Online Communities

Joel Spolsky has another must-read article on online communities and discussion forums, making the point that “small software implementation details result in big differences in the way the community develops, behaves, and feels.” He takes his own site as an example of how to things right.

A design goal was to eliminate impediments to posting. That’s why there’s no registration and there are literally no features, so there’s nothing to learn…To achieve that goal, nothing was more important than making the software super simple so that anyone could be comfortable using it. Everything about how the forum works is incredibly obvious. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been able to figure out how to use it immediately.

Jon Udell has more on the future of online communities and how blogs can play a key part:

If there’s a community “around” me, it’s only in the same sense that there is (or can be) a community around everybody…We all want to be, and need to be, engaged with multiple and overlapping communities. And when the costs of joining, participating, and leaving are lower, we can be. Of course there are, and will continue to be, vibrant and successful newsgroups and discussion forums. But I’m convinced that destination sites and centralized message stores are not the future of online community. Blogs are. They solve a bunch of problems. They also create a few new ones, but these feel like really good problems to tackle…Ad-hoc assembly and loose coupling will increasingly characterize both social and technical architectures.

An Online Korean Newspaper

Online Newspaper Shakes Up Korean Politics is the title of a fascinating story in the NYTimes. Keep in mind that South Korea, a country with a population of 40 million, has one of the highest broadband penetration rates (70% of households).

Most influential by far has been a feisty three-year-old startup with the unusual name of OhmyNews. Around election time the free online news service was registering 20 million page views per day.

The online newspaper, which began with only four employees, started as a glimmer in the eye of Oh Yeon Ho, now 38, a lifelong journalistic rabble rouser who wrote for underground progressive magazines during the long years of dictatorship here.

From the beginning the electronic newspaper’s unusual concept has been to rely mostly on contributions from ordinary readers all over the country, who send dispatches about everything from local happenings and personal musings to national politics.

Only 20 percent of the paper each day is written by staff journalists. So far, a computer check shows, there have been more than 10,000 other bylines.

As the article notes, OhMyNews played an important part in the election of the new president, Mr Roh, who was a relatively obscure candidate at one point of time in the elections.

RSS Search Engine

A nice idea from Dave Aiello:

A pure RSS-based search engine would…make it possible for news hounds to go straight to the source of grassroots buzz that often results in stories published in The New York Times or The Washington Post, or on Slashdot, two or three days later. It would also segregate the results of weblogs from more ‘edited’ sources of news– that still clearly matters to some people.

I think the blogosphere has reached a point where people would like to be able to search for information that has specifically been published on weblogs. I think the metadata already exists for a blog-specific search engine (in the form of RSS), the infrastructure is fairly obvious (see Weblogs.com),and the auto-discovery mechanism makes it easy for a search engine to work without requiring blogs to register themselves.

The big question in my mind is who will develop a pure RSS-based search engine with the same sort of simplicity for which Google is already famous?

We have the building blocks in BlogStreet with its weblog search (over 100,000 blogs as of now)…we need to improve our search, and focus it more on the RSS feeds, and we could have one up and running very quickly.

News Readers

Leslie Walker discusses the current crop of news readers (RSS aggregators), kaming the point that “the technology behind news-reader software represents another way to navigate the Web besides search engines, portals and bookmarks.” Among the favourites: NewzCrawler.

A few other points made:

I see news-readers as adjuncts, not replacements, for Web browsers. The idea isn’t to divert you from Web sites as much as to let you scan more sites.

Stripping the graphics and layout from sites and extracting just headlines means you lose important visual cues about what the site creators deemed most important.

I expect the next generation of automated news-readers will allow far more sophisticated filtering to present headlines that match our personal information cravings.

PC Upgrade Drivers

The next PC upgrade cycle for consumers is likely to be driven by the demand for entertainment, PC games, photos, video and music, according to NYTimes.

As the average price of a new PC continues to fall – to $835 last year, roughly half the outlay of six years earlier – an army of power-hungry software programs are beginning to explode the boundaries of what those computers can do.

Those who see the tide turning make this case: high-performance applications like Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition are transforming computers into ever more sophisticated music studios, digital darkrooms and video-editing bays – even so-called entertainment servers that can record and play back television shows with the touch of a special remote control.

But such uses require up-to-date operating systems and processors. And the very volume of digital photos and music that consumers are using PC’s to store and transfer to and from other devices is also feeding a demand for bigger hard drives.

“An ever increasing multitasking lifestyle and a set of killer applications in music and video as stand-alone products are definitely driving greater appreciation for power,” said Ralph Bond, Intel’s consumer education manager. He said that owners of low-powered computers only three to five years old often face a phenomenon he calls the “multimedia oven”: the computer becomes so overwhelmed by a power-intensive task like making a music CD that it cannot do much else for an extended period.

TED

Forbes writes about the Technology, Entertainment & Design conference which took place recently, where the “central theme was Rebirth, including sessions on Resilience, Emotion, Creation and, on Saturday, a final one on Hope.” TED had its abundance of tech talk:

Jeff Bezos, lean and keen, gave a perky presentation on how the digital revolution has barely begun. Sliced bread, the standard against which other innovations are touted as “the greatest thing since,” popped up in 1928 but didn’t catch on for 15 years. “It was a complete, total failure,” rescued only by the debut of Wonder bread, he told the crowd. He showed a 1917 Sears ad that exhorted, “Use your electricity for more than just light.” “That’s where we are” on the Web today, he said. “Every idea begets another idea. If you do believe it’s the very beginning, then you’re incredibly optimistic–and I am.”

Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson talked up the promise of nanotech, the futuristic manufacture of teensy machines, chips and components at the invisible, submicroscopic level.

Juan Enriquez, director of Harvard Business School’s Life Science Project, invoked the promise of the densest of memory chips: a microscopic organism called amoeba dubia.

China’s Handsets Market

The Chinese are buying 60+ million handsets annually, and this has now gotten the attention of many domestic manufacturers. There are 36 companies making handsets, leading to prices falling by 30% per annum. The domestic brands are flourishing because of their strengths in distribution – a story that was repeated by Legend in the PC business earlier. Writes the Economist.com:

Besides their grasp of Chinese tastes, the main advantage of the locals, in both PCs and handsets, lies in distribution. Whereas the global brands can outspend the locals for billboard space in cosmopolitan Shanghai, the domestic vendors have networks that reach deep into the countryside. Almost every town, for instance, has a TCL branch selling TVs; these branches now offer handsets as well.

The handset-manufacturing industry looks likely to repeat a pattern that China has already experienced in white goods, refrigerators, television sets, and many other consumer goods. First, rising incomes make a gadget affordable to millions. Next, the market booms, and companies, irrespective of what industry they originally came from, rush in. Then, the market becomes crowded, and the consequent overcapacity and competition lead to price wars that wipe out profits.

TECH TALK: RSS, Blogs and Beyond: Blog Directory

How does one make the Blog Directory happen? One can do this in a couple of ways. First, by asking bloggers themselves to state what are their expertise areas. This can be specified by the BlogMeta.xml file we discussed earlier. This can be verified and enhanced by looking at the links flowing between blogs (via blogrolls, story links) and doing an analysis of these links. This will help identify the popular bloggers. Then, by seeing whom they consider as experts when they link, it may be possible to get to the next level of expertise. Second, by involving the community and getting readers to rate, rank, review and classify bloggers. Taken over a large number of readers, an emergent expertise classification of bloggers will get created. This could then also be combined with the first approach to create a community-enabled expertise mapping of bloggers.

So, assuming we are able to get a reasonably good mapping of expertise to bloggers, what next? For one, we can look at the neighbourhood of bloggers so find other bloggers who may be of interest to us. This can be done by looking at the blogroll of a blog, or the Neighbourhood Analysis that is there in BlogStreet. The theory behind this is that if I am a friend of your friend, we may have something in common to also potentially be friends. What this exercise does is to create a list of bloggers whom one would like to read on a regular basis, just as one reads the morning newspapers or goes to a few websites daily. These bloggers become a part of ones daily routine. (In the case of blogs, one could of course subscribe to their RSS feeds and get the content delivered via an RSS Aggregator.)

Once a cluster of blogs have been identified, then it would be nice to get aggregates on what are the hot topics in this community, what are the new ideas that are being discussed, or what books they are reading. Basically, it is like able to eavesdrop on conversations being held (asynchronously and virtually) among ones favourite bloggers. One can thus create a unique view of the world, through the lens of others, and use those views to build out ones own perspectives.

This can be especially important for those among us who are quite far away geographically from the centre of some of these discussions, and unable to attend the conferences and trade show which give us a sense of where technology is headed. What this cluster of bloggers does is to recreate a permanent, virtual conference around us one which we can enter and participate in at any time. This is how we can bridge the digital divide of ideas. It is what I realise I have been able to do in the past year that I have been reading blogs (and blogging). The benefit is that, for the first time in history, thanks to the ecosystem being created by RSS and Blogs, distance is not a barrier to participation in the flow of ideas and creation of technology.

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