In a disaster, the real-time, social web wins again

morel haiti on Twitpic
@photomorel on Twitpic

By now, I’m sure just about everyone knows about the earthquake that hit Haiti late yesterday afternoon. Personally, I learned about it within a minute or two of the USGS announcing it through a tweet. Out of old habits I flipped over to CNN.com to get details, there was of course nothing there yet, and wouldn’t be for 5-10 minutes.

I was personally concerned as I had a friend who was in Haiti this past week and was due to leave yesterday. I checked his twitter stream but all his feed said was that he was getting ready to head home – nothing about actually catching a flight or leaving. I, of course, wanted to know more.

The quest for information led me to a few interesting features, or rather interesting uses of existing features, on Facebook and Twitter that I hadn’t considered before:

  1. Geofenced Twitter Search
  2. Automatic Translation of Search Results
  3. The Facebook Wall as a rallying point

Geofenced Twitter Search

Now that everyone has search enabled either in their Twitter web interface or third-party app of choice I think many have just plain forgotten about Twitter Search at http://search.twitter.com. The problem with Twitter’s basic search yesterday was it was initially just everybody and their uncle retweeting the basic USGS earthquake notification. Literally page after page of the same words being tweeted by people around the world.
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But, over on search.twitter.com you can drop into Advanced Search and then a whole suite of new tools become available to you – most importantly, in this case, the ability to limit your search geographically.

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Now, with one quick search you’re able to filter out much of the noise and start to get a sense of who’s online down there and what they’re seeing/experiencing. Interestingly enough there appeared to be some level of connectivity down there, even amongst the chaos, as last night there were several twitter accounts that were providing updates on themselves and what they were seeing.

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Automatic Translation of Search Results

FliD76AAnd here’s where another challenge popped up. As with anything international, many tweets weren’t in English. It’s actually quite easy to forget online that not everything is in English. I’ve blogged before about how language is the final barrier that we need to overcome for us to be able to seamlessly share all of our information with everyone else.

Now the premise of this feature isn’t anything new. Google Translate, and before that Babelfish, have been around for ages and you could easily feed your content to it and get it translated. What was new to me though, was a link right in the twitter search that let me set Google Translate loose on the page – and it was implemented perfectly. Many may not realize but Google can actually detect the source language in many cases now, so even though there was a mix of languages (i.e. English, French and Spanish) on the page, it could pick out what wasn’t in English, detect which language it was and then provide me with a translated result right in the Twitter Search page.

For example:
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became
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The Facebook Wall as a Rallying Point

Now, both of the features above, while excellent for getting some idea about what is going on in a specific area, gave me no info on the friend who I was concerned about. That’s where I turned to Facebook. Knowing he was also on Facebook and tended to update it in addition to twitter I thought there might be some additional information there.  While it did provide me clues as to where abouts in the country he might be (previous status messages mentioned where he was volunteering etc.), there was no further updates beyond the same “getting ready to head home” message.

I didn’t really think anything of it as I left a “hope you’re ok” message on his wall but in reality what was happening was the wall was turning into a small rallying point for anyone who was concerned about him. This is interesting as the Facebook wall is one of those few places where people who have no connection to a person, other than the person themselves can find each other and share information.

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As you can see by the image above, my friend Patrick was thankfully wheels-up on his flight home and safe when the quake happened but I have no doubt that in a worst-case situation this thread would quickly have turned into a much more significant place for people to get information and offer help/resources. And of course by commenting on the wall it also turned on email notifications for it so I even got real-time updates on my blackberry so while I was sitting in an condo board meeting I got the last message you see posted there, that my friend was safe.

In Conclusion

Many of these features are nothing new, what struck me as interesting though was how quickly there uses quickly shifted in the context of a real-time evolving event. There’s absolutely no question that the real-time web is changing the relationship between us and the media. Before this would have been a worrisome evening in front of the TV while waiting for CNN to get additional information.

Oh yeah, about the same time I got the message from the wall that my friend was safe, CNN had it’s first images from Haiti. The source? Facebook.

(but I’d already seen them ~15 minutes earlier on twitter)

A Return to Blogging? A Prediction for 2010

Over the holidays I spent a lot of time thinking about what 2010 was going to look like both for me, the ‘industry’ and the world as a whole. Overall I’m optimistic and on some levels, it be pretty hard to be worse than 2009. As I dug through my overflowing feedreader queue I noticed a trend starting to emerge, a whole bunch of voices were back in there – the once regular bloggers who almost vanished12-18 months  ago had unread items in my queue and the posts were actually of some length, well thought out  and made for good reading.

Blogging Has Never Been Dead, Twitter isn’t Dying

Image: newton64 on Flickr

First off, I should say, I don’t think Blogging has ever truly been dead, but I think Twitter effectively killed it for some people (myself included). It became really easy to put ideas out in a tweet or two, rather than spending a hour or two cranking out a blog post (not to mention the hours of head time leading up to the actual writing). As a result a lot of people, people who up until that point had been blogging as often as daily, essentially abandoned long-form blogging and suddenly started posting weekly, then monthly and eventually “whenever”.

Also, while the next little bit of this post may seem to indicate I think Twitter is over and done with, I don’t – I just think it’s moving into it’s next stage. And that’s a good thing.

Twitter Has it’s Limits.

Blasphemy I know, but as I’ve thought more and more about how I push content out onto the web, I’ve started to see the cracks in Twitter’s shell. Twitter serves an awesome purpose and it has its uses, but it makes a really crappy substitute for blogging. I’ll take it a step further and say Twitter is a really bad tool for sharing ideas beyond simply throwing them out there  and doesn’t actually create effective, lasting dialog.

This should have been obvious: 140-character limited messages vs. free-form, put as many words in as you want, which do you think lets you better outline your ideas – but I think a lot of us fell into the hype and the real-time exchange of ideas and conversation were awfully tempting (especially for those of us with smaller ‘audiences’ – hi Mom!).

Twitter’s biggest problem is also it’s biggest strength.

This isn’t to say twitter is fundamentally flawed or otherwise “wrong” – on the flip side I think we’ve been using the right tool the wrong way. Twitter is great for easily pushing out snippets of information and engaging in the rapid exchange of basic ideas.  If we think of content as water twitter rates somewhere between a stream or a raging river depending on how many people you’re following.

If you’re standing at the water you’re seeing what flows by, but if you walk away that water is gone – and it’s not coming back. This is great for the inconsequential, real-time events or proximity/location based updates. When I check twitter at 2pm it’s no longer relevant that you were at Starbucks three hours ago, or that you forgot your Macbook Pro adapter this morning.

Through the web interface my first page in the tweet stream spans 17 minutes but that’s at 8 in the morning on the first Monday after the holidays. I’ve seen that span get as low as 1-3 minutes. At that point you can’t even look at all the water rushing past you. Sure apps like Tweetdeck help you reduce the noise, but the reality is the shelf life of a tweet is probably minutes, at most a day or two.

No one goes looking for old tweets.

That’s the reality, chances are if someone doesn’t see your tweet as it flows past, they never will – it’s gone.

The Blog as a Pond

To parallel the twitter “stream” analogy I consider blogging more like a pond. Each time you create a piece of content you fill it up a little more, gradually building a larger and larger body of water.   If you don’t put fresh “water” in it will get stagnant but a little top up now and again keeps it healthy. The important thing is the water is always there for people to see they can stop and stare at it for a while, taking in all its nuances or just look at what’s interesting to them and just move on.

Here’s the key thing to remember: Ponds can feed streams, and that makes a nice segue into the next part of this thought.

A Re-balancing of Effort. Awareness of Content Flow

“A return to blogging” is actually over-simplifying what I see as the next trend emerging. There’s two components. The first, as I’ve discussed above, is the realization that twitter is not a wildcard publishing tool but rather has specific uses and there are better tools to create content on if you want it to have a lasting presence. The second I’ve touched on it in the past, but I can see it starting to take hold. It’s the idea of being aware of what content you’re creating, where you create and publish it, and how it gets syndicated out. The latter will become an issue for everyone going forward as more and more sites give you the option to publish/retrieve content from one application to another.

How to get your house in order

  1. Take Inventory of Your Content Production
    Ask yourself: What are you (or should you be) producing? Is it long format, short snippets, something in between?
  2. Evaluate your Publishing Tools
    Take a look at the tools you’re using, are you currently publishing to them? What content are you putting on each service? Step back and think about whether that tool is the best place for each piece of content you’re putting out there, if not, what should you be using?
  3. Map the Flow of Content
    Lay all the services or apps you use out on a piece of paper, now draw lines between them to show where content syndicates out to other services. Put yourself in the shoes of someone who consumes your content, are they getting the kind of content they expect at each point? Are there more efficient ways to get it to them (or to reduce your noise to them)? As an example here’s a flow I made when considering my own content flow:

Personal Content Flow

My Rules for Content Flow

While you go through the process above I’d suggest you keep a few key rules in mind:

  1. Add Value
    When syndicating your content across services, ensure the viewer gets additional value when they click through from one site to another. I personally view twitter solely as an end-point for just this reason – if I put it somewhere else, there’s no value to be had by clicking through to it.*
  2. Reduce/Avoid Duplication
    Think about your network. Are your twitter followers also your Facebook or Tumblr friends? These days some duplication is inevitable but do what you can to reduce it wherever possible. If people have to see content twice make sure one of the two instances adds value (i.e. where one is a tweet and one is the blog post the tweet was linking to)
  3. Allow people to Focus
    We’re all people but also professionals, family members, friends, colleagues etc. – We can roll our relationships up any number of ways. Think about how people can opt-in or out of your content depending on their contextual relationship to you. This may mean multiple blogs, different tools all together, or something in between – but ensure you give people options so they don’t have to drink from the firehose (if not, they’ll likely just choose not to follow/subscribe to your feed)

A Return to Blogging

So how does this tie back to a return to blogging? I think as people start to step back and consider their content more carefully, and what kind of return they get on their effort invested they’ll likely find that blogging is still a killer way to share your ideas and put them out there in a lasting form. I know I’ve had the sense of having lost something since I’ve stopped blogging regularly, both in how satisfied I feel with getting my ideas out there but also in how engaged I feel with people and even how I’m perceived by others.

I’m looking forward to making another go of it in 2010 – I hope you do too… I’d be keen to hear your thoughts in the comments below (or as an @ reply on twitter)

– Ryan

(For the record, an hour later, my front page on twitter spans only 6 minutes now.)


*Admittedly my Twitter feed does republish to Facebook as status updates and into Friendfeed, the former is just laziness as I’d largely put the same content there if they weren’t sync’d the latter is an app that has the sole goal of being a content feed dumping ground.

Twitter Changed – Everybody Panic!…

Im good. You? (ffg on Flickr)
I'm good. You? (ffg on Flickr)

… or don’t.

Ugh. The sky is not falling people – take a deep breath, stop and actually READ (& think about) what twitter announced yesterday. Based on what I’m seeing online most people haven’t actually stopped and thought about it.

It’s amazing to see people toss around “the death of discovery”, “the end of twitter”, etc. etc. just chill folks. They haven’t changed how your @replies page works as some people (this post for example) have assumed.

What they’ve done is made it so you can’t choose to see every tweet that every one of the people you follow makes. Are some people going to be unhappy, probably, but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest for the majority of twitter users don’t even use this feature. I know I don’t. In fact, if you follow any number of people it was pretty much impossible to use twitter with it on.

Put simply: Going forward you won’t see tweets from people you follow if it STARTS with an @ and you don’t follow the person.

For example, if I tweeted “@panic everybody!”, only my followers who follow @panic would see it.

If I tweeted “Everybody @panic!” then all my followers will see the tweet.

Got it? That’s all, this isn’t the end of the world. What it does is eliminate a whole bunch of noise and will evolve how twitter is used. The reality is, I’ve (and I suspect many others too) written my tweets assuming this was the case for ages now. I’ve deliberately moved @’s into the middle  of the tweet if I know the person I’m @’ing doesn’t have a big following.

When it comes down to it, this change will have no effect on most users (and I suspect most of the people complaining won’t actually notice a difference because they already had that option turned off) – by taking this feature away though it saves twitter an extra step in drawing your twitter stream which hopefully reduces the fail whale sightings…

Chillax folks. It’s all good.

8 Secrets to Being a Good Twitter User…

… that really should be obvious to anyone.

Welcome back to my horribly neglected blog. Between twitter, and now Tumblr, I’ve been slacking in the long form posting department. Admittedly I’m in a really foul mood this morning – It’s the first day of spring and I should be sunny and happy but I just have an urge to break stuff for some reason. Well I figure what better way to brighten my day than to rant a little.

So here are my secrets to being a good twitter user that really shouldn’t be anything but painfully obvious:

Twitter Secret #1: The true social media experts are the ones who don’t broadcast it.

This is a lot more general than just Twitter but worthy of a mention as apparently the only qualification you need to be a Social Media Expert these days is that those three words appear in your Twitter bio.

Social Media (whatever the hell we’re considering it is today) is built on one basic foundation – trust. Trust is something you earn. You can’t manufacture, declare or disregard it.

The true experts of this medium are the guys & gals who have earned trust repeatedly in a variety of contexts. They are not the people who follow the most people on twitter, nor are they the ones who are followed by the most people.

I just went through the list of people I know that I think really get “it” and the words “Social Media Expert” don’t appear in any of their bios.

Twitter Secret #2: People who Charge you to show you how to “use” twitter are doing just that.
a.k.a You get out of twitter what you put in.

If you’re an individual and paying one of those “Social Media Experts”, you’re just pissing your money away – So while you’re at it there’s a link to my PayPal account below. Just drop in whatever you’re paying the other guy – as I’ll guarantee you I’m giving you just as much value.


Really people – you don’t need to pay someone to teach you how to use twitter. It’s a text box with a 140 characters and a submit button! If you can’t master the “Type, Click, Wait” technique you should probably reconsider your relationship with the Internet.

Everything else is common etiquette and basic conversation skills. Tragically, the same skills that people who charge to teach you how to “use” twitter generally teach you to ignore.

They want to show you how to extract as much as possible from twitter for minimal contribution. It’s scuzzy, it’s not nice, and in the long run you’ll get a lot more out of twitter by engaging with “it” than simply using it. Trust me.

Twitter Secret #3: Don’t be a dick. Ask yourself “Would I do this in person?” and you should do okay
HOHOTO-7648.jpgConsider the last time you were at a function where there was a large crowd in a big room with lots of different conversations take place. You only know a handful of people, who you ran into at the door and now are in the middle of the room on your own.

Do you?
a. Run around randomly, pat everyone you see on the back and tell them your name.
b. See who your friends are talking to and what they’re talking about
c. Watch for people in the room who look interesting and listen to see what they’re talking about

If you chose a) I hope I never run into you at a party.

Hint: Twitter is just like that party. The correct answers here are b) & c) in moderation – more on that later. Act like a decent person would at an event and you’ll do okay.

Twitter Secret #4: Twitter is about Quality, not Quantity
Twitter is like a river of information and you’re learning to swim. It’ll take you where ever you want to go but you need to learn to float and work with the current. And just like real rivers they all start off as small springs.

I think this video sums it up quite well:

Seriously, the 2,000 person limit on following isn’t a goal that you should try to achieve. It’s there to prevent idiots like you from annoying everyone else on the system. Think of it as real life – ask yourself, do I really want 2,000 random people yammering in my ear all the time?

The one key thing you do need to figure out and learn about twitter is how to manage the flow of information and it’s a lot easier to increase the flow then trying to turn it back down.

Here’s some suggestions:
Like the room example above take the b & c road – follow your friends and change your settings so you see all of their @ replies (not just the ones for people you’re following as well). Watch who they interact with and check out those peoples twitter streams. If they’re interesting follow them. Only add the most interesting people, and add them in moderation.

Also, follow the tags (when you see #keyword – that’s a tag) that you’re interested in – search for them on Twitter search. See’s who is talking about subjects you’re genuinely interested in and consider following them.

Twitter Secret #6: No one cares how many you Follow, or how many follow you. But they DO care about how the two relate.
Put simply if you have only a few updates, follow 2,000 people and have less than 200 following you most people won’t even bother following you back – you clearly took route a) from above.

When it comes to following & followers Twitter has a snowball effect, if you keep rolling along you’ll pick up both and your twitter stream will be better off for it. Whereas if you just try to scrape what little snow is on the lawn together to make a pile right off the bat it’s going to have sticks and crap in there as well and you’ll never get it all out again.

Twitter Secret #7: Don’t Auto-DM ever. Period. end of Story.
Imagine if you were at a party and every time you introduced yourself to someone they whispered in your ear “Nice to meet you, you should see what I’m selling!”

Secret #6 should also be considered proof of the importance of Secrets #1, 2 & 3 – most people who auto-DM me are “Social Media Experts” and many make a living off #2. And really at the end of the day it’s a dickish move, violating secret #3.

Don’t Believe me? The next time you meet someone new, try immediately following “Hello” by whispering “Let’s Fuck” in their ear. Let me know how that works for you.

Twitter Secret #8: If you’re a brand w/a twitter account don’t Follow me just cause I mentioned your name/Product.
Seriously, it’s really creepy and I’m probably not going to follow you back, especially if it was a one off mention. I’ll give you one free @ but it better have some value for me otherwise you just look needy.

As far as I’m concerned a brand twitter account should never follow people (but it should follo
w everyone back – at least try to look like you care)

I feel better now. Did I miss anything?

Let me know in the comments below or drop me an @reply on Twitter.

VizThink Conference: Just Two Weeks Today

It’s hard to believe that it’s crept up so quickly but the VizThink Conference is just two short weeks away.

At his last update Tom Crawford (CEO of VizThink) indicated that 325+ people had registered for the conference. Registration is still open – this page has all the details details. He also indicated that the hotel has stretched the discount rate by a few more days.

For the value conscious (or those, like me, doing this on their own dime) I got a good deal at the Chancellor Hotel just up the street (on Union Square) for less than $100/night and it includes free wi-fi.

VizThink on Twitter
Also – I was talking with Tom and offered to setup a twitter account for VizThink as well as the conference itself. The general VizThink twitter can be found at http://twitter.com/VizThink. Right now this account simply reposts any blog entries and news coming from VizThink but I’m hoping to work with Tom to figure out how to improve it’s output.

There’s also the conference address primarily for those attending this VizThink Conference – http://twitter.com/VT08 . My hope is this account can be used as a bit of an aggregation point for anyone at the conference who twitters to find each others accounts. The premise is simple – If you follow this account I’ll ensure “it” follows you back – you can then use the list of who the account is following as a way to find others who are at the conference. Depending on adoption it could also be used as a way to broadcast any changes or announcements related to the conference. At the very least it’ll be a fun experiment.

Come Say Hi
If you read this blog & are attending the conference please do come up and say hi. I’ll be in town from the evening of the 26th to the 30th. Tuesday night is a bit free fall right now so I’d be up for a drink if anyone is around. You can reach me via email rcoleman (at) clay-tablet (dot) com or through Twitter at http://twitter.com/ryancoleman.

Looking forward to it – hope to see you there!

Ryan