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August 20, 2010

Facebook Places is at the beginning of a long road

Filed under: facebook, foursquare, geotagging, lbs, maps, mobile, twitter, wireless — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:39 am
Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook Places on the iPhone

Facebook’s much awaited Places product finally launched this week. It’s the first step toward bringing friend finding to the masses.

People have been using Facebook to do this for years; posting their location in freeform status updates that their friends can read and comment on. (e.g. “heading to Cambridge for dinner.”) By turning that freeform text into structured location data, Facebook can make that data more useful.

From an iPhone or HTML5-capable mobile device, you can check in to a place, such as a restaurant, bar, movie theater, airport. You can also leave a message with the check in. The check in is posted to your wall and may appears in friends’ news feeds. On the mobile side, you can see a list of your friends and where they’ve checked in. Clicking on a place will show you details of the place, including a map and who has checked in.

The initial release is fairly simple. In fact, it’s not that much more useful than the freeform status updates.

Facebook is entering a very crowded space with competitors such as foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, Google Latitude, Whrrl and Twitter. Many of those products are much more robust. Facebook’s key advantage is the size of its social graph: within the past 24 hours, 18 of my friends have checked in.

There are many opportunities for improvement to Facebook Places:

  • Basic UI. Check ins are sorted by time, not distance. A friend checking in 2,000 miles away 2 minutes ago is less relevant than someone checking in 2 miles away 5 minutes ago. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the city isn’t shown. Considering that many people use Facebook to keep track of friends all around the world, this is a significant issue. Foursquare has a separate bucket of “Friends in other cities.” Update: Facebook now has a separate grouping of nearby friends.
  • Map view. Often, visualizing your friends on a map is much easier than scanning a list. Foursquare already offers this.
  • Visiting friends. Out of town friends who are in town aren’t indicated. One of the big potential values of social friend finding is discovering when friends are in town. If a friend from far away is visiting, I’m more inclined to want to get together than someone who lives in town.
  • Pictures. There is no way to associate a picture with a check in. Given the difficulty in typing on mobile devices, often a picture gives a lot more information. These pictures could also be used to build a much more robust Place page.
  • Pushing location. Sending people your location via SMS is tedious. You have to address the message, type out where you are. If they don’t know where it is, they have to pull up a map or text you back for directions. With Places, it would be easy to push a notification to friends with where you are, complete with map. This could be sent as a push notification on iPhones or as an SMS with a URL for other phones.

As with most Facebook product launches, questions of privacy come up. In general, I think Facebook has done a good job with the default privacy settings on Places. You must explicitly check in; there is no background tracking.

Only your friends can see where you’ve checked in. Unfortunately, my social graph on Facebook wasn’t designed with location in mind. When I decided whether or not to accept friend requests on foursquare, I used a tighter filter than on Facebook. Now, I’ll have to go back through Facebook friends and create a list of who should have access to location. (See Post technology columnist Rob Pegoraro’s piece on how he classifies his friends.) Yes, old high school friends have been known to burgle homes based on Facebook updates. If that worries you, watch Rob’s video on how to adjust your privacy settings for Places.

The one big complaint I have with the privacy defaults is that your friends can check you into a location without your permission.

See also:

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August 19, 2010

Heading toward the Facebook recommendation engine

Filed under: facebook, lbs, local search, maps, yellow pages, yelp — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:13 am
Image representing Facebook as depicted in Cru...

Image via CrunchBase

There’s an interesting thread over at Mike Blumenthal’s blog on the effect of Facebook Places on the local reviews space.

My view is that reviews and updates will coexist, much as blogs and Twitter coexist. People who were less committed to reviews will migrate their activity to Facebook Places updates. But Places could lead toward the ultimate recommendation engine.

In the local space, there’s really only one review site that matters: Yelp. They’ve got a strong set of tools and an active and engaged community. New restaurants and bars, which are often of the most interest, will have a dozen reviews on Yelp a year before they even show up on many Yellow Pages sites.

There are three big challenges with Yelp:

  • It’s been too successful. Many restaurants have hundreds of reviews. Although Yelp provides great tools for analyzing the data, it can still feel overwhelming. It also discourages participation from more casual users. In the early days of Yelp, I was an active reviewer. That’s tapered off substantially — what’s the marginal benefit of me writing the 426th review of a place?
  • These aren’t my real friends. I don’t know how compatible their tastes are with mine. It also affects the propensity to write reviews. People are more likely to do something that helps their friends than something that helps a generic audience.
  • Skewed demographics. Yelp primarily caters to a young, urban demographic. If you’re a mom in the suburbs, its value is more limited.

Facebook Places lowers the bar to participation and ties it into real-life social networks. Instead of writing out a long review, a few clicks is all it takes. Combine that with Facebook’s large user base on mobile devices — its monthly uniques on mobile devices is 4x Yelp’s monthly uniques on the Web — and we’ll see a tsunami of local data. (For more on importance of massive amounts of data, watch Google’s Peter Norvig’s talk.)

While each blip may not be as rich as the data in Yelp, you could build a recommendation engine to infer a lot from that data.

If I see that a place I am considering visiting is regularly frequented by my friends with families, I can infer that it is good for kids. Positive reviews can be inferred by friends going back to a place regularly. There are some friends who I have negative taste relationships with. If I know that they’re regulars somewhere, I know not to go there. Facebook can also make recommendations based on places I’ve visited and the overlaps with places my friends have visited. Facebook also has real demographic information which could be used to tailor recommendations.

Status updates in the social network also prompt discussions. Even if the original poster doesn’t write a review, it may be followed up by “hey, I was thinking of going there. what did you think of it?” Facebook could also close the loop by prompting people to add star ratings, Like or add comments a few days after a check in.

When it comes to restaurant reviews and recommendations, most people are looking for “good enough”. While you could spend hours reading every Yelp review of several restaurants and possibly get a better answer, a recommendation based on your friends’ activity is probably nearly as good. Facebook has done really well with good enough; Facebook Photos dominates online photo sharing, despite many functional weaknesses when compared with flickr.

I built a prototype of this when I was at AOL Search and even with a few users in the system, it worked really well.

More on: Facebook, local search, Yelp

See also:

June 9, 2010

EVO vs. iPhone

Filed under: android, apple, facebook, flickr, google, iphone, mobile — Tags: — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:21 am

I’ve been using an HTC EVO since last Friday. As an iPhone user for the last two years, this is the first Android phone that has appealed to me.  CrunchGear has a good comparison of the technical specs of the iPhone and the EVO.

The two biggest complaints others have voiced about the EVO are bulk and poor battery life. Yes, it is bulky. It’s the heaviest phone I’ve had in at least 5 years — at 6 ounces, it’s 25% heavier than the iPhone 4G. It’s width makes it more awkward to hold than an iPhone, but not uncomfortably so. But it also has a big, beautiful screen. Life is a tradeoff.

I haven’t had issues with battery life, but then I don’t talk a lot on my phone. Unlike with the iPhone, you can carry around a spare battery.

The other issue that has been mentioned regularly is the on-screen keyboard. The iPhone’s keyboard is less complicated, but the EVO let’s you accomplish more tasks (like entering numbers) without leaving the main keyboard. The one issue I’ve definitely noticed is that some keys on the left side haven’t been registering consistently. (e.g. “A” and “S”)

While others have railed against one or the other, the phones are different enough that they’re likely to appeal to different people. I’ve tried to identify those below.

For typical consumers, my recommendation would be the iPhone, provided that you’re in an area where AT&T’s network isn’t saturated. For me? I’ve got three more weeks to decide.

If you…

… have a lot of music or photos and like iTunes.

Go with the iPhone. I haven’t been able to find a decent media synchronization experience for EVO. I used my iPhone frequently for podcasts and those are easy to set up and synch with iTunes. I also synch photos from my computer to my iPhone. Again, not something I can do with the stock EVO.

… want to customize your phone experience.

Go with EVO. You can customize a lot of elements of how the phone operates. You can create themes for different uses, e.g. a work theme, play theme and travel theme. Each theme can have different applications, shortcuts and widgets. It’d be even nicer if you could change themes automatically based on time of day or location. (e.g. work theme while at the office)

… don’t want to know what a task manager is.

Go with iPhone. Ordinary users should never have to see things like com.google.android.apps.googlevoice. It’s difficult to figure out what apps are running on the EVO. That’s problematic because you could easily have an unknown app running down your battery.

… want something that looks pretty.

Go with iPhone. It’s hard to top Apple design. The EVO is bulkier and certainly looks more utilitarian than iPhone. The EVO screen also shows fingerprints a lot more than my iPhone 3G.

… give out your Google Voice number to friends, family and colleagues.

Go with EVO. The Google Voice integration is incredible. Calls you make can be routed through GV automatically. Calls are logged correctly in the phone and on the GV site. Voicemail is also seamlessly integrated. Text messages aren’t integrated into the phone’s messages app.

… want a broad selection of apps.

Go with iPhone. Yes, it’s not open and yes, Apple can arbitrarily reject apps. But iOS has many more apps written for it. While many of the major apps are on both platforms, I couldn’t find equivalents for flickr or Zipcar on Android. Google Voice is the key exception of an app that’s on Android but not iPhone.

For gamers, the iPhone advantage is even stronger. With the gyroscope on iPhone 4, gaming will only get better.

…  like flickr, Facebook and Twitter.

Go with iPhone. The Facebook and Twitter apps for iPhone are much more polished than their Android counterparts. For example, on the Facebook app, clicking on a link someone has shared sends you on an infinite loop between the shared item and the person’s wall.  (Google VP Vic Gotundra recently gave a Facebook intern an HTC Evo in hopes of getting a better experience on Android.) I couldn’t find an official flickr app for Android.

HTC includes some tools for all three networks that integrate them into the phone’s UI. For example, contact lists from all three can be integrated with the phone’s main contact list. This sounds great — and is the right direction for phones — but the software isn’t ready for prime time. I often see the same people listed 3 or 4 times. (You can manually consolidate these for each person, but that’s a lot of work.) If you set up favorite people, you’ll see when they’ve updated their social networks. Background downloading of status updates also takes a toll on battery life.

… have terrible AT&T coverage.

Go with EVO. AT&T’s networks in SF and NY are overloaded and getting data connections or making a call can be a real challenge.

I’ve had few issues with Sprint’s network. Sprint also includes roaming on Verizon’s network.

… want something that “just works” out of the box.

Go with iPhone. The stock EVO is much more customizable than a stock iPhone. With customization always comes complexity. When iPod came out, a lot of techies criticized it for being a dumbed down MP3 player. Other MP3 players of the time had FM radios! They didn’t tie you into one company! But by stripping away all those extra features, Apple created something that just worked for the most common tasks for most people.

Same is true with iPhone. Owning the entire stack gives Apple a huge advantage in creating a user experience that just works across its enormous userbase. Video calling will work the same across all iPhone 4s. Not true with Android.

With HTC’s Sense UI, Android, Sprint customizations and apps all playing a part, the EVO experience doesn’t hold together.

Although features like social networking integration will be important, what HTC has done with EVO is too confusing for most people.

… want to be able to connect your laptop, iPad or other devices.

Go with EVO. Although AT&T is now offering tethering, they’re charging an extra $20 a month and the usage still counts against your 2GB data limit. For$30 a month, Sprint offers unlimited data and a wireless hotspot that supports up to 8 devices simultaneously. If you don’t need that, you might be able to use an app like PDANet to tether your laptop without paying the $30 a month.

… talk a lot, text a lot, use a lot of data or use navigation and want to economize.

Go with EVO. Sprint’s pricing plans are generally cheaper than AT&T for heavy users. For $80, Sprint includes unlimited nights (beginning at 7pm vs. 9pm for AT&T) and weekends, unlimited calls to any mobile phone (vs. just AT&T customers), unlimited texting (an additional $20 on AT&T) and navigation (extra $10 on AT&T). Sprint also has generous corporate discounts that can knock up to 25% off the bill. Low volume users who can get by with less than 250MB of data a month are better off with AT&T.

… are a world traveler.

Go with the iPhone. With GSM, you’ll at least have the option of international coverage in most countries, even if you have to pay exorbitant roaming rates. Of course, it’s best to unlock your phone and use local carriers if you’re spending any amount of time outside the country.

… are uncertain.

Try EVO. Sprint offers the most generous return policy in the business. You have 30 days to decide whether you like it. If you don’t, you can take it back and you won’t pay anything. They won’t even charge you for the service you used. AT&T will charge you for the service, plus the activation fee, unless you return within 3 days. Sprint’s early termination fee is also lower, $200 vs. $325.

NOTE: Comparisons here are based on a stock iPhone vs. a stock EVO.

February 3, 2010

Plowing through the middleman

Filed under: facebook, journalism, media, newspapers, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 7:53 am
Snow plow in Arlington County

Snow plow in Arlington County. Creative Commons image by Ron Barber.

The snow day. Growing up in Michigan, it was always a treat. Whenever a significant amount of snow was in the forecast, I’d wake up early to see if I got the day off. I’d listen to the radio as the DJ went through the school closings or watch the crawl on the local morning news. It took some patience as they went through the list, but once in a while that patience was rewarded with a day off.

Kids today don’t have that level of suspense. As a fan of Arlington County on Facebook, my newsfeed showed that school is closed today. A quick check of the Arlington Public Schools Web site also provides that information. No more listening through “Angelus Academy, Anne Arundel Community College, Anne Arundel County Schools, Apple Montessori School, Aquinas and Old Town Montessori School…” (In a large metro area, this is killer.)

It’s yet another example of how media consumers can cut out the middle man and go directly to the source.

In much of the discussion about aggregators such as Google News and digg, what’s left out is that much of the media are themselves aggregators — compiling data from school districts, local businesses, funeral homes, police and fire agencies, etc.

Newspapers didn’t really get to play in the school closing game, but compilations of local events, lunch menus, high school sports scores, police blotters and obituaries have been a key part of the newspaper content mix. Such content is an even greater proportion of What People Care About. Many of these needs are now being better served online as easy-to-use tools such as Facebook, Twitter and flickr get adopted by these news sources.

Instead of reading about promotions and awards in the newspaper, I can get that information delivered to me through LinkedIn or Facebook status updates. Sadly, I’ve found out about the death of a high school classmate through Facebook.

And it’s a much better experience than what fits in a newspaper:

  • The filter is personal. It doesn’t matter whether that person was important enough in the eyes of a newspaper’s editor. I also don’t have to read through long lists of people I’m not interested in.
  • The content is richer. Clay Reid’s Facebook page is filled with photos and remembrances from friends.
  • It’s interactive. With promotions and job changes, I can quickly reach out to friends and congratulate them.

In the case of a snow day, you can make plans with your other friends who suddenly have the day free right on Facebook. And then upload the video of you snow blading down the hill.

More on: newspapers, facebook

August 3, 2009

Missing out on the big stuff on Twitter and Facebook

Filed under: facebook, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:44 pm

One of my friends recently got engaged and posted that fact on Facebook. I missed it.

It’s one of the frustrations of the constantly flowing river of news in social networks — births, deaths, weddings and job changes get lost amid the links to pictures of kittens, “what state should I live in quizzes?”, stories about Internet celebrities and the other trivia of life.

There’s no way to get a summary of the important stuff. On many news sites, we have a variety of clues: the size of a headline and the relative placement of stories serve as indicators a story’s importance. We need similar clues for social media.

One place to start is the publisher: the author knows how important it is relative to other entries they write. I post content to social networks on average 5-6 times a day. About once or twice a month I post something that I’d want to call extra attention to. But short of posting it repeatedly (further polluting the stream) there’s no way to call attention to it.

Something like this wouldn’t work in an open Web environment where spammers would designate everything they create as spam; but in a social context, the network serves as a check against excessive spamming.

Another way to identify important content is to look at how many people act on it. If a lot of people like a post or comment on it, that post is likely more significant than others. This should be normalized so that someone with a lot of followers or a more active network doesn’t drown out others with smaller networks.

Identifying important content also helps when looking at a longer period of time than the last hour or last day. It would be useful to be able to look back through my Facebook or Twitter history and see what were the most important things this year.

April 15, 2009

9 ways to improve the Facebook news feed

Filed under: facebook, search, social networking — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:30 pm

As any designer knows, making a big change to a site with as many users as Facebook has is going to cause a lot of complaining. With that in mind, I’ve tried to get used to the new feed over the last few weeks — and I still hate it.

The new news feed is like watching CNN during a breaking news event: you can watch for hours and hours and only get two or three bits of interesting information amid the endless blather.

It’s a giant step backward and as more people get on Facebook and become more active it’s going to become worse.

Among the issues I have with it:

  • Feed items from frequent users drown out feed items from infrequent users.
  • Friends seem to be treated equally.
  • It rewards spammy applications, such as the quiz applications that seem to pop up every day and apps like PicDoodle.
  • It doesn’t eliminate duplicate items. If 10 people post the same item, it’ll be inserted multiple times. As much as I love the Twitter parody by current.tv, I don’t need to see it anymore. This is made worse by the use of URL shorteners that obfuscate the item you’re clicking on.

Snippet of Rocky's Facebook feedOne of my design philosophies is that you shouldn’t make users do work that computers can do better. Filtering and priortizing is high on that list. The old Facebook news feed algorithm and the current highlights section provided some level of this.

Here are some of the factors to consider when prioritizing:

  • Degree of interaction. Items from people I interact with regularly should be prioritized higher.
  • Number of friends involved. The greater the number of friends involved, the higher the priority.
  • Number of times shared. The more of my friends that have shared it, the more likely it is to be of interest.
  • Location. I’m more interested in things happening near me than on the other side of the country. Facebook will need to become aware of locations that are being embedded by applications such as Brightkite.
  • Posting frequency. If someone rarely posts on Facebook, the odds are good that when they do post, it’s something important.
  • Application usage. If I use the same app, I’m more likely to be interested in the content that the app generates.
  • Topic similarity. If the item is about a topic that I frequently post about, it should get a boost.
  • Been there, done that. If I’ve seen it already, it should be downweighted.

The ideal feed would adapt to visit frequency. Someone who visits every five minutes would see a feed very similar to today’s feed. Someone who visits once a week, would see a “best of” from the week.

Some of these things are harder to do than others, but any sort of this filtering is better than what I see today.Any algorithm will undoubtedly miss something that I care about, but the current endless river of unfiltered content ensures that.

Besides, there’s a trick I use when I want to bring someone’s attention to something: instead of hoping that they see it on my feed, I message them directly.

More on: Facebook

April 6, 2009

Anyone can be a journalist

Filed under: facebook, flickr, journalism, media, mobile, newspapers, publishing, social networking, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:59 pm

In conversations with people in the news business, I regularly hear about the need for “professional journalists.” Ask them what makes a professional journalist and the answers get wishy-washy. Is it someone who is on staff at a newspaper? What about TV anchors? What about commentators? Do you have to have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school? Do you have to be able to write eloquently or briefly? (I know people who work for newspapers that can’t do either.)

Unlike medicine, law or plumbing, there is no officially recognized training program, licensing or accreditation process. Actors’ Equity has more stringent requirements for membership than the Society of Professional Journalists.

My answer is none of the above. A journalist is anyone who can report a story.

Just like the best camera is the one you have on you at the time something happens, the best journalist is the person who is there when news happens. At the same time that we have newspapers across the country drastically cutting their staffs, we have an increasing number of people with the tools to do original reporting quickly and easily. (See my earlier post on flickr vs. The Washington Post.) The cameraphone is replacing the reporters’ notebook and the printing press. Not only can it record notes, it can instantly disseminate that information across the globe.

Janis Krums was a journalist on January 15 when US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River. His tweet “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” and picture were among the lasting memories of the day. The picture has been seen more than 442,000 times on TwitPic, which is greater than the circulation of all but 20 newspapers in the country. That number would be much, much higher if you were able to include the views on sites (including mainstream media sites) that hosted the pictures on their own servers.

If he were employed by a newspaper or wire service, he’d have a decent shot at a Pulitzer for breaking news photography. A key part of winning is being in the right place at the right time.

I used to wonder what I’d do if I found myself in the middle of a big news event to get the story out. Would I call someone I know at the New York Times? Now I know what I’d do: I’d upload a picture from my cameraphone to my flickr, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Hard-hitting investigative journalism represents a small fraction of the resources spent by news organizations.

Even there, the “professional journalists” have competition. Last week, I attended a Web 2.0 Expo session by Sunlight Labs where technologists gathered to bring more openness and accountability to government. Their mission is to get access to government data that is locked up in ancient computer systems and expose it in ways that the average citizen can consume it. Their tools are XML, parsers and databases. They are journalists, too.

More on: newspapers

Disclosure: I have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school. I try to write briefly (on Twitter) and more eloquently here. I used to be on staff at startribune.com and washingtonpost.com. I try to commit journalism for fun.

March 19, 2009

Facebook drives 6MM people to Friendster!

Filed under: facebook, google, search, social networking, statistics — Rakesh Agrawal @ 1:25 am

That headline is kinda, sorta true. If you buy shoddy analysis from misinterpreted data.

Like a recent piece from Henry Blodget, mass inflator of the Web 1.0 bubble. He is at it again with a piece on Facebook being a Google Killer. He points to RBC Capital Markets analyst Ross Sandler’s “analysis” of Facebook’s incredible growth and comScore data on entries and exits.

This is the kind of incessant hyping that inflated the housing bubble we’re all suffering through now — assuming that extreme rates of growth will continue.

The 1427% growth cited for Facebook starts from an insignificant base. With Google’s 468MM uniques in 2006, the only way for Google to have grown 1427% would be to reach every man, woman and child on earth. And it certainly couldn’t sustain that growth into the future, even if a lot of couples got really busy really fast.

Blodget also points to comScore’s entry/exit data to bolster his case. Here, he falsely equates correlation with causation. comScore’s entry/exit report doesn’t necessarily mean that site A drove traffic to site B. It just means that after someone went to site A, they went to site B.

If you go from Facebook to Google, it counts as an exit from Facebook and an entry to Google. It doesn’t matter whether you clicked on a link in Facebook to go to Google or not. You just happend to do those two things. Given that a lot of people use both Google and Facebook, any big site will show up on both entry/exit reports for any site.

Blodget says:

Fully 19% of Google sessions now come from Facebook, up from 9% a year ago.  At the very least, this will likely give Facebook the leverage to negotiate a sweet referral deal at some point.

Nope. Those people are going to Google anyway, without any prodding from Facebook. Google would be stupid to pay for that traffic.

comScore’s entry/exit report is one of the most useless reports they generate and really difficult to interpret. The only real curiosity in the Facebook data is this: 6MM people go to Friendster after they go to Facebook?

Yet another issue with RBC’s graph is that it doesn’t take into account duplicated reach. The combination of Google and Facebook is not 99% of worldwide uniques, because there is a high degree of overlap between the two sites. RBC analysts evidently don’t know how to use the unduplicated reach feature of comScore’s reporting tools.

That’s three huge flaws in one report. Sadly, that’s not uncommon. Analysts and journalists frequently ignore methodology while chasing killer headlines.

Thanks to @carolalene for the pointer on the comic.

March 13, 2009

Realtime Twitter search is not a Google killer, part 2

Filed under: facebook, google, search, seo, twitter — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:00 pm

In the first part, I wrote about the fallacy of using people with thousands of followers to illustrate how you can get great results if you ask questions on Twitter.

In this part, I’ll focus on why the conversational nature of Twitter makes searching it effectively a hard problem.

Consider this exchange:

@CherylHaas: Celebrating my newly purchased iPhone. w00t!!! No longer a Luddite. App suggestions, please?
@rakeshlobster: yelp and shazam and Facebook

This is how people interact on Twitter. Partly because we’re lazy, partly because a lot of the interaction is done from mobile devices where typing is hard and partly because of the 140 character limit on tweets.

Between these two tweets, we have an answer to the query “iPhone app”. But Twitter Search treats these tweets independently. As a result, if you search for “iPhone app”, you’d get Cheryl’s question. Not very helpful.

If you search for “shazam,” you’ll get back my response. But there’s no context for it. The meaning of my response is lost without the context of Cheryl’s question. The question could have been “what apps are causing your iPhone to crash?” This happens in ordinary conversation on Twitter; when people are slow at responding and I get a “@rakeshlobster yes,” I’ll sometimes have forgotten the context.

This problem could be alleviated if Twitter presented threaded conversations. But then Google could just as easily index the conversation, as it does with Yahoo! Answers.

Another issue is that people don’t write for Twitter the way they write for search engines. Compare my tweet above with this post I wrote on my favorite iPhone applications. That was written with searchability in mind. There’s also a lot of shorthand on Twitter. @maryvale shortened “Nikon D80″ to “D80″ in her tweet discussing my last blog post.

That may change if searching Twitter takes off, but it would also change the nature of Twitter. I’ve been experimenting with adding more keywords in my tweets. For example, when I dropped my laptop, I originally wrote:

“laptop hinge broken. argh. it’s pretty, sleek and light. and extremely delicate.”

But then I added in the “toshiba portege r500 is”. It’s more searchable, but it makes the conversation sound stilted and robotic.

Another challenge with searching Twitter for information is that a lot of the value in Twitter is not in the tweets, but in what the tweets point too. With the extensive of URL shorteners like TinyURL and bit.ly, even the minimal keywords are lost.

Beyond the content difficulties in search, there are the related issues of search order and authority.

The results that you get back are sorted chronologically and are highly dependent on when you search. Although the “best” answer for a search can fluctuate over time (one of my criticisms of Google is that its algorithms don’t do enough to counter the effects of Web rot), for most searches it doesn’t vary dramatically over the course of a day or a week. A notable exception would be queries like “what’s a good party at SXSW right now?”

As with asking questions of the Twitterverse, searching Twitter doesn’t provide any guidance as to whose answers are better than others. Searching Twitter is in someways like stepping back 15 years in search technology, before search engines widely used off-page clues and link authority to rank results.

Some suggestions have revolved around developing authority rankings based on number of followers, number of tweets, etc. The problem with that is that no one person is an authority on everything. A search result from Om Malik (@Om) on telecom should be ranked much higher than a result from Om on migration patterns of birds in Africa. Review sites like Amazon and Yelp have devoted a lot of energy to helping people determine which results are valuable. Twitter will have to develop something similar.

Despite today’s issues, the immense amount of data that Twitter and Facebook are collecting could be used to build a better, more spam-resistant search engine. The marriage of search and social networks has the potential to get us better and more credible answers, while also increasing our connections to our friends.

More on: Twitter, Google

Disclosure: I worked with several members of Twitter’s search team at AOL Search. While I don’t believe in the current hype in the blogosphere about Twitter as a Google killer with the current technology, the guys I know are very smart and I look forward to seeing what they do next.

September 14, 2008

Communicating amongst friends: how technology changes human relationships

Filed under: email, facebook, flickr, im, instant messaging, social networking, twitter, Uncategorized, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 8:43 pm

I realized recently that I’ve been communicating with one of my closest friends over IM for more than 10 years. We talk almost daily, several times a day. I have no doubt that we wouldn’t be as close without the ease of IM; we certainly wouldn’t talk on the phone every day.

IM, email, cell phones, blogs and social networks have dramatically changed how I talk with friends and changed the nature of those relationships.

Status messages often are a trigger for communications, inspiring conversations about upcoming (or just finished) trips. Friends use status messages to subtly hit up contributions for charities, to acknowledge such contributions or to flog blog posts. Facebook status messages have allowed me to meet up with friends when traveling. I often learn about world events through my friends.

Asynchronous communication allows me to catch up on what my friends are up to when I have time. I spent most of a four hour flight to Chicago reading about Jon’s trip to Russia and checking out his pictures. It beat whatever was in United’s Hemispheres magazine. Another 15 or 20 minutes went to viewing flickr pictures from other friends. Something we used to dread — friends subjecting us to slideshows — we now seek out and eagerly comment on.

As to Twitter, I’ve gotten more active on it in the last couple of months. So far, it has only taken off among my relatively geeky friends; my Twitter circle is a fraction of my networks on Facebook and LinkedIn.

The permanence of email addresses, cell phone numbers and connections on social networks makes it easy to stay in touch with people in our mobile society. Google and Facebook makes it relatively easy to find lost friends. No more having to guess at where they might live and finding an out of town phonebook or calling 411.

There are some downsides. 

The individualistic nature of cell phones, email and social networking have had the effect of reducing incidental communications. Cell phones virtually eliminate the incidental conversations I’d have with the spouses of my friends and family. Most couples I know don’t answer each other’s cell phones and some check caller ID on landlines before deciding whether to answer. My friend Amy was married last year and I have yet to talk to her husband.

A quick Facebook birthday greeting has, for many, replaced birthday cards and phone calls.

Maybe communications has gotten too easy. Social networking tools are constantly suggesting new friends based on algorithms. A few clicks to invite them all. I now have way more high school friends on Facebook than I had friends in high school. 

Overall, I communicate with a lot more people, a lot more often. But the quality of that communication can be lacking. It might be a wall post scribbled in between meetings. Or a tweet from my iPhone while I’m waiting in line.

It just isn’t the same as a long phone call or a visit.

I started working on this post in May. Joe Kraus’ post on the social Web inspired me to finish it.

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