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 (,, 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.

The Twittering of the President

Joe Trippi recently observed on Twitter that both Obama and Clinton have fairly lame presences there. Both seem to be recycling standard issue campaign schedule material, example from @barackobama:

Holding a rally at Penn State University and a Town Hall in Harrisburg, PA today Learn more at 02:46 PM March 30, 2008

Just spoke at Cooper Union in NYC, called for immediate relief for the housing crisis & an additional $30 billion to jumpstart the economy. 11:10 AM March 27, 2008

Holding a town hall meeting at the War Memorial Auditorium in Greensboro, NC. 12:04 PM March 26, 2008

Note that Barack Obama has more followers (20,199) than any other Twiter user, but his campaign has only posted 92 tweets. To say that they are underutilizing the service is a massive understatement.

Meanwhile, @hillaryclinton is no less dry:

Today I’m kicking off a three-day economic tour with “Solutions for the Pennsylvania Economy” events in Harrisburg and Fairless Hills, PA. … 09:56 AM March 31, 2008

Today, I am hosting Economy Town Hall events in Indy and New Albany before heading to Kentucky. 03:01 PM March 29, 2008

Today I’m making stops across Indiana – I’m hosting two town halls, a roundtable event, and ending the day with a rally. 12:11 PM March 28, 2008

Hillary has 2,509 followers and posted 94 updates, meaning that her campaign is utilizing Twitter 10 times more more effectively than Obama’s.

I couldn’t find John McCain there (@johnmccain clearly isn’t official, though there are 40 people following that account in some vain hope).

What would a cool campaign use of twitter look like? To really fit with the tone of twitter (rather than just another outlet where campaign staffers phone it in) I think it would be great if the campaigns actually used it to educate and inform. Anytime a policy issue position is updated on the candidates’ web sites, for example, a tweet could be sent. Likewise, when a transcript of a speech is posted, or a new video uploaded. Rapid responses to attacks from other candidates/opponents could be announced. And, of course, fundraising on twitter would be groundbreaking – I wager that the response rate to a pitch on twitter would be 10x that of email, given the generally more tech-savvy and affluent nature of the twitter userbase. Also note that much of this could be automated, using RSS feeds from the candidate’s website and a service like Twitterfeed.

The pretense that Barack Obama is really twittering just to tell us where he happens to be and what he happens to be doing (town hall X, Y, Z…) is transparently fake. How about the campaigns drop the facade and just embrace the tool for what it can do rather than the cachet it might bring? In some ways I prefer McCain’s non-embrace.

Twitter is a classic example of a web 2.0 technology whose mundane description belies its power and utility. Much like blogs. The power of twitter is in the community, which John Unger has described as almost a sixth sense (scroll down and read his anecdote about traveling to Austin).

If a high-profile candidate were to truly embrace twitter – including a personal tweet themselves once on a while – they’d be opening the door to an entire new realm of potential publicity, support, and grassroots (techroots?) manpower. And more, in ways we can’t even predict yet. It’s inevitable, really.

declaration of email independence

Michael Arrington laments the state of his inbox, and calls for someone to solve the problem of email gone wild. The problem with email is that it doesn’t scale. The solution of creating complex rules, filters, and forwards only serves to move email around but doesn’t solve the problem that it will always take a finite amount of time to process a piece of email, even just to click delete. Ultimately, what is needed is to reduce the volume of mail, not attempt to sort it.

There is a solution, but it isn’t for the faint of heart. The answer to email tyranny is email independence. Consider the types of email we get:

– personal email from friends and family
– email related to work
– email from strangers
– spam

The key is to eliminate mail from each category. Ultimately, you want to receive less mail overall, so that the “signal to noise ratio” of your inbox is improved. Let’s consider each of these in reverse order.

Spam is actually the easiest to handle, as built-in mail filters do a decent job. However, a great technique to improve the performance even further is to forward your mail from one account to another. For example, you might have a public yahoo email address, which forwards to your private gmail account. Email must survive the spam checks on both accounts in order to reach you.

Email from strangers is usually a matter of convenience – for the stranger. Do you really need a public email so that people can contact you? The easiest way to cull mail from those people you do not know (outside of a work context, of course) is to employ a whitelist, a list of contacts who alone are permitted to email you. Email from anyone not on the whitelist gets an auto-response indicating that you don’t know who they are and if they really need to contact you, they can do so via an alternate method, such as a voicemail box (preferably one custom reserved for this purpose). Whitelists are not a standard feature of most free webmail services but there are various ways to achieve it, Google is the best resource.

Email related to work is simple in theory – just use your work email, and do not use that email for anything other than work. Arrange things so that your work email is inaccessible outside of work. Or at worst, read only. Time spent clearing the work inbox is time spent doing work by definition, assuming you’ve strictly limited your use of that acct to work matters alone.

The other strategy for work email avoidance is to heavily embrace other intra-office communication methods. Embrace tools like LinkedIn, become an Outlook Calendar power user, or Notes depending on your environment. Think about setting up a wiki for intraoffice documentation rather than the endless parade of word documents. And of course, use the phone for quick questions or other instant communication needs. The typical office is brimming with technologies and software that can be used to circumvent email for routine communication.

Finally, the hardest nut to crack – your friends and family. For the most part, the best solution here is to realize that because these people are already in your life, they probably will never rely on email for something truly important. Thus, you can safely let most of this email go into your Family folder unread. If something important comes up you can always use the search function of your email service/client to retrieve it. But on the whole, train your friends and family to realize that you rarely read their emails, by simply repeating the phrase, “oh, I must have missed that email…” a lot. They will adapt accordingly.

Analogously to the office scenario, though, you do want to retain the ability to engage in routine communication with your friends and family. Using tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr, and heavily adopting RSS and proselytizing it heavily, will emable you to do most of that social communication through a feedreader and web browser rather than a cluttered inbox. The Facebook news feed is orders of magnitude more efficient than email in keeping up to date on birthdays, events, and other miscellany. Likewise with “subscribing” to your friends and family on Flickr or delicious instead of emailing links and photos back and forth. Its possible to offload most of this content onto the social network scene.

There are probably a lot of other ways to transition away from email. But all of this requires a serious commitment. After all, email will always enjoy an ease of use advantage over the various services and whatnot you might employ as surrogates. With discipline though, it can be done. I am not there myself yet, but ot’s something to work towards 🙂

the social horizon

Does the inherent limit on human interaction group size apply to online social networks?. That limit is called “Dunbar’s Number” and is estimated to be ~150, based on observations of social networks among primates and then extrapolating to humans taking increased brainpower into consideration. An intriguing piece in the WSJ asks whether online social networks are still bound by Dunbar’s number or whether technological innovation might permit us to exceed it:

But there is reason to believe that the social-networking sites will enable their users to burst past Dunbar’s number for friends, just as humans have developed and harnessed technology to surpass their physical limits on speed, strength and the ability to process information.
Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist whose 1993 research gave rise to the magical count of 150, doesn’t use social-networking sites himself. But he says they could “in principle” allow users to push past the limit. “It’s perfectly possible that the technology will increase your memory capacity,” he says.

The question is whether those who keep ties to hundreds of people do so to the detriment of their closest relationships — defined by Prof. Dunbar as those formed with people you turn to when in severe distress.

The problem here is the definition of the word “relationship”. Dunbar’s definition of “closest” is just one of many possible ones, and the various definitions might well overlap. But does that mean that business relationships are excluded from Dunbar’s limit? If so, then you might expect to see many more contacts on LinkedIn, which caters to a business networking model, than on Facebook which is primarily stalker heaven. LinkedIn is approaching critical mass in terms of network effect; RWW found over 80% of their business contacts already using it, for example.

There are surely other models one could employ to map relationships: blogrolls, chat client lists, twitter fans/friends, etc. I think any one of these – or a weighted combination of all of them – would be good data sets to see whether Dunbar’s number truly holds online or not.

The reason why it is important to consider is because if it does hold (or if indeed there is any limit at all) then that substantially undermines the argument that the social graph is a construct of unlimited utility for search personalization or the semantic web. If anything, the social graph could well become an obstacle to finding information rather than an asset. Everyone keeps talking about search “personalization” but that’s a synonym for search filtering; filtering is a lossy process, you are discarding data. Optimal search wouldn’t define the best result as the most “personal” but rather the most “relevant” – and often that ight well be data lying far eyond the cozy confines of your social graph. In fact, assuming that you are searching for something you don’t know, it’s more likely to be outside than inside.

Human nature eing what it is, people might not even realize that their newly personalized search results are less relevant!