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Twitter Evolves #nextstep

The good folks (partial list) at Twitter are doing their best to catch up with the emergent behaviors and ad-hoc constructs that rise from user innovation. These last couple of weeks we had announcement of official support for Retweet (mock from the Twitter blog below) as well as location data for individual posts.

Project retweet (from Twitter Blog)

While both are great, Twitter will only be ready to take over the web when they official adopt the next feature in line: support for adult-material spammers to add everybody as their follower at the same time.

Or, more importantly, hashtags.

A first-class support of hashtags will be the final nail in the coffin of Twitter taking over content everywhere (the Web, the world, the old media, TV, everything). Hashtags support would not only mean that a user can flag the topic of their post (#iran), saving a few characters on the way. Solid support for hashtags would mean that any user would be able to semantically tie their tweets to any type of object, virtual or real. Couple that with the flexibility of the Twitter system, and you have a platform where anyone can “attach a note” to anything, anywhere, anytime.

Examples? But of course. My tweet is about Society Coffee in Harlem. My tweet is about Sony Playstation III. It’s about the first episode of the Mad Men latest season. My tweet is about Rutgers SC&I. My tweet is about the web page of Rutgers SC&I. My tweet is about the New York Times article about Retweets. My tweet is about Ayman Shamma. My tweet is about Calexico.

Wait, how would that be different than just adding the hashtags in the text (e.g., #societycoffee)?. Well, Twitter people are smart. And they are friends of the good folks at Flickr. They will surely support Machine tags a-la Aaron‘s.

Machine tags will allow a much more robust (read: semantic) connection between the hashtag and the object discussed. I will still be saying #AymanShamma, but the system will store #facebook:user=111111 (or #twitter:user=22222). I will be saying “Calexico live in Barbi Tel Aviv” and the system will store #lastfm:event=33333 (Flickr’s machine tag now sports 1.2 million photos with a machine tag). Similarly, whether it’s a product name, a web page, a school name… a strong Twitter and client implementations can help users assign exact semantics (when they so desire) to any post.

Especially with location.

Context aware Twitter clients are a step away of being able to provide the users with the power to comment on anything, anywhere. I am pulling my iPhone out in a restaurant. My Twitter clients knows where I am, and gets IDs of nearby restaurants from Yelp. The client lets me select the restaurant I am in (or guesses it automatically based on the text and location). My post is now tied to the semantic object that is that restaurant (identified by Yelp ID, #yelp:biz=society-coffee-new-york-2) instead of just matching the text of the restaurant name (“Society Coffee” would not help much in matching and search tasks).

The Twitter API would surely allow other players to “read” all this content. Companies could show tweets about their products on the product page (or even ask users to tweet with #REI:productid=444444). If you are in a live event, a big screen can show all the content tagged #lastfm:event=555555 (which will be easy for any user to add to their post using their location- or calender-aware client). And more.

“If you liked this painting tweet #moma:paintingid=6666666”. We might see a lot more of these in the future. Twitter will bring on the object web. Just hash it out already!

p.s. Of course, our ZoneTag already did all these things (on Flickr) by 2007.

Teaching “Social Media”: Open for Suggestions!

The Naaman and Boase team are about to teach, for the first time ever (for us and at Rutgers), a “social media” class (informal announcement and silly photo here, Facebook group with some more information here). We are pretty excited about this opportunity (if I may speak for Jeff here) – I am looking forward for a very interesting semester.

But in the open teaching tradition I started last January, I am going to ask the one dear reader of this blog (it’s not Ayman, he just writes it) for input. What do you think a social media class should include? Try to think about it for a minute before looking at our tentative plan for the class, below. What did you hit that we didn’t?

Of course, two questions are immediately raised: 1) what is social media and 2) what is the target audience for the class. Let me start with the second, which is easier to answer. We target PhD and Masters students in various programs including Computer Science, Information Science and Communication (we even have a business school student registered). Letting both PhD and Masters students take the class means we need to balance theory/research and practical learnings that the Masters students can take with them to the workplace. Also, the interdisciplinary approach and audience means we will handle material from the social sciences, HCI and design, as well as computer science and information science topics.  One last thing to know: the students will form interdisciplinary teams to create/design a social media application (e.g. a Facebook app).

So, what is social media? Well, as you can see below it is the topic of the first session, so I am not going to give the full story here. In short, we see social media in a new (an emerging) Information and Communication Technology (ICT) that allows people to communicate in a public or semi-public manner, with emphasis on the personal identity of contributors and social connections. I will keep it short here so just a few positive and negative examples: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, MySpace are social media. Wikipedia, comments on New York Times articles, Instant Messenger and Newsgroups are NOT social media. Let’s argue about that definition later…

So, what would you teach that’s important to understand this emerging ICT? What are the key readings that are not to be missed? Here’s what we have for now, without the readings. Feel free to suggest your favorite reading on each topic, as well!

  • What is Social Media: introduction, definition and examples.
  • Communities and social networks: Concept of communities, offline and online, how this concept is shifting; what are social networks (i.e. ties between people) and what to they enable.
  • Social network models and structure: online social networks, analysis of social networks, structure of networks, ego-centric network view, etc.
  • Open Platforms: “Web 2.0”, “the Web of data“, APIs – some idea of what can be built on top of existing social media applications.
  • HCI and Design: introduction to the design process with emphasis on Web and social applications.
  • Motivation and adoption: when do people adopt certain social media services, and why do they contribute to them? In other words, what is the motivation of people to join and stay active on social media sites?
  • Social media across cultures: a cross-cultural look at the social media phenomena.
  • Mobile-social and Social Media for Good: with a very special guest speaker!
  • Data Addicts: Data Collection, Analysis, and Visualization (for research or application purposes) of social media data.
  • Study Design and Data Analysis: introduction to research on social media services; how to design studies and analyze the data.
  • Social Information Design: an information-centric approach to social media; what are the different information factors in play (yes, this is where we talk about tagging).
  • Privacy, Legal Issues, Copyright, and IRB.
  • Economics of social media.

That’s it for now. As you can see, we plan jump from the theoretic, to the practical, to the research-y topics, hopefully making for a good mix. What did we leave out? What should we leave out? Your input is welcome, or as Dr. Boase would say, “we will try our darnedest to include suggestions, but may not be able to include all of them”.

Proposals and Innovation (Kudos to Google)

I think it was my colleague Michael Lesk that mentioned someone (I forget whom) performing a “back-of-an-envelope” (or was it “side-of-a-napkin”?) calculation, showing that the NSF proposal process results in negative gains to the research community (logic: number of hours writing proposals by researchers everywhere vs. the number of hours of work eventually funded).

I am sure Michael, a former NSF director, doesn’t completely believe in that, but I also believe that this calculation overlooked a very important value-generating factor: idea diffusion from the academic to the private sector.

You know how sometimes you have a great idea or insight, only to discover that somebody else already had that idea? Even worse, you know how this happens and you realize that you actually read that paper where the idea was described but forgot all about it? (yes, Ayman, this happens to people my age, you’ll see when you get there).

My thesis is that while not all NSF proposals get funded, all of them are reviewed and evaluated by panels that include many researchers in  companies. The ideas in these proposals stick in the minds of the readers, and could very well be unconsciously adapted or used later (I am not saying anyone is out to steal the academics’ ideas!).

This is why I find Google’s Faculty Research Awards an entirely good idea, both for the faculty and for Google. In particular, the open nature of the awards program (not specifically tied to current Google products or data, for one) is a key feature. Yes, G will get a lot of submissions and will spend valuable time reviewing each and every one of them. Obviously, the funded proposals will benefit Google as they create a direct link between the researcher and a Google person that will learn about the findings. But even the mere act of having all the world’s researchers sending Google their ideas and suggestions is bound to leave some trace in Googler’s minds. Google thus increases the funnel of innovation and ideation (I hate that word) to collect input way beyond its own engineers and employees.

Now, if they end up supporting my proposal, that would prove that they are even more brilliant!

Understanding the Creative Conversation

In October, I’m running a workshop (with Dan and Kurt) at Creativity and Cognition 2009. This workshop builds on the workshop I ran with Ryan two years ago at C&C07. In 2007, we had a great collection of artists, dancers, musicians, educators, ischoolers, and cs folk. This year, I hope we can further strengthen our focus:

This workshop is aimed at describing the elusive creative process: addressing models of creative practice, from art to craft, from dance to education. In particular, we wish to discuss creative models that are conversational: connect the creator and the consumer via the creative act or artifact. We invite researchers and practitioners from any domain to enter into the conversation about the design and process of the creative act.

Do check out the call for participation and we hope to see you Berkeley.

PS: I’ve located Naaman and have begun a creative conversation with him that I’m sure you’ll soon read about.


I am not sure I have a lot to say about this presentation, delivered as a keynote at the Symposium on Spatial and Temporal Databases (SSTD ’09) and embedded below, except that I think the visual design of my slides is somewhat improved.

Oh, and also that I tried to introduce the opportunity of social media data to the smart people in the SSTD community. Especially as Twitter is rumored to add location data, we are about to witness a significant new information system with social, spatial and temporal data all at the same time and in a never-before-seen scale. The opportunities are, as you might guess, endless.

The Rediscovery of the Web

Oh you’re on Twitter now? Really, this has gotten insane.  Every TV show.  Every News source.  Every post. Over the last 6 months, while we were following everyone on Twitter from the NSF’s announcements to JPeterman’s prose, we’ve seen an explosion in something called the ‘real-time web’. This brings the rise of people beginning to discuss good questions like how do these systems like twitter help people organize protests? or what can we learn about H1N1 by following where people are mentioning it in under 140 characters. If you detect any sarcasm here, there is a little. Two things to remember. First – I heard this before except ‘twitter’ was replaced with ‘sms’ and ‘friends’ were replaced with ‘address book contacts’. (Think back to the protests in France several years ago.) In fact, much of the work from CSCW that we’ve seen over the past 10 years shows everything from design constraints to their social concern. Second – this is about as ‘real-time’ as adding a buddy on MySpace is actually a ‘friend’; more on real social interactions vs adding buddies later.

As Naaman knows, I have been working on Zync, a real-time synchronous sharing system, for a few years now. Google Wave seems to be also pushing on this quite a bit as well. Before that You-Tube made a ‘pretty pointless’ attempt. Wave and Zync share a similar beat. The act of sharing is a first class design consideration; this is to say we start with the point ‘I’d like to share this with Naaman now’ (for example)…this really says ‘I want to spend some time with Naaman’. Otherwise, I’d just email the video or the map or whatever. I wonder if our nouns and verbs are evolving to match the pivot to real-time?

Spin me up, Spin me down.

As Naaman turns in his grades and contemplates pushing the limits of the web’s asynchronicity, I’ve been rather quiet.  Mostly I was distracted.  You see I was doing two things: studying how people stream their performances online with in-browser webcasting tools and launching (now the third version of) an instant messaging video sharing tool.   More on the latter later.

Almost a year ago, I was wondering why many performers were choosing to webcast themselves.  Why not get a paying gig?  Or invite some friends over for an open mic night?  At that time, two colleages and friends of mine (Nikhil Bobb and Matt Fukuda) were working on Y!Live (RIP).  Live had several DJs who would regularly broadcast sets of house, hiphop, reggae – you name it.  After some prelimiary data studies and several MySpace emails, Elizabeth and I had conducted a round of field interviews via phone calls, meetups, and got lost several times in South Oakland.

DJ Doolow

While the details of this study have many implications on communities online, performances, and webcasting, you can read all that in the 2009 Communities and Technology paper yourself (or catch me live at the conference).  Or read Elizabeth’s complementary account. I would like to talk about ecology for a moment.  Turn to Slide 43.

All of the DJs we talked to mentioned this club ecosystem. 1) They get people on the dance floor. Once the floor is filled, they stick with a genre to keep people dancing. 2) People get thirsty so they head to the bar, they will now try new tracks and styles to get a second wave on the floor. 3) Wave 1 goes to the bathroom, Wave 2 goes to the bar. They now search for Wave 3. 4) Repeat with Wave 1. But what do they do in a webbrowser?

In Y!Live, slide 45, you find the overall view count (embeds + chat room). Every DJ we spoke to, pointed right there and said ‘that’s my dance floor‘. Once that count is high, (next slide please) they turn to the chat to see the volume of conversation and maybe the topic. And finally, (next slide) they look at the viewers – checking for that head nod or hand tap. The DJs were quite realistic, knowing ppl are sitting on the sofa or at a desk.

DJs, who make their life around wiring and routing sound, had no problem using webcasting systems. I believe this is because it fits into their craft. Similarly, the scanning pattern and ecology of ‘gauging the club’ or ‘how am i doing?’ translated online from the DJ booth to the webbrowser. So, as we build tools for creative people, many people tell you ‘dont make tools that require individuals to deal with more things’. I’ll say something to the contrary. Feel free to add cognitive load, as long as it fits into the practice of their expertise.

Everybody’s Twitter Now (plus: Hummus!)

It seems like everybody is trying to be Twitter these days. After the Facebook re-design, popularly believed to be Twitter-driven, I have just noticed this from Gmail/Gtalk: a new call-for-action when you update your status in Gmail. Looks at Gmail’s caption under the text entry box (I marked it dotted-red):

Gmail status CFA

Notice the highlighted box:

Let people know what you’re up to, or share links to photos, videos, and web pages.

I think that’s new. Has anyone notice this before? That’s Google saying: we want to be your Twitter. Don’t be surprised when Gmail starts to offer a feed of friends’ status messages, any day now. You heard it here first.

[On an unrelated note, hey Ayman, check out that hummus video and The Hummus Blog to learn about some real hummus.]