The problem with Web2.0

I intended to write a blog post on this topic, but ended up using Powerpoint oto t organize my thoughts, and then realized that the resulting slideshow mace the post somewhat superfluous. It is a rumination on the problem with web2.0 today (information overload), some solutions, and speculation about where we go from here:

bit.ly and folksonomy

I noticed a few links on Twitter using bit.ly for url shortening rather than the old standby tinyurl and was intrigued. RWW raved about the service as well, mainly because it makes an attempt to categorize links using semantic algorithms. I took a look and have to admit that one other feature of bit.ly stands out – the ability to define your own link code. In one sense this is kind of a bad thing, because it is Yet Another Namespace that everyone with a brand or trademark would do well to rush to grab (assuming the service does take off, which I am still a bit skeptical about). For example, bit.ly/blog and bit.ly/islam are now taken, pointing to various blogs of mine as an experiment (I note with satisfaction that the Obama campaign already is on top of this and has grabbed bit.ly/obama).

At RWW, Marshall says that bit.ly’s semantic classification of links makes it the tool of the future:

Bit.ly is analyzing all of the pages that its users create shortcuts to using the Open Calais semantic analysis API from Reuters! Calais is something we’ve written about extensively here. Bit.ly will use Calais to determine the general category and specific subjects of all the pages its users create shortcuts to. That information will be freely available to the developer community using XML and JSON APIs as well.

I can’t share in Marshall’s enthusiasm however because I don’t see the semantic categorization as innately useful. I’ve blogged before about why folksonomies are the key to web 3.0, and all bit.ly is doing is generating a taxonomy for its links, not levarging the power of folksonomy. In a sense, by letting users define their own link code, bit.ly is sitting on top of an intrinsic mechanism for folksonomy already, by simply treating the codes that users assign to their links as folksonomic tags. I hope that they recognize the value of those custom codes, and not get too enamoured of and distracted by the magic word “semantic”.

Whether bit.ly gains traction is of course not going to be driven by fringe features such as geotagging and semantics (ie, metadata), but rather by how easy it is to integrate teh service into other tools that users actually, well, use. TinyURL rode the Twitter wave to prominence, since it is the default url-shortener service (automatically invoked when you tweet, with no user intervention required). Similar services like is.gd, which have a much simpler API and are theoretically more robust in their namespaces, still haven’t broken into the market much yet, even though they also have teh requisite bookmarklets and firefox extensions already. If bit.ly wants to make inroads it needs to become the default URL service for a hot web app like Friendfeed, or even contract with twitter itself to become a user-specified alternative to tinyurl. I think that it would make sense to try for partnership with friendfeed, actually, because then the link history can be integrated into the user’s profile and browsed like any other service. If bit.ly doesn’t support RSS feeds of its user’s linkages, they should.)

Overall, there are plenty of services out there but the thing to remember is that none shoudl be thought of as genuinely archival. A shortened URL should be a tool of convenience, but don’t expect that link to work forever. In one sense its better for there to be many such services rather than one to rule them all, which is why I am glad to see another competitor to TinyURL emerge. The rest is just icing on the cake (and hopefully a spur towards further innovation).

plugin wanted: Author Tags

Had another idea for a useful plugin – what is needed is a plugin that creates a tag cloud/tag list on a per author basis. This would be especially useful for group blogging sites (like Talk Islam). The plugin would ideally allow a simple function call with arguments:

– user name (login)
– number of tags (defaults to 5)
– list or cloud format (defaults to list)
– list delimiter (defaults to ” | “)

On a bio page or About page, this would be very cool because it would let you see at a glance what topics each author blogs about most.

Twitter needs “mark User as read”

I was somewhat bemused by the new service that lets you put Twitter friends on “snooze”. The idea is that if someone is very prolific (ahem @Scobleizer, ahem) then you may want to take a break from their updates for a while. While it is certainly true that some users drown out others in your stream by sheer volume of tweets alone, I think that “snoozing” them is the wrong approach, because you are missing out on data. What would be more useful would be the ability to mark all tweets from a specific user as “read” analogous to how you mark emails in your inbox as read. This would have the effect of hiding all posts from that user dated prior to the time you marked them as read. That way the Twitterers you follow who do not update as often can be rescued from the stream, because as you mark the more prolific users read, they are left behind.

This might be more appropriate as a Greasemonkey script actually. Regardless of how it is implemented, it would make following hundreds or thousands of other people much more manageable. or even two Scobles.

the future is now

Well, better late than never – Blogger finally supports scheduled posts:

We’ve often heard that sometimes you’d like to write a post now and have it automatically published at some time in the future. We listened, and are pleased to say that this feature is ready for you to try out on Blogger in draft.

Publishing a post in the future is pretty simple: in the post editor, reveal the Date and Time fields using the “Post Options” toggle and enter a post date and time that is in the future. When you then click the “Publish” button, your post will become “scheduled.” When the date and time of the post arrive, your post will be automatically published to your blog.

Only works if you use the beta version of blogger, though, by logging into your blog via draft.blogger.com. Like Gmail, I wonder if Blogger will ever escape Beta status.

I am still running my blogspot blogs with the old template system because I found that the new sidebar functionality was too complicated to hack. I really like the ItemPage / MainorArchivePage conditionals and am loath to give them up. Still, blogger just can’t compare to WordPress or other systems anymore for general use. I only stick with it for the pagerank that my blogs there have by virtue of their longevity.

askTWIT

I am running a little experiment on Twitter. I have created a new account called askTWIT. The purpose is to facilitate getting answers to questions by tapping into the Twitter hive-mind, by acting as a central point of reference where questioners and answerers can find each other. It works like this:

If you have a question:

1. Follow askTWIT.
2. tweet your question in reply to @askTWIT (eg. “@askTWIT Is Twitter useful or a waste of time?”)
3. watch for replies.

To answer a question:

1. Follow askTWIT.
2. Look for questions you might be able to answer.
3. Reply to the tweet with the answer (eg. “@azizhp yes it haz @Scobleizer duh iz useful”)
4. bask in the warm glow of Karma, Zen, etc.

If someone asks a good question it might develop a whole tree of responses which can be tracked on Quotably.

The idea somewhat borrows from Scoble’s idea of autofollowing everyone who followed him – his follow list is probably the closest to a hive mind as you will see on Twitter, but anyone with a few thousand followers will see a similar depth of knowledge in their crowd (problogger uses this to extreme advantage for all sorts of cool projects). Let’s see if this model for tapping the TwitterMind can scale.

Planet Twitter: twittearth is our metaverse

In Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash, the Metaverse appeared to its users as a single city strung along a road a hundred meters wide, spanning 200 km around the equator of an otherwise utterly featureless, black, spherical planet floating in electronic void.

TwitterEarth is cooler:

Plenty of others have reviewed Twittearth already (and plenty more have twitterred about it). But what strikes me about it the most, apart from the sheer novelty, is how in a way it really underscores the way that Twitter functions as a universe unto itself. This is Planet Twitter. It’s self-referential, a global conversation focused as often as not upon its own navel.

We aren’t used to thinking about the internet communities we inhabit in a geographical sense. Usually our friends and networks exist as linear scrolling boxes of text. Twittearth takes that line and turns it into a sphere, one we can relate to strongly and intuitively. There’s something utterly captivating about watching that globe spin and tiny avatars spout their profundities in 140 characters or less – it’s real, more tangible, in a way that can’t be felt through the browser window or client app.

There’s a lesson here that the internet tools we use and social networks we inhabit are very much artificial in their presentation. If someone figured out a way to represent, for example, Facebook as a virtual planet, with friends, photos, video, etc all rooted solidly in a where rather than a when. Imagine all social networks, Facebook and mySpace and Google’s Open Social alike, existing on the same world. I think we are further along the path to the metaverse than we realize.

And I have to admit I am very pleased that my avatar turned out to be Domo-kun.

BlogIt doesn’t cut it

BlogIt is a new application by SixApart for Facebook – the idea is to let you post to your blogs hosted at various services (WordPress.com, Blogger.com, Typepad, Twitter, etc) from within a single interface integrated into your FB account. The idea is a good one but there are serious flaws in the implementation.

For one thing, the tool does not support tags or categories. This means that you will have to log into your blog via the usual Dashboard/admin panel to add these anyway. The omission of tags and cats is practically a deal-breaker all by itself, though the lack of categories is more surprising given that these (unlike tags) are at least supported by the metaweblog API.

The blog post editor interface is also too spartan. No auto-save, quicktags, or draft support. This means if you make any errors, or your browser crashes, or any of a number of things, you lose all your work. It also means that you have to type in all your html links and formatting by hand. These kinds of goodies are what we take for granted nowadays with modern blog software. Admittedly, draft support might be complex, but auto-save and quicktags should be low-hanging fruit.

However, the biggest problem with BlogIt is that it’s a one-way function. The essential functionality for this to be a true blogger’s killer facebook app would be the ability to post all blog entries, not just those created with BlogIt, to the user’s mini-feed. BlogIt does add a Posted Item to your minifeed, for those posts authored in BlogIt only. For posts you write outside of BlogIt, you still need to manually post that entry to your minifeed.

This is a more serious limitation than it appears. The basic value of a blog app in facebook is to leverage the audience of your social contacts into readers of your blog. Posting your blog items to your minifeed is the main problem of convenience that a blogger needs to solve if they want to tap into that audience and make reader conversions. The now-defunct app BlogFriends was an excellent tools for this, slurping the RSS feed from any blog you specify. There are other apps that do similar things, though none as well as BlogFriends did. These apps were of course also one-way functions, but the direction (blog -> facebook) was more useful than the direction that BlogIt offers (facebook -> blog). And even in that regard, BlogIt is suboptimal (see above). Where then is the value proposition in using it?

BlogIt has great potential. In my ideal world, Six Apart would buy BlogFriends and revive that functionality as a part of BlogIt. Adding a simple quicktags toolbar (bold, italic, blockquote, link, etc) and an auto-save are the bare minimum for routine usability. And in addition to categories (which is a no-brainer), if Ecto can support tags, why not the software ninjas at SixApart? Were BlogIt to improve in these ways, it really would be indispensable.

beyond the tag cloud: the tagdex

I think tag clouds are somewhat useless, to be honest. They are a nice way to fill up a bit of space in a sidebar, if you restrict the cloud to the top 25 or so, but unless the writer is imposing a strict taxonomy on themselves, ultimately the size of the cloud will balloon to an unmanageable size. And a tag cloud in a folksonomy makes no sense, because the wide variation in tags is a feature, not a bug. You want the tags to be vast and redundant. It is ok to have a post about Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel tagged “book”, “books”, “review”, “Lahiri”, etc. because this increases the points of entry to the content from tag indexing services like technorati, and also increases the intra-blog, inter-post linkages (assuming you are using some variant of a Related Posts plugin that uses tags for determining what is related).

A far better way to think of tags is to consider them as terms in an index. The same kind of index you find at the end of a piece of non-fiction, to be specific. Consider an excerpt from the Index to the book, The Physics of Star Trek, as an example:

excerpt from second page of index to Physics of Star Trek

It’s easy to see how tags could be recruited to “build” an index of this type. The tags would first need to be sorted in alphabetical order, and then listed as a DL-type HTML list with the “page number” (post number). A range of posts coudl be indicated by the usual dash (ex. Bosons, 192-194) and a list of separate posts by commas (Black Star, 15, 51).

That would be the crudest implementation, but quite effective. However you could go further than this. For example, what about the “see also” link? You could simulate this by looking for tags whose usage is highly correlated, like “Lahiri” and “books”. You could literally calculate Pearson’s correlation coefficient between all pairs of tags in the database and store that in a lookup table, which woudl be updated whenever a post is published. Then any tag whose correlation coefficient to the present post is above some threshold (say, > 0.50) would get the “See also” treatment on both tags’ entries.

You coudl even draft categories in wordpress to contribute, by using them as “tags” in their own right and lumping them into the regular index build (after all, as implemented in WordPress, tags and categories are just redundant taxonomic systems). However, you also might look for correlations between tags and categories, and use the categories as Index parent terms. An example from my own geekblog would be something like

Anime
Ranma
Makoto Shinkai
Someday’s Dreamers
(…)
Geek Service
Asus EEE PC
HDTV
Space
(…)

I had to manually generate the above but it would be far simpler to do it via correlation analysis instead. At any rate, the basic idea is to assign categories as index headings and tags as their cdependents, since presumably categories are more formally taxonomic, and more importantly, fewer. In fact you could do both, treating categories as tags and also giving them higher status as above. You would just need to put a logical test in to exclude a category from appearing as its own parent/child!

Obviously a tag-driven index as above wouldn’t fit in a sidebar. A useful place for it would be its own page, but you might also imagine it embedded on the 404 page. As a standalone, though, it would be a very useful node for search engine optimization, enough so that perhaps it should be called a “tagdex” instead of an index to better distinguish it.

Though useful to any blogger using tags on wordpress, a tagdex would be far more effective on a site whose tags were a genuine folksonomy rather than a taxonomy, since the tag diversity would be greater. However, folksonomy is not a feature of WordPress, unless you use Scott’s awesome WP-Folksonomy plugin (which he wrote in response to my earlier rant about taxonomies and folksonomies). If a thriving ecosystem of wordpress-based folksonomies can be encouraged to thrive (using Scott’s plugin, or equivalent), that will be a significant step towards the Semantic Web. A tagdex represents a coherent snapshot of all the tag metadata in that site’s folksonomy (or taxonomy). As such, it is something that could be parsed and aggregated by the hypothetical Semantic Search Engine of the future.