rethinking the structure of discussions online

So, here’s a developing conversation by several heavyweights on the social media and technology spheres: Anil Dash argues that the new generation of social discussion tools like Branch, Svbtle and Medium are exclusive, Fred Wilson chimes in with a paean to inclusivity, and Josh Miller says openness is a spectrum. Dave Winer then says the real problem is a lack of innovation in creating systems for Discussion, a problem that Branch, Medium etc are trying to solve but they are constrained by the problem of access and signal to noise that Dash and Miller are taking issue with.

Maybe what we need to do is to throw out the old paradigm of discussion as “post-comment” and instead try to merge those categories. The entire conversation should be more folksonomic (disclosure, folksonomy is one of my Pet Issues, see my manifesto/rant on folksonomy here)

One great example is the P2 theme from WordPress. It upends the blog format by putting a post-entry box at the top of the theme (no more Dashboard, that talismanic secret niche from which only the Initiated may create content). Comments appear on the front page indented to the main post in real time, instead of being hidden under a link and requiring a page refresh. As is usual with WordPress, only registered users may post, but now the comment field is more transparent and included on the main page at the same stature as the parent post itself. This serves to demote a post and promote the comments. We used this format for amazing discussions at Talk Islam for years (until the site waned due to lack of participation and other priorities).

I’ve also argued that structurally, posts-comments on blogs represent a single “node” in exactly the same way that a forum thread represents a single node. In fact, forums map precisely onto blogs; no one has yet created a WordPress theme that represents posts as threads, but it could easily be done (I was disappointed with BBpress for its failure to recognize this duality).

P2 is a great start but it needs to go further. Blog systems allow the public to comment on a post, but they don’t fully embrace folksonomy (allowing the public to tag a post or add meta data), and they certainly don’t allow the public to make posts. Of course, spam is always a concern, but here is an area ripe for innovation rather than relying on captchas and user roles. For example, what about using social media to weed out spammers from real users? I am user azizhp on almost all social media profiles, for example; a smart spam detection system could cross-ref my email address and username across those systems to establish my bona fides transparently. Also note that existing anti-spam services like Akismet inherently assume the post-comment model exists; Akismet doesn’t scan your posts to see if they are spam. Imagine if it could! With that capability, WordPress could immediately take the concept of P2 even further by allowing unregistered users to post to a blog.

Ultimately, Discussions online aren’t as complicated as Branch, Medium, etc make it out to be. Someone says something; others respond. The only question is, Who? Who speaks first? Who speaks next? Who gets to categorize/tag the debate? Who can add value? Right now, there’s no way to answer all of these questions with, “anyone, that’s who”. Instead of reiterating the old post-comment model we need to turn to folksonomy as an alternative and then start trying to craft technological solutions to the inevitable new set of problems that will involve. I think those problems can be solved, and we have most of those tools already, though there’s lots of room for innovation. And the result will be something both open and inclusive, far more so than anything we have right now.

Tags to Hashtags #wp

I’ve written a new plugin for wordpress entitled “AHP Tags to Hashtags” for use with WordPress and WordPress MU. The plugin can be found for now at pastebin here, I will update when it’s been added to the official wordpress plugin repository.

The plugin appends the tags for each post to the post title in the RSS feed. For example, for a post titled “Awesome post” which is tagged with “Amazing, Awesome, Super awesome”, the RSS feed will show the post titles as “Awesome post #Amazing #Awesome #Superawesome”. Note that spaces in a tag are removed, and hash symbols (#) are prepended to each.

This plugin is useful primarily to bloggers who pipe their posts into Twitter. The post tags become Twitter hashtags. Since post tags and twitter hashtags are both a form of metadata, it is natural to simply and automatically reuse the one for the other.

Consider a blog post on the Iran election. Normally youd tag the post Iran and then when you tweet it, youd have to manually insert the twitter hashtag #iranelection. Now, you can simply tag the post iranelection (no # symbol) and it will automatically be hashtagged. Combined with a service like Twitterfeed, this plugin can greatly automate the process of piping relevant posts into the twitterverse.

Note that the plugin makes no attempt to check that the total length of the post title, including hashtags, falls within the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter.

At present the plugin has no options. The feature roadmap includes the following:
– add title character length checking
– toggle using tags or categories for conversion to hashtags
– let user decide whether to remove spaces in tags, or convert to underlines or other character

this is a pretty simple plugin so other feature requests are appreciated.

UPDATE: version 2.0 of the plugin is at pastebin here. This version no longer appends all tags, but only those already beginning with #. This way the blogger can selectively choose which tags they want converted into hashtags.

true blue: facebook friends friendfeed, whales on twitter

Facebook is now in a relationship with Friendfeed. It's complicated.
Facebook is now in a relationship with Friendfeed. It's complicated.
This is potentially huge – Facebook has acquired Friendfeed:

Obviously Facebook has already built out some of FriendFeed’s functionality so there is some overlap, but there are still numerous ways FriendFeed beats out Facebook’s News Feed setup. One of these is the way stories are ‘floated’ to the top as new users comment on them. And FriendFeed’s system is truly real-time, unlike Facebook’s feed which users have to manually refresh.

But the biggest win here for Facebook is the FriendFeed team, which includes an all-star cast of ex-Googlers.

Still very much a breaking news story but I am sure the Techcrunch folks will update with more info as they get it.

The obvious motivation here is to pound on Twitter’s “statusphere” market share. The big drawback of FF until now was that it was just a “better Twitter” – but without Twitter, 90% of the purpose of using Friendfeed was essentially rendered moot (as was the case with the DDOS attack over the weekend). But by folding in FF’s feedslurping uber-twitter capability, Facebook can create a one-stop shop, making all facebook users who are also on twitter stay within facebook for their twittering, which of course keeps them in control of the ad viewing. A souped-up Friendfeed application for Facebook seems likely; or even more likely, a new default Facebook tab (“Feeds” ?). This is technology that the Facebook people are going to want to put front and center.

The adoption of FF-ish features like commenting on everything and “Likes” are also unique to the FB/FF ecosystem and these should be integrated. Even google got into the “Likes” act so I think Twitter is going to have to respond to this by introducing that feature at least (which would incidentally be useful in meta-twitter metrics of who to follow and whatnot). I also don’t see how Twitter can resist the inevitable “groups” feature to compete with Friendfeed’s Rooms. I actually use Rooms to power virtual groups on Twitter like @otakusphere.

Twitter has serious catch-up to do, feature-wise, but until now they haven’t felt any real competitive pressure because no one else had the numbers to threaten them. With Facebook’s takeover of Friendfeed, however, the game has just changed dramatically.

UPDATE: It’s confirmed: Facebook and Friendfeed are now in a relationship. It’s complicated.

George W. Bush coming soon to Twitter and Facebook?

The Politico interviewed former chief of staff for President Bush (43), Andy Card, and he mentioned this surprising tidbit:

The nation has been so focused on the 44th president that we’ve nearly forgotten about the 43rd. What exactly has George W. Bush been up to since he left office on January 20? Is he just lounging around or has he been keeping busy?

Who better to ask than Andrew Card, a Bush confidante who served as W.’s chief of staff from 2001 to 2006. We caught up with Card at the National Press Club Thursday after a panel discussion sponsored by Politico and Georgetown University.

Card says that Bush has plenty on his plate and may even — gasp! — delve into the tech-savvy world of Twitter and Facebook.

watch the video yourself:

Who do you follow on twitter?

Are you on Twitter? Share some cool people to follow.

I like Musab (@musabb) – he twitters exclusively in haiku 🙂 If you’re really into haiku on twitter, you’ll need to follow Haiku Twaiku (@haikutwaiku), but they updated a bit too often for me, I just use #haiku to get my fix as needed instead. There’s also Twitter Lit (@twitterlit), which only posts the first line of novels.

There are some interesting “utilities” on twitter, ranging from weather (@Forecast), to do lists (@rtm), and even tracking your gas mileage (@fuelfrog).

Twitter is also a handy source of news – you can get breaking news from CNN (@cnnbrk) or international news headlines from Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish). I also rely on News Junkies (@newsjunkies) for politics headlines and Tech Junk (@techjunk) and Read/Write Web (@rww) for tech news. I’m also a fan of China Web 2.0 Review (@cwr) and Malaysia Matters (@malaysiamatters).

Of course, the punditocracy is well-represented as well. In politics, there’s The Politico (@ThePolitico), Joe Trippi (@JoeTrippi), Patrick Ruffini (@PatrickRuffini), Joshua Trevino (@jstrevino), and Marc Ambinder (@marcambinder). On the tech side, there’s Robert Scoble (@Scobleizer), Dave Winer (@davewiner), Mike Arrington (@techcrunch), and Michael Parekh (@MParekh). You can also follow Lawrence Lessig’s new organization, Change Congress (@change_congress).

There are also a lot of simply interesting people and celebrities on Twitter. For example, Muhammad Saleem (@msaleem), Om Malik (@om), Felicia Day (@feliciaday), and Wil Wheaton (@wilw) (yes, that Wil Wheaton). The Mars Phoenix Lander (@MarsPhoenix) also is quite talkative.

Finally, I confess to liking the bad guys – Darth Vader (@darthvader), Admiral Piett (@admiralpiett), and even Al Qaeda (@alqaeda) 🙂

So, who are you following? Don’t forget to follow @azizhp – or @talkislam for that matter 🙂

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:

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.