Belated praise for Library Lookup

Jon Udell’s justly-praised Library Lookup bookmarklets snag the url of a book you’re admiring on (or, or other book site), and finds out if it’s in stock at your local library.
You can find the Austin link on this page. On Firefox/Windows, you can “right-click” to bookmark the link, and add it to your Personal Toolbar folder.
The only thing it doesn’t do is return the books for you.

Conversation Clouds

Here’s what I mean by conversation clouds:
The cloud would be a picture of a conversation surrounding a person or a topic. The picture would show the relationships between the participants in a conversation. The densest areas would represent people who frequently cross-reference each other over time.
You can start with a participant (the url of a person’s weblog), or a search term (a word or tag) Nodes are clustered based on closeness, measured by number of links and reverse links over a period of time (comments, too, if you can measure them).
If the picture starts with a link, then that link is at the center of the picture. The picture shows the links between the first node and the other nodes, and between other nodes that are connected to each other.
If the picture starts with a word, topic, or tag search, then the cloud contains a cluster of blogs that include the term or tag in the last time period. The picture shows lines between blogs that link to each other. Unlinked blogs are thrown out.
The cloud is built from a data set over a time period; the user should be able to scale the time (conversation over a week, a month, six months) The conversation cloud would need to provide ways to navigate through conversation space. If you click on a blog, perhaps you re-center around that blog’s conversations. If you click on a tag or topic, you search based on that. You’d need to experiment with several ways of allowing browsing out from the first cloud.
This type of picture would not measure rank. Instead, it would illustrate the connections within subcommunities.
Cloud-browsing represents a pattern of blogsurfing. A reader might start with danah boyd, Stowe Boyd, Ross Mayfield.
The cloud would show in graphical form what a Technorati or Blogpulse search would — who linked to the post. And it would also illustrate the repeated links and cross-links as people reply. If you zoomed out the time horizon, you’d see some relationships become more obviously dense, with repeated patterns of links and counterlinks.
I think this sort of presentation would get more of what we’re looking for — a picture of the relationships in a community that reveals participants, both loud and quiet. The ability to browse the conversation.
The results would be more interesting than a diagram of an email thread — where participants already know who’s talking to whom. It woudn’t be particularly rankist, since webwide popularity isn’t relevant to the picture. It would let you browse to related people, or related ideas that the same people are talking about.
The next step is to test this idea, maybe with a manually drawn picture, and then with a dataset and a toolkit like TouchGraph. This seems like a good experiment to me. It could be somebody’s done this already. Or somebody’s tried this and proved that it doesn’t work. Please share if you know.
p.s. Zawodny talks about the need for content discovery. I don’t know about you, but a lot of the content that I discover comes from browsing through a conversation and finding voices that I want to keep hearing.

The state of the world looks sunnier

After weekend time reading back issues of the Ergosphere, the fate of the world seems a bit cheerier. Using knowledge of chemistry, mechanical engineering, and a great flair for napkin-level modeling, the ergosphere draws compelling pictures of ways to displace energy systems based on cheap oil and wasteful practice. This piece on domestic cogeneration is a great example.
It will take capital to make this happen. Since I last looked into the market after getting jazzed by Natural Capitalism before September 11, there’s a lot more attention and money flowing intoventure investing and more support in the public market.
Much cheerier than reading the survivalists over at Peak Oil/

Blog rank and popularity

On the other hand, I recoil from the implication by Dina Mehta that we should turn blog rank into an explicit, Orkut-like friend rating system.

I like this measure – “i enjoy their company” – maybe someone should use that as some form of index? There are some bloggers who come up with really ‘popular’ posts which get linked to heavily – they may be ‘popular’ in a mechanized sense, but it isn’t always the case that they make for relevant reads most of the time. There’s value in what Alok says as it may lend itself to a more holistic approach – if someone loves hanging out at your blog, enjoys your company through conversations there, that’s the best measure for me. It is what builds my network and community in ways that are far more compelling than from just links I may generate.

Hmmm…. rereading Dina’s post, it is not clear whether she is talking about implicit metrics and visualizations, or explicit rankings. I like the first idea and hate the second. This goes back to the critique of “friending” during the social network service fad. Explicitly declaring the emotional valence of a link or comment — fondness, congeniality, prickliness, etc. is not socially a good thing.
Although, going back to the discussion that sparked this conversation about the differences between men’s and women’s patterns of relationship, this brings to mind a social pattern from girl society in grade school. Little girls have explicit friend ranking. A girl will say that Heather and Myra are my Best Friends. I used to be friends with Sarah but I don’t like her any more. Girls compete explicitly to be friends with popular girls. Rank is bolstered by deranking girls who are less popular with mean gossip.
I suppose we could revolt against the male-centered link count, long-blogroll, weak-tie rankism by implementing an explicit, short-list, constantly changing, competitive “best friends” feature. Let’s not.
On the other hand, it would be interesting for discovery services to reveal the strength of ties, through the pattern of interlinking and commenting among subcommunities. For example, at Socialtext, we did an analysis that showed the strong ties between the cross-disciplinary design team at Ziff Davis, and weak ties between the designers and the sales and marketing staff.
I would much rather reveal that I
enjoy and respect Mary Hodder’s facilitation of the conversation about alternative blog metrics through the visualization of links to Mary’s posts and cross-links to others in the conversation, than to rate Mary.

Unlocking the value of topic blogs

Carson of Buzzmetrics talks about the financial value currently hidden in the midlist. A blogger in the so-called midlist might be highly influential in their subcommunity.

One thing which I think might be interesting to add to the discourse, would be something around topicality. i.e. “influential on what?” Because BuzzMetrics is typically answering questions of influence within a commercial setting, we are rarely looking for “top bloggers.” We are looking for “top influencers amongst wireless application developers who happen to be positively inclined towards the Linux platform.”

Exactly. Many bloggers are not general celebrities but are influential in some domain. Compared to traditional research, blog search is a very low cost way of finding those networks of influence.

Technorati’s broken for the midlist

Lately, I’ve found that Technorati searches to find who’s responded to my posts have become unbearably slow. Often it takes a few searches in a row for results to show up.
A Technorati employee explained that they’ve got a problem in the queue to fix that affects only midlist blogs. Currently, searches are more efficient for blogs with a great many links, and those with only one or two links. Searches are painfully slow in the middle.
This makes Technorati less useful for conversation discovery, particularly for the people who desire it most. Will Wheaton is a celebrity with high link rank from adoring fans. He probably isn’t interested in talking back to all the fans who write about him, except in a selective “fan letter quote” manner. He’s probably most concerned with the size of the audience, because that helps drive the audience and word of mounth for his books and television shows.
Midlist bloggers probably care most about conversation discovery — they are blogging in order to participate in a conversation, and each cogent reference is valuable.
Whether the segment is valuable to Technorati depends on their business model. Niche blogs with subcommunity connections ought to have value — more value than can be unlocked yet. The question is whether Technorati’s customers are marketers and advertisers to whom they simply sell metrics — in which case it doesnt’ matter if the system performs poorly for the midlist. Or whether there’s value with those users directly, by showing ads to them or providing paid services.

Conversation, not rank

In Mary Hodder’s roundup of comments on the discussion of community metrics, I agree wholeheardedly with Dina Mehta. Dina says that the value of Technorati to her is conversation discovery.

For instance, I have no interest in what my ranking on Technorati is, but I do visit it daily to see who is linking to me and how they might have progressed a thought. Yet, I’m not so happy when these get transformed into lists, ratings and rankings. Are you merely well-known, or well-read?

Yes, exactly. I use Technorati to see who responded to what I wrote, to discover distributed comments. I also use Technorati to find out who’s written about something I’m interested in at the moment. Then (if I have something to say), I’ll comment on their blog or link to them. Technorati is for discovering and continuing conversation.
Link rank is a not-so-interesting byproduct.

Exburb power and oil

Michael Lind wrote a post on TPM Cafe with a seriously problematic argument that cities are parasitic on suburbs. The article was roundly criticized in comments and follow-up posts. But there’s a grain of truth about the political and economic power of the far suburbs. That power (among other things) is threatened by the rise in gas prices.
An Associated Press poll reveals that surburbanites are starting to worry.

The poll conducted for The Associated Press and AOL News found that 64 percent say gas prices will cause money problems for them in the next six months. In April, 51 percent expressed such concerns. Those most likely to be worried are people with low incomes, the unemployed and minorities. However, the level of concern was rising fastest among women, retirees, married people and those living in the suburbs.

The phone companies entering the cable business

The phone companies are spending large amounts of money, in business investment and lobbying in order to enter the video business. In Texas, SBC just won a victory that lowers their cost compared to cable television by allowing them to start out with statewide franchises, instead of negotiating with each city.
The phone companies have been eyeing ways to diversify away from phone service for decades. In the 80s and early 90s, AT&T made a series of disastrous attempts to enter the computer business after the anti-trust settlement with the US department of Justice.
Video distribution seems a better fit than PCs. It’s a familiar business model, where where a being an oligopoly owner of a distribution channel makes you the leading provider of a service. Owning big servers and pipes is surely a competitive advantage, as is managing an itemized billing service.
The phone companies know they need to slug it out with the cable companies with price wars and features. But cable won’t be the only competition. The market is also seeing entrants with new distribution models.”Long-tail” business like Amazon, Netflix, Yahoo, and Google have the ability to leverage big servers, ecommerce and ad platforms, search and recommendation engines to become major distribution channels. Peer to peer distribution is becoming a notable alternative to get video, and ad models are emerging for p2p. Content providers like the Comedy Channel can host Daily Show clips themselves. The low cost of video is starting to create a generation of video podcasters. Services like Ourmediaare emerging to host amateur audiovisional content.
This is going to make the video business much less of a comfy oligopoly. The phone company will have to fight for the market.