The old web is dying and I’m not sure I like the new one

BlogPulse has no pulse

So I was playing around with dashboards and the like yesterday  – as one does – and noticed that BlogPulse has disappeared. BlogPulse was not the greatest blog search engine around, but it was the only one offering anything like useable charts. So, given that Technorati charts disappeared years ago (although they still have a page claiming they’ll be back soon), and other solutions such as IceRocket don’t enable you to pass keywords to create live charts, it would appear there is no longer any blog charting widget out there.

Is this the final nail in the coffin of blogging? Are we really so uninterested in blogging activity that charts are no longer considered viable? It would seem that way, and the ‘blogging is dead’ meme is very much alive right now.

Charting generally seems to be suffering

Recently, tweetcloud.com disappeared, without even a whimper. It just vanished. I seemed to be the only person who noticed, but tweetcloud.com was, like BlogPulse, the only solution that did something incredibly useful: it would create a tweetcloud for a search term on the fly. In other words, you typed in what you were looking for, and it created a tweetcloud for that search (not a tweetcloud of your own timeline, which really isn’t that much use but I suspect a lot less processor-intensive). Plus it did it quickly, and there was a widget for it, which enabled you to build dashboards giving an instant overview of the latest terms associated with any topic. It was great. And then it wasn’t. There are sort-of alternatives still such as Visible Tweets, Cloud.li and Twendz, but, while they’re very pretty, you can’t build them into dashboards.

And today, Trendistic, the only (again) solution for live charting of Twitter trends, is down. It was down yesterday too. Look for it on Twitter search and there are just a load of weird Polish references to it (who knows, maybe Trendistic is a Polish pop group). Surely – sssssurely – Trendistic can’t have disappeared too? And surely, again, it can’t just be me who thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea?

RSS is dying

If you’re detecting a pattern here, you’re not alone. It does seem that really great ideas are failing as the web grows bigger and faster. They just cannot keep up, it seems – or, at least, not until/unless they’re snapped up by one of the walled gardens such as Facebook. Free information – as in, really free, readily available, easily manipulated and shared across the entire web – is disappearing.

RSS was supposed to be the great hope of free information. Peel the content away from the format, and hey presto, you can share pretty much anything across any platform. But therein lies the problem: something free is not something you can fence off and charge for. It is free in every sense of the word.

So it seems RSS is suffering too. Google Reader used to be a really nice way to bring feeds together and create a static web page of the results as well as a newly aggregated feed. Not since its recent revamp however. All the sharing features have been ported across to Google+, presumably because Google+ is a neat, walled garden whereas RSS was messy and free. Yahoo Pipes was the ultimate RSS aggregator/mash-up tool but suffered from underinvestment by Yahoo. Even after a supposed major overhaul, it’s flaky and too slow to power a dashboard (unless you’re prepared to wait for a minute or so while the results load up). Another RSS mashup tool, XFruits, died a couple of years back. Do a search for RSS aggregator tools and it’s like a graveyard. The only viable tool that I can see is called FeedRinse which, while it offers aggregation and filtering (the two most useful features of Pipes), also feels a bit overloaded and slow. And, as with TweetCloud and BlogPulse, it’s the only game in town, which leads me to believe it won’t be for much longer.

RSS from search has been abandoned by major players too. Such as the bookmarking platform Delicious. You used to be able to search across the Delicious database and pull an RSS feed from that. Stunningly useful, as it showed you what other people considered important for any topic. Not any longer. Twitter has also demoted RSS from search: you can still do it, but you have to look around to find out how. It’s another candidate for the cull, I believe.

Mash-ups are harder

So where does this leave us if we want to create our own mash-ups or dashboards? Well we can dive into the APIs if we fancy it, and learn a smattering of HTML and javascript. But we still need reliable platforms to base our dashboards on. The familiar theme of ‘only game in town’ is revisited here, in that the only solution offering public dashboards – that is, pages that you can show to anyone without them needing to log in – is Netvibes. And every time I create a dashboard in Netvibes, I find I have to spend quite some time figuring out what works still and what doesn’t. Quite apart from discovering over the past few months that third-party sites have disappeared, I’m finding that third-party widgets in Netvibes are broken, or even that Netvibes itself is cranky. So for example, my attempts to create a dashboard yesterday were frustrated by HTML widgets only displaying the top portions of any image or javascript output, widgets generally not staying in the same place when I refreshed the page, RSS feeds not being imported correctly, and on recourse to their support forum, finding it full of spam.

It seems the free tools that were once so useful are now decaying or falling apart. I don’t know what ‘Web 2.0′ really meant, but I have a sense of something dying, something that was slower and smaller than the web today, that shared more freely but was doing so with less immediacy and monetary return. Whatever we’re moving towards, if it’s Web 3.0, then it’s becoming more consolidated, monetised, bigger, faster, noisier.

So the ‘roll your own’ approach is going to get harder. The smaller, innovative sites that did one thing, and one thing well, just cannot survive the double onslaught of vastly increased traffic and expectations of real-time delivery unless they can make money from  it.  The old, fluid, free web that comprised many islands of activity is solidifying into separate continents of influence. The game is so much harder now, that it’s only the really big players that can make sense – and money – out of it.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Me? I preferred the more innovative, dynamic environment. I liked the way that RSS could be readily shared, and smaller enterprises could create neat tools that let you do things with it, without really needing to be a developer. I guess those days are gone. Nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be.

Postscript: … and no sooner do I file this post then I read this Observer piece by John Naughton, entitled “Has the Internet run out of ideas already?”, on the progression of information technologies: “from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. In fact, I didn’t.

And now Tweetcloud.com is gone?

It seems to be a bit of a watershed for social media sites right now. Google+ is nibbling away at Facebook, which itself might be about to undergo radical change. Delicious has introduced a new look and feel that hasn’t been entirely well received. Social Mention disappeared for a short while, making us realise how  much we really liked it (and probably gaining traffic as a result). And now, Tweetcloud.com would appear to have bitten the dust.

I loved Tweetcloud.com. It offered something different from other Twitter cloud sites, because most of them just create a cloud based on your own timeline. Tweetcloud would create a cloud based on a specific search term, and it was very, very useful for that reason. Want to know what the biggest issues are around Obama? Type it in, look at the biggest words in the cloud, and find out almost instantly. Interested in what’s happening in Libya? Want to know how people feel about Toyota? Or just looking for reactions to the latest football news? It was all there, in one neat, instant cloud.

And it didn’t stop there. Tweetcloud also had a really funky widget that I used all the time in dashboards, for precisely the same reason.

Not any more.

For three days there was a faux-naive message saying something along the lines of “Ooops, something went wrong! We’re fixing it as soon as we can.” Today, there is no tweetcloud.com. Nada. Not a sausage. Bugger all.

In a way, the strangest aspect of this, for me, is that when I searched for other mentions of tweetcloud.com on Twitter, no one else was complaining. My first port of call, whenever something breaks, is to see whether other people are saying it’s broken on Twitter. But for tweetcloud.com, it seems either I’m the only person who’s noticed, or who’s bothered about it. Or, perhaps, who really used it?

If so, then maybe that’s why. The freemium economy only really works at scale, and perhaps Tweetcloud.com just found itself serving bazillions of clouds without enough revenue. Compete.com does seem to indicate declining traffic figures. for tweetcloud.com. Quantcast doesn’t even have data.

So what I thought was a stunningly useful tool that successfully gave an overview of Twitter for any given term, was perhaps not really perceived as such by other people. What a pity. It was such a good idea, someone should have invented it…

Trends

Quite simply, some charts that may be of interest. For example, note how Apple is supplanting Microsoft in search volume; that PR may be peeling upwards away from advertising and even marketing; the relative fortunes of Google+, Facebook and Twitter; social media may be levelling off; and, especially heartwarming for me, Star Wars is much more popular than Star Trek (mostly).

All charts are for all regions and years except the politics chart which is just for the UK over the past 12 months (because a lot can happen in 12 months!) Click each chart to go to the Google Trends page for more information, such as the news items that account some spikes (A, B, C etc).

● microsoft ● apple

● ed miliband ● david cameron ● nick clegg ● politics

● hp ● dell ● ibm ● hardware

● advertising ● marketing ● pr ● social media

● social media

● google+ ● facebook ● twitter

● star wars ● star trek

Visible Tweets – Twitter Visualisations. Now with added prettiness!

I’m always on the lookout for cool tools. This is one of them. Type in a search term and it shows you how the tweetcloud builds up. It’s not exactly what I was after. What I was after was a tweetcloud animator that takes a timeline and shows you how the terms in the cloud ‘bubble’ up and down, and move around. I expect it would be fascinating to see for the Murdoch timeline, given the rapidity with which such amazing events are unfolding. Still, Visible Tweets is quite a nice way of visualising tweets, say, at a conference etc.

Pressed for time? Cute tools that give immediate results

Last time around, I posted about not having enough time to blog. I’m trying to fix this by basically making time – but it seems a good point at which to list some tools that help you get ‘cool’ results with as little input as possible.

By this, I mean tools that use your media to create interesting publications or multimedia. In other words, the exact opposite of blogging. In that, writing a good, well researched, informative blog post takes a while and looks frankly boring, whereas some of these tools basically make people go ‘wow’ with the minimum of effort required.

Paper.li – newspapers from people you follow

I’ve often thought of Twitter as the ‘compressed web’, that is, people tend to tweet with a link to a web page, so you go from 140 characters to a page via Twitter. Paper.li have very cleverly demonstrated this, by automatically publishing a nicely formatted newspaper from people you follow on Twitter.

The idea is that, if you follow these people, it’s because you find them interesting in some way. In turn, the people who follow you might find them interesting too. So, ‘expand’ from the links of people you follow, package them into something attractive, and you’re promoting them and yourself in the process. It’s sort of curation, and you can click here to see mine live.

As you can see, you can give it a name, and you can choose how often to publish (daily makes sense given Twitter’s timescales). You can also use it to create newsletters from Facebook although I tried that with mixed success. It seems to promote/publish the tweets that have been retweeted the most.

What I’ve found is that people tend to retweet if they’re on it but I don’t know how well it works otherwise. Still, given that it’s free, takes virtually no time to put together and looks nice, it’s certainly something you can add to your client’s online presence.

Imagine how effective this would be if you then, say, print these off, put them in envelopes and mail them to people. Oh, wait…

Pummelvision – movies from your pictures

Pummelvision is cute. Point it at your Flickr account (or, as of fairly recently, Facebook, Tumblr and some other platforms) and it creates a nice movie from your images, synchronised to some quite cool music.

Here’s a fairly random example pulled from YouTube:

I think  it’s quite impressive. Take a ton of interesting pics at your next event, point Pummelvision its way, and when it’s rendered after a few minutes, you’ve got a video for presenting as a follow-up.

It would be nice if there were more customisation features, such as different music or arranging images by colour, but perhaps, as with the increased platform count, they’re in the pipeline. Like paper.li it’s just so quick and easy to put together, and it might just impress a client or two.

Xtranormal – cartoons from scripts

This one might not work so well for B2B because, well, it’s cartoons, but you can make some strong points with heavy irony and this might suit some brands. See below:

Here, you type in your script, choose the cartoon figures you want to use, and you can even put in small actions such as double-takes, glances to camera and so on.

It works well with small scripts but be warned, the script editor isn’t the easiest to use (for example, you can’t import from a word processor, you have to type it all in manually), and it can take a while to render the movie. I once tried to get it to perform Monty Python’s entire Cheese Shop Sketch, and after quite some time typing it all, it was still rendering 24 hours later, so I guess it just wasn’t to be.

Presentations from PDFs

No, not the other way around (ie PDFs from presentations). By this, I mean, adding a bit of pazazz to a client’s PDF simply by presenting it in an interesting new way. I’ve been looking around and there are packages out there that seem to do this, but I honestly cannot vouch for them and haven’t used any of them yet. I’ll report back when I have because I think this could be a very nice way to add a bit of spit n’polish to an annual report or corporate brochure, for example.

And finally… someone should invent this: Kinetic Typography software

Kinetic Typography is a buzz word par excellence. It means ‘moving text’ but, of course, we all have to invent clever terms for simple things, don’t we?

Once you’ve impressed your client with your ability to use seven syllables rather than three, you can start showing examples of what this means. Here are some:



Now, I’m sure this could be automated somehow, so you can just input text and get kinetic treatment out. I’ve looked and there’s a free package called Jahshaka that seems a bit unstable and could do with some interface refinement, and I’m not sure it does what I want it to. [post-edit: seems Cinefx have taken over development so perhaps I’ll give that a go sometime soon]

But I’m absolutely certain that someone with some nous would be able to develop software that lets you type in a script and use effects from a menu, very like xtranormal, with no need to understand graphics packages such as After Effects or programming. Perhaps you could coordinate it with music, a-la-Pummelvision, or create kinetic typography on the fly from Twitter input, like paper.li (kinetic microblogging typography anyone?).

Surely someone could do this. For free. Now. It’s so stunningly useful someone should invent it.

If you want to understand social media, do it when there’s a big TV event happening

We’re living in a strange world right now. We’re sort of at a tipping point between broadcast and broadcomment, where we can watch what millions of other people are watching, while at the same time see what they’re saying.

This was brought home to me during the Prime Ministerial debates in the UK. I watched them with my laptop showing tweetclouds, sentiment analysis and Twitter search to get a flavour of what people’s reactions were. So it was a deeply flawed experiment in many ways – take a subset of the population who are interested enough in politics to watch the debates, another subset interested enough to comment online, and find the intersection between them – but it was interesting to see the stats shoot up in favour of Clegg. And ok, so, he didn’t win, but then again no one did. I, on the other hand, did find out a lot about social media monitoring.

Social media in action

So it occured to me then that the best way to demonstrate how social media works is during an event like that. Something that people can relate to what they’re seeing on TV, and reading about in the newspapers. Also – and this is really important – being able to tweet, and then see that tweet – their tweet – appear in the results. It’s what got me into blogging in the first place, when I posted to this blog, subscribed to my own RSS feed in Google Reader, and saw myself pop up a few minutes later. It impressed me. But I think people often don’t quite ‘get’ the idea of cause and effect, that what they blog or tweet about can and will be found by other people.

So this weekend, another event: the six nations Rugby. I don’t play rugby but I do like watching a good game, and this weekend there were plenty (not least because England won). And this time I got quite a few interesting insights using some monitoring solutions that are good for real-time monitoring, namely Twitterfall, Twendz, Tweetfeel and Tweetgrid.

Again, it was a really good occasion to demonstrate how you can set up searches (in this case, for mentions of rugby and 6nations), then tweet something with one of those search terms in it, then see your tweet appear a minute or so later.

Pretty Twitterfall

Of all the sites I tried, I preferred Twitterfall‘s look and feel. I can imagine it working wonderfully well projected onto a wall during an event, especially in its presentation mode.

But Twitterfall doesn’t really offer any analysis. Even a tweetcloud would be useful and fairly non-controversial, I’d have thought.

Interesting and idiosyncratic Twendz

I found Twendz a little jerky in its presentation, but I did find its analysis tools fascinating. Not least because they’re wrong.

I tested the Twendz sentiment engine a long, long time ago, on the day Jade Goody died (a contestant in Big Brother in the UK). I searched against her name, and saw some tweets come in saying “So sad Jade Goody died” being classed as negative. Presumably this was due to the proximity of ‘sad’ and ‘Jade Goody’ but to my mind, that’s actually in favour of Goody. I asked about this and was told it was a ‘correct response’. Correct in that it’s classing death as negative, but I wouldn’t really be monitoring to find out what people think about death, to be honest.

So this weekend a tweet saying “My two home nations playing but I can’t watch :(” was classed as negative. Again, this is a tweet by someone who I think really wanted to watch rugby, but couldn’t. The proximity of the sad smiley must have classed it as negative. But this is someone who is sad because they can’t be there. It’s a double negative. So it’s in favour of rugby, right? Not against, imho as a human being.

Twendz also has an idiosyncratic way of picking out the main topics people are commenting on. For example, ‘DONT’ came up a few times. When I looked to see what was causing that, it was just two tweets with the word “don’t” in them. Hmmmmm. Maybe this is why Twitterfall steers clear of analysis.

Or maybe it was just having a bad day. Or perhaps it needed the right kind of event to work properly, much like the people of Summerisle needed the right kind of adult.

Touchy Tweetfeely

Tweetfeel, on the other hand, really goes for sentiment analysis in a big way. It even has a big strapline on the home page saying so: “Real-time Twitter search with feelings using insanely complex sentiment analysis.”

And it did seem to work. I was surprised at how well it would correctly classify tweets. It could be that it only classifies tweets that are definitely one way or the other (eg “France are brilliant” or “Scotland suck” – sorry Scotland, but you did, a bit) so I’d have to look into that more closely to compare an unfiltered search with a sentimented search.

Still, it gave me confidence, so perhaps Tweetfeel is good for the sentiment analysis side of things. You could maybe run Twitterfall on one screen and Tweetfeel on another, or maybe even bring them together into a Netvibes dashboard.

Tweetgurn

Finally, Tweetgrid sounds great and does a decent enough job of presenting tweets in, as the name suggests, a grid, but I found it difficult to get started until I realised the big brown pictures in front of me were clickable icons, and then, well, its presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Given the choice, I’d go for Twitterfall or Twendz any time.

Cause and effect

So there you have it. If you really want to show someone how social media works then speed things up, so that they can see cause and effect, and give them a context. In other words, do it during a live, national event, and show them how this all works with some monitoring tools. They’ll get to see what’s good and what’s not so good about monitoring and social media today.

One day…

I’ve already mentioned Netvibes, and I’ve considered building dashboards before big events that bring together live video streams with social media feedback shown alongside. Maybe I’ll do that next time around.

I await the day when broadcasters realise they can integrate this stuff too. I did find it very interesting seeing what people were thinking, but frustrating that I had to look at the laptop, then at the game, and found I couldn’t really concentrate on either.

So maybe, one day, someone will have the bright idea of running a Twitterfall-like column alongside the picture, or running below it like a newswire, together with a cloud. If so, I’ve got copyright on that one.

TouchGraph | Products: Google Browser

Products: TouchGraph Google Browser

Use this free Java application to explore the connections between related websites.

Try it now! Enter keywords or a URL, and click ‘Graph it!’ See
Getting Started below for more details.

This could be a gloriously irrelevant toy or a hugely useful tool. I’ve only just come across it so I’m not sure. If it works, it could be creating influence maps on the fly for any given topic. I just tried it with ‘social media’ and whereas it mosly listed social media sites (eg YouTube, Twitter etc) it did throw up some interesting results. Definitely worth a look, even if you just want to look at the pretty graphics or impress clients with them in Powerpoint presentations.

The UK Election Social Media Dashboard: What I learned

Estimated reading time: 1.5 minutes

So the dust is still settling – hasn’t actually settled yet because we have a hung parliament so all the politicians will be running around with their knees bent, flapping their arms and clucking and pecking at each other relentlessly until one of them, with a gigantic squawk, lays a huge golden egg and all the others look on in amazement then fall over, stunned, with their legs in the air – and I’m shortly going to retire the UK Election Social Media Dashboard. Yes, it’s going to be released into a fresh pasture where it can gambol about in the sunshine, eat grass and, with a shudder of its loins, remember fillies of days gone by. Or maybe led into a dirty shed, shot through the forehead with a metal bolt and turned into 10,000 tins of dogmeat.

Either way, it’s going to disappear soon because it won’t be needed much longer. But I thought it might be worth sharing – with my three readers – what I found out along the way:

  • Google Insights doesn’t allow more than two queries when going through Netvibes, otherwise you get an error result saying URL too long.
  • There is only one dynamic blog charting solution in town, and it’s not Technorati Charts any more.
  • The Tweetclouds widget doesn’t work when you click the ‘Get widget’ link.
  • You can’t have analytics in Netvibes.
  • You can only have certain pre-set widths for charts.
  • You can’t obtain sentiment by RSS.

So, you might ask, how is it that I have Google Insights, dynamic blog charts, tweetcloud widgets, analytics (believe me, I have analytics), varying chart sizes and sentiment on the dashboard? Ah, well, that would be giving you my secret sauce.

Who are: @frosty_snow, @geoff_bronson, @gavin_henderson, @peter_bently?

The UK Election Social Media Dashboard. What are people saying? What are YOU saying? Click to find out.

This morning I took a quick look at what people were saying on the UK Election Social Media Dashboard.

I noticed a few spikes on Twitter for George Osborne. This was strange. Osborne hasn’t figured particularly highly so far, and when he has, it’s been associated with spikes for his contemporaries Darling and Cable.

So I took a look. And, even though I’m fairly apolitical – believe me, I’m more interested in the geekery than the politics here – I’m quite dismayed by what I think I’ve found.

I noticed that there were quite a few tweets referencing old news about Osborne – his inheritance, his expenses, and so on. So I looked at who was tweeting this. And there are four Twitter accounts that have been very recently set up, that have no weblinks, that all seem to be essentially spreading muck about him online.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories but this looks pretty dodgy to me. If I didn’t know better I’d say that someone, somewhere, is coordinating an attempt to discredit Osborne by setting up Twitter accounts to try and spread negative messaging.

Of course, I could be wrong. In which case maybe we should give @frosty_snow, @geoff_bronson, @gavin_henderson and @peter_bently the benefit of the doubt. Here’s an idea: why don’t you go and check them out and see what you think?