Silicon Alley Insider3.48%
8.Scripting News2.50%
11.Why Does Everything Suck?1.41%
13.I'm Not Actually a Geek1.41%
14.Robert Scoble's Shared Link Blog1.31%
17.Online Media Cultist1.20%
18.Stay N' Alive1.20%
21.Sarah In Tampa1.09%
24.Broadcasting Brain0.98%
25.Deep Jive Interests0.98%
27.David Risley0.98%
29.Mathew Ingram0.87%
33.Colin Walker0.87%
35.A VC0.76%
37.The Unofficial Apple Weblog0.76%
38.SEO and Tech Daily0.76%
39.Jeremy Toeman's LIVEdigitally0.76%
40.Regular Geek0.65%

All told, these top 40 sources accounted for 595 of the 919 shares over the last 30 days, or 64.7% of the total, meaning the other 296 sources accounted for 324 total shares, or 35.3% of the total. Everybody's leaderboard will be vastly different, for sure. Contrasted with the Techmeme leaderboard, the flagship for measurements like this, I lack a number of more mainstream feeds, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Forbes, but in its place, you see a lot more individual bloggers who bring me the news I find interesting. I'll be posting these regularly, and if you would do the same, send me a link in the comments to your list. Could be a great way to find new blogs and news sources. Also, if you think you belong here, add your blog in the comments, and there's a chance you'll be on the leaderboard next month!

You can find my Google Reader shared items link blog here, or see them included in my FriendFeed.

July 25, 2008

FriendFeed Friday Tips #8: How To Post To FriendFeed Via E-mail

By popular demand, I've been asked by other FriendFeed users to highlight how I use the popular social lifestreaming site. So far the series has covered the "Hide" function, the bookmarklet, advanced search, how to integrate with Google Talk, how you can incorporate comments, determine an item's original source and how to learn more about your fellow users.
Since FriendFeed debuted their API this spring, the number of third party applications authored for the fast-growing aggregation service has been rapidly increasing. There have been different Web-based services to give a new look to FriendFeed, from FriendFeedMachine, MioNews and NoiseRiver, a mobile version from FFToGo, and other add-ons, including GreaseMonkey scripts and blog comments integrators. But sometimes, it'd just be a lot easier to start out with the original social network - e-mail.

Gary Burd, a long-time Microsoft employee, and now a member of FriendFeed's small staff, introduced a service that lets you post directly to FriendFeed, using your e-mail, including the attachment of photos or graphics, called Mail2FF, back in late May. He debuted the service prior to joining the Mountain View-based company, and its arrival was well accepted by co-founder Paul Buchheit, who wrote, "Cool! Did you create this Gary? This has been on my "things I personally want" list for a long time."

Using Mail2FF is quite simple, as you can see from a Mail2FF tutorial produced by Ross Miller, an intern at the company for a summer.

Step 1: Write Your Message

Open your e-mail application and compose your message, just like you were sending a regular e-mail. The subject line of your e-mail will be the subject line, and the body of the message will be posted as a comment on your own item.

Step 2: Add Pictures

Attach any photos or graphics you would like to accompany the item. They will be placed as part of the item in their full resolution, hosted on Amazon Web services. Up to two images will be displayed on the item, with a blue arrow being displayed if more than two images are attached.

Step 3: Know Where To Send It

Mail2FF uses your own API remote key, which you can find here. To send the message to FriendFeed, you would send it to:


For me, assuming my remote key is purple456monkey, I would send it to:


The end result would be displayed like this:

Step 4: Sending the Message to a Room

If you want to get creative, you can even send your message, and images, to a FriendFeed room, rather than the main feed. This is done by adding the room name ahead of your username and remote key.

For example, if the room name is "babyfeed", one I've been using lately, I would send it to:


The result would be just as it is in your own feed, complete with subject line, body content as the first comment and attached images, but sent to the room itself. (See above or the actual posting)

Mail2FF was so clearly a success, it was integrated with FriendFeed's native version for the iPhone released at the end of June. (See: VentureBeat) And when I was stuck at the hospital, finding many of the Web sites I used completely blocked, like Flickr and FTP, Mail2FF was the only way I could send the very first pictures of Matthew and Sarah the world had ever seen. (See: Matthew and Sarah: First Photos (More Coming))

When entries are posted to FriendFeed via Mail2FF, you will see a tag "via Mail2FF", and the items are shown as "internal" FriendFeed postings. You can see some that I've done here, here and here. To get started, head to www.mail2ff.com and give your e-mail a shot.

Can Microblogs Just Talk To Each Other?

Guest Post By Rob Diana of Regular Geek (Twitter/FriendFeed)

Twitter has had a bad few days. After a few weeks of wonderful stability, we started to see some Fail Whales. Then people started losing followers and subscriptions. Because of this, even more people are moving to alternative micro-blogging services like Identi.ca. Of course there have been several requests for a Twitter friend importer. I think people are getting caught up in the problem and not thinking about the best solution. Previously, I mentioned that Twitter was at the crossroads. In that post I started thinking about a possible solution:
It is now late May and they are just admitting that they have infrastructure problems. Obviously, there are the redundancy and replication issues that can be solved with known techniques. The realtime API needs to be using a replicated database and not affect the main database. This is the part that is concerning me the most as it should have been obvious some time ago.
Another post appeared from Dave Winer where he mentioned that we are inching toward federation.
Right now, today I'm using an approximation to the ideal system. I try to enter my original post on FriendFeed, then I have an agent script running on one of my machines that routes it to Twitter and Identi.ca, with a pointer to the discussion thread on FriendFeed, shortened by bit.ly.
Obviously, this is not a good solution to the Twitter problem either. There are also multi-posting services like Ping.fm and Posty which allow a user to update each of their micro-blogging services with the same message. So, with one click you can update Twitter, Identi.ca, Pownce, Jaiku and Plurk. While that sounds really cool, they only provide one-way updates. Tools like Twhirl are starting to allow posting and retrieving of tweets and dents in one application. This gets a little better, but you still have multiple accounts to deal with.

Federated Microblogging

Federation is the real answer. What does federation do and why is it different from Twitter creating a distributed architecture? A distributed architecture means you have various pieces of the application sitting on different servers. Typically, several parts are replicated or redundant and there are various load balancing devices thrown in to complete the architecture. I am not going to go into tons of detail as books have been written about distributed architectures.

Federation is different from distributed in one simple sense. Federation requires a full copy of the entire system. Federation is the cooperation between various systems to act as one. Wikipedia has a good description of a federated database system.
A federated database system is a type of meta-database management system (DBMS) which transparently integrates multiple autonomous database systems into a single federated database. The constituent databases are interconnected via a computer network, and may be geographically decentralized. Since the constituent database systems remain autonomous, a federated database system is a contrastable alternative to the (sometimes daunting) task of merging together several disparate databases.
If you replace all of the database and database system terminology with microblogging and microblogging system you will understand a federated system. So, how does this help Twitter? It does not, at least not directly. By having a federated system, people can move to Identi.ca or the next clone that appears and not lose their followers. If you think about the concepts of email, you will understand how the federated system would work. My account in the federated system would be robdiana@identi.ca. A Twitter user could reply from within Twitter directly to me (robdiana@identi.ca) and I would receive it in whatever client application I had. I could also follow Twitter users, Pownce users or any other microblogging user. By enabling people to communicate across platforms would mean that the server load would be spread across various services, thus decreasing the amount of traffic on Twitter directly.

The one part of the federation that is missing is the routing between servers. This can be accomplished by following the DNS model. A local DNS server has a reference to its parent or master server. This allows new servers to be built and their location and IP address propagated to other servers. This is a very effective solution and it has worked for several years.

Because Twitter and Identi.ca follow the same API, they could act as the root servers in the system. The other option to the Twitter API is the XMPP protocol, which Twitter is using for their realtime API. The protocol choice is important because a federated system requires that all of the systems speak the same language. A federated system would also require a different client application than we have now. As I mentioned earlier, Twhirl fully supports Identi.ca and Twitter. However you are dealing with two different accounts. How cool would it be if you had one microblogging client to chat with people on any service?

July 24, 2008

The Hubris of the Twitterati and Twitterati Wannabes

Guest Post By Cyndy Aleo-Carreira (E-mail / Twitter)

Twitter fails yet again. After a huge site outage, U.S. users woke up this morning to discover what other users already knew: the database was hosed, and subscriptions were a wreck. I appear to be one of the only people with a single concern, however: what happened to the people I was following? I don't remember all of them. I certainly didn't keep a list of the people I was subscribed to. Nor would I want to page through all of them to figure out who is missing if I did.

However, the majority of users are more upset with their follower count. Yes, that's right. People are up in arms over who was following THEM. In this increasingly ridiculous echo chamber, the loss of followers means that a number is lower; a potential audience gone missing.

The tech blogosphere isn't Hollywood, and even Hollywood is pathetic in its idolization of people who work at a particular craft. I don't mind missing followers; if someone finds my 140-characters-max blathering entertaining, then that person will find me again. I don't use Twitter for an audience. To whine about having a few people taken away that follow you is so depressing I can't even manage to put it into words properly.

The functionality of Twitter is useful to me only in how I use it to learn. The majority of my Tweets are conversation, often replies to questions others pose. But I'm depressed at the hubris of what seems to be a number of users, who find the loss of followers damaging to their egos. Social media is supposed to be about conversation. Not pumping up self-importance. I don't know how many followers I had. But I definitely know how many people I'm following are missing.

BallHype Crew Takes a Vote, and Launches BeltwayBlips

Last week, the increasingly popular Ballhype and Showhype sites were acquired by Future US for a cool $3 million, as the Digg-like sites, focused on sports and entertainment respectively, were seen growing as destination sites for fans of all flavors. Less than 10 days after that news, the Future US team is already seeing dividends from the acquisition, as the husband and wife team, Jason and Erin Gurney, turn their attention toward Washington and politics with the launch of BeltwayBlips.

In the tradition of Ballhype and Showhype, BeltwayBlips aims to bring the hottest political news to the front page by both auto-discovering hot blog conversations through the number of external links, but also adding on users' up or down votes, like Digg. Those hot items receiving many votes in a short amount of time rise to the top, and after some duration, will drop lower in rank.

Earlier this year, when meeting with the Gurneys at their home, they said they didn't want to get into more serious issues, like politics or technology, and the pair felt two sites was just about all they can handle. But following the acquisition, Future US has allowed the Gurneys to add to the team of developers, and given them the support to expand their site portfolio.

The addition of politics to the arsenal should make for some very "lively" discussion for sure, given the clear partisanship shown by both the right and the left in today's charged climate. I have concerns that McCain fans will always vote down positive Obama stories, and vice versa, or a few unsavory characters could make the environment unfriendly. While in sports, one can divide their attention between about 30 professional teams in each league, in Washington, you're usually either "with us" or "against us", as has been frequently said.

Headlines reaching the top of BeltwayBlips in the last few days have included the news of Robert Novak being involved in a hit and run accident, rumors of John Edwards fathering a child out of wedlock, and the two presidential candidates taking opposing positions on Iraq. Forget C-SPAN, this political hotbed isn't going to be a snoozefest by any means.

As with Ballhype and Showhype, the site offers the usual array of features, including comment threads, leaderboards for users and blog sources, embedded video links, and the ability to create groups. If you already have an account with one of the *Hype sites, you can log into BeltwayBlips today.

Twitter Finding New and More Creative Ways to Fail

Just when you thought it was safe to Tweet again, Twitter ran into yet another database problem, which not only resulted in sporadic "Fail Whale" sightings, but dramatically impacted the roster of those following one's updates, as well as those each of us were subscribed to. The latest snafu comes at a time when the growing number of microblogging addicts are seeking alternatives, moving to FriendFeed, Plurk, and increasingly, Identi.ca.

According to a post on the Twitter Status blog, the issue first showed a reduced number of followers on the service, and later, in order to solve the issue, Twitter went into a maintenance mode, warning of lower counts across the board. Amusingly, they claimed that some of the lower counts could be due to the removal of spammers, but in my experience, it's been more than 9 hours since the problem was first identified, and I've seen the number of people I'm following drastically cut, from more than 1,500, down to "only" 672, less than half.

On Monday, when I said "The Talk About Rules for Social Following Is Getting Out of Hand", I had taken a screenshot of my current Twitter ratio, at 1,534 to 1,441, after having worked for a good part of the previous week with Twitter Karma to get my ratio synchronized. Just a few days later, that data is carved to 672 and 1,236, prompting some to try and refollow me, and even more to flock to identi.ca.

Twitter's gotten a lot of abuse on this blog in the past few weeks, as we've gone over issues with developers, uptime and changes to the API, but every time I think they've captured the market on a single route to failure, they find another way.

The team's employees are talking a good game about getting this resolved, but seriously, Twitter, why should we believe you now?

See also:

Why Does Everything Suck: The Nightmare Twitter Scenario May Be Upon Us
Profy: So You Thought Nothing Could Be Worse Than Fail Whale? Now Get Your Followers Back