Thursday, October 30, 2008

Viewzi - New View Mix prototypeImage by Travis Isaacs via Flickr Search has become such a common part of our everyday lives that google is well on its way to becoming a verb. I use the search box built into my browser as frequently as the next person, and am well accustomed to the no frills google search results. Which is all well and good, but I never thought that search could be fun - until I encountered Viewzi.

Viewzi is a visual search engine that launched to the public around June this year. Currently, it offers 18 possible views of search results: the celebrity photo view, song view, album view, web screenshot view, simple text view, power grid view, google timeline view, site information view, photo tag cloud, video x3 view, photo view, 4 sources view, weather view, viewzi news view, amazon book view, everyday shopping view, recipe view and techcrunch view. According to its wikipedia page, there are still more to come including a celebrity gossip view, facebook events view and movie view (which I would love)!

Each view draws from a number of relevant services or search engines e.g. the photo view presents results from flickr and smugmug. Though all the views are made available when a search is performed, their order is determined by how relevant they are. For example, if I were to search for 'britney spears', the celebrity photo view and the song view would be the first options in line.

Huge emphasis is placed on providing novel and seamless visual experiences, making search results really enjoyable to browse. One of my favourite views is the photo tag cloud, which presents photos and tags related to the search in a 3d cloud which can be further manipulated and explored. Even the so-called simple text view's results include small screenshots of the sites which are magnified when hovered over. If you create an account with viewzi, views can even be bookmarked and rated, allowing for handy access and personalised recommendations.

It makes sense to break down the diversity of the products available on the web today into their different types and enable these to be searchable. We've seen google move in this direction with its range of search services, from images and videos to blogs and maps. Viewzi takes this concept and adds its own twist to it, presenting each type of product in ways that flatter them best. Although the sources of content for some of Viewzi's views are handpicked and hence limited, it's a pretty good bet for what you'd most probably be looking for. Although it won't replace my trusty google search, it'll serve as a good complement. If anything can offer me such fresh perspectives (quite literally) on the information that populates my virtual home as well as Viewzi can, I'll take it!

Do you know of any services that offer you a fresh take on our everyday internet activities such as search? What do you think of Viewzi? Let me know in the comments!

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An early MTV station IDImage via WikipediaThe new music video site that MTV debuted a couple of days ago has so far gotten positive reviews all around, and I can see why. It features a large library of videos that reaches deep into its archives, which should prove to be a hit both with my dad and my friends alike. Its clean homepage simply features three columns of 'Most Viewed', 'Top Rated' and 'Vintage Videos'. MTV.com's social network extends to the new site - logging in will allow you to rate or comment on the videos. Videos can also be linked to and embedded.

But what seems to be most noteworthy about this site is its explanation for the stark absence of ads - it's not setting itself up to be visited. Peter Kafka of MediaMemo reports that according to MTV.com spokesman Tom Biro, the site is meant to serve as a "sort of white-label archive" that MTV Networks and others can draw from to build other sites.

This is interesting to me - so far I haven't heard of any other website that so blatantly positions itself as a source for website material, and little else. Especially when the social features are already present and well-integrated (judging by the stream of current viewers on the homepage, quite a few new users have signed up since the site rolled out). Though odd, it also seems like a smart move at a time when major American television networks and their affiliates like Hulu.com seem to be 'getting it' and releasing more content online. Making original content available for free not only lays the foundation for MTV's future online projects, but is also great for branding. Additionally, by allowing all and sundry to use the videos as material for their own sites, MTV may generate huge viral effects in the future, especially considering that 6 of the videos in Youtube's Top 10 popular videos are professionally-produced music videos.

I sure hope that this is a sign of 'big media' getting with the times and loosening their grip on content. In the meantime, here's a video to reassure them - video didn't kill the radio star and if they give their content wings, neither will the internet kill them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

information flow @google 5Image by info_aesthetics via FlickrIn my last post, I talked about the new always on, always available paradigm of news media. In this one, I'll share my primary ways of managing the crazy information flow. I've broken these down into three simple (and loose!) categories: filtering by machine, by man and by a combination of man and machine.

1. By Machine: Aide RSS


Aide RSS has to be my tool of choice for immediately sussing out which news items are the most buzz worthy. Aide RSS assigns a ranking to each story, computed by a secret formula which is meant to measure relevancy and reaction. This quickly enables you to see what is 'Good', 'Great' or 'Best' and filter accordingly. I use the Aide RSS Firefox plugin that integrates with Google Reader, and have found the rankings to be really accurate. A fun and useful (or masochistic, depending on your personality) thing to do is to subscribe to your blog in an Aide RSS-enabled reader for an instant sense of how much buzz each post generates.

2. By Man: Thought Leaders' Shared Items and Most Shared Items

The Google Reader shared items of thought leaders and like-minded individuals help to further highlight items of interest. For those interested in social media, Louis Gray and Robert Scoble actively promote deserving work across small and large blogs alike, and are good people to follow for starters.


There are a number of ways to follow someone's shares without adding them as a friend on g chat or gmail - the Firefox plugin Feedly is one, or simply subscribing to the Friendfeed generated feed of their G Reader shared items is another. If you like, my shared items can be followed here or on Feedly under CassY.

Another way to harness the G Reader shared love is to subscribe to the most shared items of such sites as RSSmeme and ReadBurner. In general, I find ReadBurner to be more tech-centric while RSSmeme has a broader overview. These sites act as a kind of social news aggregator, counting shares as votes. Beware though of the stream of awesomeness that this will unleash. I place these feeds under the category 'news', and find that skimming the headlines gives me a good sense of the current zeitgeist. If you have a bit more time and would like to read these items, I find Feedly to be preferable to G Reader, as a lot of the items are just headlines, not full feeds, and Feedly can bring the site up immediately in a pop-up box which is a lot faster than clicking through to the actual site.

3. By Man and Machine: Friendfeed and Social Median

The previous two methods should already expose you to the most essential items, but a concluding check on services like Friendfeed and Social Median surfaces anything significant that fell through the cracks. These sites harness what I like to call a combination of 'man and machine'. Feeds can be plugged in, but at the end of the day, it's humans that determine what rises to the top. Friendfeed has a 'Best of day' feature that only shows items with the most likes and comments, while Social Median has a social voting element that allows for the top stories in each of your networks to be showcased. Much like following someone's G Reader shares, Social Median also allows for newsmakers to be followed, which can help unearth items that are interesting but with lower visibility.

This is how I like to manage my information flow - starting from Google Reader, I make my way out to the wider world and the serendipity that other people's sharing can engender. What are your favourite methods?

Update: A few hours after this entry was posted, AideRSS announced its rebranding as PostRank and a number of new features. One of these is filtering feeds based on keywords, which should make managing information even easier. If you haven't tried it yet, I strongly recommend checking it out!
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Saturday, October 25, 2008

The recent financial turmoil has been the perfect example of how information has become a lot more prevalent than during the time of - say - the last Great Depression. Being a crisis which involves the activity of the international financial markets, which is mostly fuelled by 'confidence' and 'sentiments', it's been a great measure of the rapids shifts in mood all over the world, partly in reaction to equally volatile headlines.

Just take a look at these depressing recent updates of twitter news bots StocksAsian Marketsthat have almost become a feature of their streams lately, not to mention the latest headlines (at the time of writing this article, the headline at the top of my BBC Live Bookmarks feed read 'Stock markets plunge across world'). Good news seems to be few and far between, but tends to be worded in equally hyperbolic terms.

A number of articles have picked up on this crisis' significant differentiating factor of the degree and speed of accessibility to relevant information. The New York Times examines this experience more from the average news consumer's perspective, proposing that gathering large amounts of information in troubled times gives people 'a sense of control'. Knowledge also serves as a form of social currency or social capital, with connections and competitions formed around how up-to-date one is. Jorge Escobar blames the web for the current crisis and Roger Ehrenberg believes that 24/7 media is indeed affecting our markets. David Risley's advice is to ignore the stock market and be aware of the effect of the news media on our perceptions.

Personally, I feel that the current crisis is, in a way, emblematic of our new information paradigm. With this new paradigm comes new responsibilities. I'm not sure if traditional news media is aware of the extent of the impact that their reporting has on business and consumer sentiments. As Ehrenberg rightly puts it, media thrives on evoking strong reactions to grab more eyeballs, but now with updates being made available (and checked) all day, a more nuanced form of reporting may be required that dispenses with hyperbolic terms and relays information with the perspective of this being just one development, with many others to come, and within an informed context. In his post about how journalism failed America at a most critical time, Howard Owens argues that journalists should regurgitate less and pay more attention to helping readers understand the issues at hand.

With the spread and increasing use of social media, our opinions are also made known more quickly and visibly than before, and along with those of others, can even snowball to create an overwhelming impression that varies in its credibility. As Jorge put it, 'we owe it to our communities to be direct, data backed and centered', using the extensive resources available to us to check how much weight lies behind something instead of just passing it on and just being responsible when disseminating media. I know that I, for one, have been guilty of digging or tweeting the latest story just to appear 'in the know' about the latest trend, when a few extra minutes spent on google would have made for a more informed perspective.

In addition to the knowledge placed online by experts and thought leaders in different fields, there are also opportunities to discuss and counter-check like never before. You might say that the information highway and social media has in fact made for a more nuanced view of the world, with people able to acknowledge that they have certain information on-hand but that they need to know more, ask questions and exchange ideas.

It's understandable that in times of difficulty, people would want to keep abreast of as much and as current related information as possible. I wonder though, if this current trend of news consumption at the rate of a heartbeat is just a fad, something that the mainstream crowd will grow sick of and abandon once the worst of the crisis (and the US presidential election) has passed? Or is it a harbinger of what is to come, and a great opportunity for a large number of people to become comfortable with consuming information on the web to the point of making it a primary, and frequent, source.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...Image via CrunchBaseThe recent rollout of a new twitter application - Qwitter - which emails you alerts of the latest unfollows on your twitter stream and may even provoke some introspection by showing after which tweet exactly the unfollow occurred - has stirred quite a bit of interest. From the conversation I've seen on twitter and friendfeed, more people signed up for it than I expected - although perhaps my perspective is skewed as they were mostly early adopters. To me, Qwitter offers three possibilities:
1. Masochistic torturing of self for more sensitive types who wonder what was it about their particular tweet/tweeting habits that prompted the unsubscribe
2. An opportunity for introspection and self-improvement for the earnest, analytical types. They might enjoy picking apart the possible elements of their tweet/tweeting habits that offended.
3. People who simply do not care about what people think about them/their tweets and sign up for the service for the heck of it, or to keep track of their numbers

Of course, there's always a fourth possibility.

Personally, I don't really need to know who unfollows me and why - I'm a cross between types 1 and 2 and the internal speculation might just kill me. This post prompted me to think a bit more about the nature of twitter though - in it, Leslie Poston talks about how she chooses to use twitter, with an accompanying 'ebb and flow' of her follower count. To her, unfollows are not personal and twitter provides for free and easy interaction.

The attraction of twitter for me lies in the loose and casual relationships that can be formed between its users and how open it is. Barring the use of the ban feature, anyone from students to CEOs can be followed and have conversation initiated with. It's a great networking tool. The ability of such twitter bots as breakingnewson and cnnbrk to scoop traditional media sources is also unmatched.

I know that for most of my friends, twitter would hold little if no attraction, as they are generally only interested in keeping up with 'real-life' friends and at least for my circle, the critical mass is simply not present on twitter as it is on facebook. If they were using the service, I imagine that quite a lot of them would have their updates protected. To them, twitter might be useful as status updates on steroids.

In pondering the personal relevancy of twitter, I came across this presentation which shows some possible responses.

What is it about the nature of twitter that has made it attractive to you?

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Image representing FriendFeed as depicted in C...

Uncertain times lay ahead for the next wave of websites that tried to strike it big. For a while there, from what I heard and based on the invites I received in my inbox, it seemed like Friendster had it made. I had no idea what it offered but meanwhile, I began reading of another network that was growing in popularity in the US - Myspace. A while later, I began to overhear friends discussing the addictiveness of Facebook. The cautionary tales of the prior two contenders saw me hold off until it became clear that Facebook was the winner - and the critical mass of my friends was established. My restraint was fortunate, as consequently I entered completely oblivious to the unhappiness the introduction of the mini-feed had caused but a mere half-year ago, with the brand new concept of a constant stream of activity immediately normalised (after all, no one else was kicking up a fuss).

Something else had happened to the web while I had been away. Perhaps it was because the types of sites that I visited were different, but those cluttered layouts with flash-based splash pages were gone. Blog-rolls were still around, sure, but were no longer as prevalent and prestigious as before. Did anyone even register for fanlistings any more? After all, it was possible to make perfectly evident to most of your contacts who or what you were a 'fan' of from within your social network.

Clean, streamlined pages now seemed to be the order of the day. Most of them were aligned with foreign-looking widgets that prompted you to 'share this'. The presence of the familiar 'F' Facebook logo piqued my curiosity but, wary from previous experiences with transient internet rituals, I pooh-poohed the other services, convinced that I wouldn't have a use for them. A cursory look at their homepages seemed to confirm my diagnosis; there didn't seem to be anything to differentiate a reddit from a digg from a mixx from a stumbleupon, and delicious, magnolia, furl etc. were simply different iterations of the bookmarking function right? Little did I know that my appetite had been whet by Facebook and new ways of looking at the web had been sown.

Eventually I made my way to the ultimate (for now) news feed - Friendfeed, which in a way epitomises the present paradigm with its consolidation, openness and smart sharing, filtering, rating and conversational capabilities.

Today, in taking a trip down memory lane, I paid a visit to fanfiction.net. The rectangular 'share/save' button at the upper righthand corner of the home page first caught my eye. Stories also have dedicated rss feeds. It would seem that even in the land of fanfiction, social media has made for an entirely different experience for present and future writers/readers. Fanfiction in google reader, alongside mainstream media and blog posts? Who would have thought.
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Friday, October 17, 2008

In this inaugural post, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on my return to life online. I'm not sure if it's due to the progression of my age or of internet trends (wouldn't it be cool if there was a correlation between the two), but it just seemed as though this was an appropriate time to return.

The internet went mainstream, for me, around 5 years ago, in 2003. Dial-up speeds began improving and broadband became more affordable. My friends and I, reliant on our parents' graces and income to indulge our online passions, started to embrace the latest 'craze' - blogging. It was considered a one-uppanA poster for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogyce to have knowledge of basic html, at a time when popular blogging platforms like diaryland did not (and still does not) offer wysiwyg editors and bolded, exotically-coloured or, even, scrolling text wishing friends happy birthday was a badge of blogging honour. Tightly clustered badges with small fonts proved that you were a member of a fanlisting, or a blog-ring.

The world of fanfiction took on a particular fascination for me, and I nearly made it halfway through two Lord of the Rings opuses of my own, buidling up suspense that I knew the revelations could never live up to. Of course, we were all devotees of the Draco Trilogy. An active member of a Fruits Basket (a Japanese manga/anime) community, I scrutinised every lPeach Girlast frame of the comic for clues as to the eventual fate of the protaganists and posted my (occasionally wild-eyed) speculations in the forums. I would stay up for nights on end reading the English translations of such deliciously (quite literally) titled mangas as 'Peach Girl' and 'Marmalade Boy', and of course, the classic 'Boys Over Flowers'.

As I transitioned to Junior College (Singapore's equivalent of high school), the pace of life picked up and, quite frankly, I was a bit burned out from my online engagement. The Fruits Basket series was rolling out at such a plodding pace that even I ran out of conspiracy theories, I had more or less shaken off my romantic-fantasy phase, and, darn it, I just never got around to learning how to make my diaryland entries scroll across the page!

On retrospect, this slight disenchantment was for the best, as a tumultous period lay ahead for the next wave of websites that courted my peers.

The second, present, phase of life online will take up the next blog post. In the meantime, what were the communities or sites that held your attention in the early days of your encounter with the web? Where were you when the web was just turning mainstream? Let me know in the comments!
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