Friday, December 04, 2009

What's so social about social networking?

I just came across a great posting on location being the missing link between social networks and the real world, which made me think. We're so used to being registered all over the place in so-called social networks, but are they really social?

Basically, they're about identity management, involving some sort of profile (either explicit, i. e. information about yourself that you provide), or implicit (e. g. the music you listen to via internet radio (such as or pandora), the things you like (such as getglue and other services aimed at delivering personalized resources). Besides, it is possible to establish connections to other users, sometimes named friends, and some services also include messaging functions.

That's nice, but what it is really all about is the attempt to model real-world issues so you might be likely to mistake the model for the real world. That's where location (or more generally, context) starts to be relevant. If you have one of these fancy smartphones (by the way, they are as smart as computers are, but you knew that, right?), possibly with integrated GPS, connectivity via various channels and decent input and output facilities, you are all set to try another approach: enhance your real world experience by bringing to you relevant information as you move along, respecting you privacy by allowing you to control how much information you would like to reveal about yourself to whom and when. What we need is "an extension of social networking into the real world". The core task of social networking should be a helpful support to connect to people in the real world and discovery of things you wouldn't otherwise easily find. Mobile marketing could be a part of this, but your life surely isn't all about shopping, so it needs to go well beyond that.

Surely it's my choice how much of my lifetime I spend on the web, whether mobile or fixed. But what I find is that it is often a very unsocial activity. It's not even networking to me. I guess I prefer to hang out with real people in real life. Context sensing and permission based resource discovery may support that, but only if they act as a powerful filter against the myriad of available information that keeps me from focusing on real things.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Distributing coupons: twtQpon

While I don't seem to usually have the time to post here regularly, I just need to get back to yesterday's contribution, as I became aware of twtQpon this morning, which allows you to distribute coupons via Twitter. In order to do this, you just need a picture for your coupon, a coupon code, its expiration date, a redirect URL and some information you add (title and what your coupon is for in 140 characters). The URL should point to the site where your offer is made available (prominent example is DellOutlet). Not really suited for mobile use, as only the information about the coupons come to you, but not the coupons themselves, which most likely are not on mobile websites. If you want to regularly get informed about coupons of a specific retailer, then you might try that out, but usually I would rather think people are interested about coupons relative to a given area (e. g. close to where you live or work) and related to one's current needs or context. As an example, coupons on computers are only interesting as long as you need one, and coupons on goods from a department store would probably be considered as spam.

I somehow seem to like the main idea behind coupon distribution via Twitter, but it needs to be improved. First, by associating location data to each coupon (if related to a retailer in town), second by adding keywords describing the article(s) a coupon is related to, third by offering customers a shopping (or wish) list for the things they need or want, with an option to add an expiration date after which the item on the shopping list can be considered to be obsolete. Then, it would be possible to match customer needs and available offers (identified via coupons).

Somehow I seem not to be so sure whether Twitter is the right channel for coupons, as these may be missed if you have many followers, plus only a minority of people interested in coupons are actually using microblogging services (at least at the moment).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Social couponing

With the increasing popularity of mobiles, turning from phones into computing devices, plus the concept of app stores, we see a digitization of services and concepts, one of them being mobile couponing. Originally, you found a coupon in a newspaper, magazine or flyer and cut it out, then presenting it at the next opportunity along with a purchase to which it was applicable. The advantage of this is that from a customer perspective it is totally technology-free, but of course seeing it in a broader perspective, being closely related to purchases, coupon lifecycles must be seen in relation to producers & retailers.

Enter internet-based coupons, being offered through a variety of portals, either referenced via codes or distributing them in PDF format. One disadvantage of paper coupons is that you need to collect them & carry them around. Thus, it would be nice to be able to digitally pick them up with your mobile device and redeem them in the point of sale. But then, you depend on your mobile being capable of handling coupons, which is a limiting factor.

Another option would be for a loyalty program to participate in couponing. Then, coupons could be associated to your own loyalty card, either by picking them up via a loyalty portal after login, or at the point of sale (for coupons that are related to a purchase or to a specific store). An option would be to choose between loyalty points and coupons, depending on your needs. You still would need a kind of digital coupon manager that handles the coupons you get in digital form, depending on their validity period and other constraints, whether they are of continued interest to you (perhaps you may want to get rid of coupons you no longer need), and whether they are already redeemed or not. This could be linked to a community of coupon users so you may be able to give coupons to others or exchange them.

This may well change the current nature of coupons, being a resource between end customers and retailers. Any further ideas related to social couponing would thus be of great interest to me.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Broadcasters and news

A note regarding news journals for the web (im German) made me think what such a news offering might look like, and what additional value an Internet news journal might have.

What are news journals anyway? It's (current) news enhanced by more in-depth coverage of selected topics and a fixed ordering from politics to weather, taking about half an hour. The anchorman's task is to integrate the individual news contributions, pre-produced clips and, every now and then, interview someone (most likely via videoconference).

First idea would be to offer the fragments of a newscast, augmented with background material (e. g. as previously broadcasted, or offered by selected partners). This could be categorized to be accessed (i. e. read or viewed) on demand. If individual contributions are timestamped and provided with metadata, it would not only be possible to search by category, time period and keywords, but also to automatically order the contributions as they are being made available.

For registered users, a profile can be created, either according to explicit preferences, by tracking what contributions were accessed, or both, so an individual news selection could be offered. An additional service could be the integration of videocast snippets according to one's profile and for a time period of, say, up to a week, and up to a selected maximum length (e. g. 5 to 30 minutes) as an individualized media stream. And, of course, with comments from registered readers, additional information, including links to weblogs or other selected sources, can be made available. In order to increase quality, a weekly contest where readers may win subscriptions to premium content or other prizes would be an attractive option.

I do by no means claim that these ideas are anything really new. However, as it seems, the Web will blur the difference between periodically published news as in newspapers, broadcasting and Web 2.0 content creation. Of course, many more ideas are possible, but at the end, we will also need to answer the question of how much this will cost (especially for public broadcasters) and what business model will drive these ideas.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tagcrumbs vs. review sites

While I understand that tagcrumbs, being a startup company, attempts to clarify in what sense it is different from review sites such as Qype or Yelp, I still find that from a long-term perspective, there are more similarities than differences.

The core idea behind tagcrumbs, as I understand it, is that it enables you to associate any resource to a geocoordinate (also sometimes called a place). Whether you have been to a specific place does not matter, so it is not only about sharing experiences, but also meant as a kind of geotagged moleskine.

On the other hand, review sites such as Qype started out as a kind of yellow pages enhanced with user-generated content that is associated to local places. Most of the places are imported from yellow pages data to make it easier to write reviews, but there are little constraints regarding the generation of new places (even virtual ones, which I personally do not care much about, but it does not really matter here). Important additions were events (associated with time or time periods) and guides (i. e. lists of places which enables users to generate tours).

In the three years that Qype has been online, it is possible to say that the focus was expanded from pure reviews to experience sharing. To claim that

Tagcrumbs has no thematic focus on reviews and thus supports a higher diversity of user-generated content. It's about all the little local discoveries and the insider knowledge around us

is correct from Tagcrumb's perspective, but I do not see in what sense the diversity of user-generated content is higher. Does this refer to content types, or to the semantics of content? Regarding the former, I see a wide variety (except perhaps the association of external links to geocoordinates, which should be constrained anyway for security reasons), and regarding the latter, what you write about should have some connection to the place you are considering, but again, I see little constraints.

And even if the diversity of user-generated content was higher, what would be the advantage? I do argue that sites operating on the basis of user-generated content need to invest some editorial work to make sure that what is contributed is in accordance with some set of requirements stated by the owner of the site, and in addition provide sophisticated means of search and retrieval (fulltext, categories, tags, associations etc.). The more content you have the harder it will be to find what you're looking for.

To sum up, I would see Tagcrumbs and Qype as quite similar in concept and focus, with the difference that the former starts out large (allowing a greater variety in the first place) and, as time goes by, will see the need to narrow down its focus, while the latter started quite small and is expanding its focus in order to perhaps attract more users.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Success of Crowdsourcing

Interestingly enough, the term crowdsourcing was invented by a journalist and not someone from IT or business. Of course, a must-read in that context (and a great overview, too) is Jeff Howe's Wired article form 2006 entitled The Rise of Crowdsourcing.

While outsourcing means delegating a task to a defined workforce outside one's own company, the workforce to deal with a crowdsourced task is not defined a priori - it could in theory be anyone connected to the Internet. Most delegated tasks involve either the creativity or the intelligence of the masses - where this, of course, does not mean the average factor of a given population, but the selection of those who can best fulfill the task, but with a substantially reduced budget. For companies involved in crowdsourcing, it's all about saving money and milking the masses for inspiration, but for non-profit ventures, it's about participating to get some benefit in return - perhaps not immediately, but in the long run. That's why Wikipedia works so well, but WikiaSearch doesn't.

All in all, three factors play a major role in crowdsourcing: money, reputation and fun. But this in itself is no guarantee that a crowdsourcing activity will actually work. Most importantly, define the task you would like to delegate and formulate it in the form of an open call, then decide who should be the participants in it (contributors and / or voters) as well as the success factors so you will be able to evaluate your success (read more about designing and evaluating crowdsourcing).

To sum up, crowdsourcing is, first of all, a buzzword. But applied wisely, relative to your business and after a careful design, you may very well benefit from it if you succeed to gain the participation of your potential (or actual) customers. Good luck!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Microblogging is not micromessaging

While I understand that from a technical perspective, microblogging is in fact micromessaging, I would rather argue that from a conceptual and communication-oriented perspective, the term microblogging for services such as twitter or jaiku is indeed more appropriate. The explanation may seem rather simple:

  • In messaging applications, there is a sender defining a number of addresses. Typically, these applications are working asynchronously. For synchronous applications, the term to use would be conferencing, in analogy to meetings.
  • In blogging applications, the originator of a message or contribution does not know about who will read, as there are no reading access restrictions. This also means that anyone may comment (or reply) to a contribution. With regards to weblogs, commenting may be moderated (i. e. the owner needs to approve a comment), or turned off (e. g. if discussions following a contribution should be suppressed).

That is, in a nutshell, why microblogging is in fact just that, and not micromessaging.

Friday, March 13, 2009

E-Books and their readers

I have often asked myself what the benefit of e-books and their associated hardware is. With incompatible formats (e. g. Amazon's custom format vs. Epub and Adobe's EBook format), being dependent on energy sources, I am convinced that there must be additional benefits. OK, an incorporated search function is a good point to quickly find what you are looking for, but there must be more. For instance, a personal profile that augments itself with every downloaded item and that would allow for personal recommendations of items to buy / download. Once newspapers will start offering their articles in e-book compatible formats, personalization and consideration of current context is another idea, even if the provider does not offer such a feature. Providing a link to social library services, such as LibraryThing, being able to not only read reviews, but also share book recommendations (with alerts from one's own social networks) seems to be interesting. The reader itself does not need to be pimped up a lot for that, it could also use a central broker service offering these features and needs to be able to provide appropriate input and output channels. With WLAN this does not seem to be a problem. So, what do YOU think is the future of e-books and their readers?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Future of News?

Newsmakers are increasingly going online, which started with selected articles from their printed publications, sometimes abbreviated versions to give an overview and offering full articles for an additional fee. In most cases, it is possible to leave comments, and sometimes, text is enriched with (inline) video contributions, which are sometimes excerpts from TV programs related to a given topic. In order to inform their clients, daily newsletters are being compiled and sent to interested users. Many newsmakers also participate in social networks in order to make their "brand" more visible so it is possible to become a "fan", whatever this means. Another useful channel to inform users about new issues is microblogging, where headlines are posted to e. g. Twitter with a link to a related article.

All in all (besides being able to comment), news is still a one-way business where contributions (text, audio, video) are being published, sometimes aggregated by topic. It is neither personalized, nor is there a link between paper and online news.

Enter 2D barcodes as a potential link between articles or ads and related resources. With regards to ads, Google has been experimenting with barcode-enhanced ads that lead to a result page aggregating results related to the product or resource being advertised, including e. g. some additional information on the related company. With barcode-enhanced printed articles, URLs to multimedia resources can be coded, along with other static information. Given a thin client on a mobile device, which is capable of gathering context information (e. g. time, location, weather) and able to access personal information (e. g. a user profile), the prerequisites are there to create a genuinely customized media consumption experience.

Still a question remains unanswered: how to interact with news beyond retrieval and comments? I would welcome any thoughts and ideas on this issue. I am almost certain that others have reflected on this issue before I did, so any pointers are also welcome.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Back to un-prefixed learning

I remember having been exposed to eLearning for the first time around 1995, when I started working as a PhD student on a number of projects focusing on teleteaching. A few years later, I got involved in a project making use of a so-called learning platform, which at the core was a document management system. Of course, these were then called knowledge management systems, but I will not concentrate on the (perhaps more philosophical question) whether it is possible to actually manage knowledge.

Of course a large number of projects in the field of eLearning have had their success, being forerunners in making learning media available, combined with synchronous and asynchronous communication tools (chat, internal mail) and tools to customize a student's access to learning media. At some point, modularization of learning media and tools to combine previously stored chunks of material for students became an important issue, as well as being able to annotate learning material. As new terms for learning support were coined, I remember having spoken at a conference on computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL). I won't go into too much detail, but every now and then I find expressions such as ubiquitous and mobile learning being employed. Surely technological progress will also result in new application scenarios, but are they really so new - or shouldn't we focus more on what learning is all about from a pedagogical point of view and critically evaluate on what will help to improve learning processes and curricula? Learning programs that help to prepare students better for their future jobs (for those that are not necessarily planning to pursue an academic career) as well as advanced training programs are being installed, but there still seems to be a gap between learning on the job and learning off the job. Thus, the challenge seems to be to embed learning processes in everyday work, thus focusing less on learning in university settings and more on work-related scenarios.

All in all, learning seems to be focused way to much on the individual (independently of the used tools), and not enough on team and collaborative efforts. My impression is that tools will not help much to change this. We produce lots of documents, save them on file systems, web servers or other repositories, but who actually reads them? Who and what might help us to improve the organization of information? Why do we believe so much in tools and the promises that are being made that new tools will solve all our problems? eLearning is focused way to much on tools and processes, forgetting about the involved persons applying their knowledge to everyday's needs. Let us get back to learning and accept that the promises of eLearning were often not based on solid ground.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Microblogging - a quick review

First of all, I would like to mention that my estimation of microblogging revolves around my experiences with Twitter. Many people have written about what they use Twitter for, so I think the time has come that I contribute my own 2 ct. worth.

I think it was June 2007 when I started trying this out - announcing new blog posts, some events and interesting material I was reading -, but already one month later I only contributed tweets very infrequently. Maybe it was because of lack of feedback or interesting twitters to follow, I am not really sure.

Well, at the beginning of this year I started again, and I realized that it can be beneficial to review the list of people to follow. In that context, I found the following classes of utterances (roughly corresponding to classes of users):

  1. tweets describing what people are doing (going to lunch, preparing a meeting, spending time with their kids etc.)
  2. tweets referencing interesting articles to read
  3. tweets embedded in bilateral conversations about various issues
  4. news tweets from specific aggregators

Of course there are other utterances not fitting in any of these "classes", but what I can say for now is that while I am interested in (2) and (4), (1) is noise to me, and (3) is hard to follow if I am not involved.

As far as my own tweets are concerned, these focus around thoughts regarding newly discovered tools or contributions just read, or references to interesting articles.

As the nature of twitter is unidirectional utterances rather than real conversations, I sometimes feel a bit lost when I do not receive any feedback from what I contributed, but maybe this is because I do not follow enough interesting users.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mobile Tagging

This is no new topic, actually, as mobile tagging has been around for some years now. I am currently reading an interesting study issued by the German consulting company DETECON (in English).

After explaining the current state of tagging, two classes of scenarios are discussed, namely pull tagging (the user actively focuses on a tag with his mobile phone to retrieve some additional information or to execute a related activity), and push tagging (mobile codes are sent to the mobile device via SMS or MMS).

In the second case, in order to avoid unwanted tags being sent to the user, it seems clear to me that some kind of profiling is needed in order to take into accout the user's current context (e. g. location), or his interests (e. g. deduced from the history of previously retrieved tags). Otherwise, barcodes will be experienced as pure advertisements and not be taken into account by end users.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Finding interesting followers ...

Well, it's been some time I last used twitter - I do have a couple of followees, but how would I be able to find new ones? First thing that comes to mind is to look in other social networks, but I really would like to have a smarter way to do so.

The problem itself is that twitter by itself does not have any intelligent means to classify its users. OK, it is not a problem, because that is not what it was designed for in the first place. From a contribution of 140 characters, you would not really expect any semantics. However, chances are that twitter is used to notify other users about some interesting posts that are located elsewere, referenced through a so-called tinyurl. So, when following these and parsing the textual content, it might be possible to extract some profile assuming that what you read or write pretty well characterizes your areas of interest.

The task of extracting some information from web pages surely is not new, and I am definitely interested in knowing whether there are some available (web) services, preferably open source, that provide a means to extract information from text, perhaps as a tag cloud.

Given that, it is still necessary to add some semantics to user tag clouds, or to at least have some metrics available that allow to compare tag clouds in order to be able to recommend similar twitter users. Let's see if anyone out there has some useful hints for me.