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Before There Was Twitter, There Was Dave Winer’s Instant Outliner

David Sifry

Photo credit: David Sifry

Twitter is the glamor girl these days. The latest triumph is the early picture of the U.S. Airways plane that belly flopped into the Hudson River. But before there was Twitter, there was Dave Winer’s Instant Outliner.

Never heard of it? Maybe you have, but I hadn’t. But it’s fascinating and eerily prescient of the rise of Twitter and Enterprise 2.0 today.

Dave can explain it better and more fully, but here’s what I have been reading about it.

Started in March 2002, here’s how Dave described Instant Outliner:

When you subscribe to someone’s outline, expect to see time-based notes on what they’re doing right now. I like to start each session with a top-level headline, and put a time-stamp in the headline (Control-4 on Windows, Cmd-4 on Macintosh). Then from that point, I narrate what I’m doing. When I start a new session, I start a new top-level timestamped headline. Sometimes I carry forward notes from previous sessions.

We can and probably will implement fancier notification routines, we’re ready to do it, but first we want to bootstrap with this brain-dead simple technology. It’s designed so that other outlining software can easily fit into the network of Instant Outliners.

See how Dave described it? “Notes on what they’re doing right now”. What is Twitter’s tagline? “What are you doing?” And notice Dave’s emphasis on designing Instant Outliner so that other software can work with it easily. I read this, and I think of Twitter’s API.

Here’s an April 2002 perspective on Instant Outliner by Jon Udell:

It’s been clear to me for a long while that the only thing that might displace email would be some kind of persistent IM. That’s exactly what instant outlining is. If it catches on, and it’s buzz-worthy enough to do that, we’ll have a framework within which to innovate in ways that email never allowed.

Instant Outliner (IO) as a form of instant IM. Something discussed here before in the context of Yammer. Here’s an early screenshot of IO, showing the organization by person and timestamps:

instant-outliner-buddy-list-messages

I like that the tweet…er…IO note here is the kind of thing you’ll see on Twitter these days. The IO message obviously doesn’t need to abide by the 140 character limit.

Here’s how Dave described use cases for IO:

We start with the Instant Messaging model, which many people understand. You get a structured surface to write on. You get to choose how you want to do it. I think that narrating your work is the way to go. But also answering questions or asking them of people you subscribe to is good too.

What I love about his use cases is how closely they align to Twitter use cases. This was microblogging, before microblogging was cool.

The Concepts We Associate with Twitter and Social Software Were All There

Check out how Jon Udell describes IO way back in 2002:

These are people who maintain outlines, in the form of Outline Processor Markup Language, to which I am subscribing. Some of them also subscribe to my outline, but not necessarily all of them, and this is one of the really interesting twists on email. Communication in this environment is by invitation only, and two-way communication requires mutual invitation. Sayonara to spam. If someone annoys you, just drop his or her feed.

You choose to whom you subscribe, and you only see updates for those to whom you subscribe. I especially like that Jon talked about unsubscribing from people whose feeds annoy you.

Retaining the IO notes and making them searchable as knowledge was another area Dave recognized:

The key is to find ways to flow the stuff entered there into a knowledge base. I have quite a few ideas about that.

Dave Luebbert, a former Microsoft programmer and collaborator with Dave, noted the enterprise social software possibilities of IO:

For leaders of large groups, Instant outlining has the very cool feature that you can allow folks to subscribe to you so that they can see what you are thinking about. The leader does not necessarily subscribe to everyone who subscribes to him because that would overwhelm his thinking process. But those who get to subscribe to one of his Instant Outlines get quite an informational advantage and can work better on their own goals because they have that.

If you’re organized around email, usually the only folks who get to listen are the folks who are direct reports. And those guys are always too busy to pass much info down.

The leaders also get to monitor activity in any of the subdomains of the company. They would subscribe to outlines in different groups of the company at their pleasure, but since they are not intimately familiar with those groups business they would not want immediate notification of changes made to those person’s outlines. They can see all the way down to the bottom of the company if they wish to. That’s been a near impossibility up to now with the communication tools that have been available.

And John Robb adds this thought about Instant Outliner that presages the rise of Enterprise 2.0:

I think this is a major new product that could sell in the hundreds of thousands of seats. It connects IM, weblog publishing (a weblog is essentially a published outline), RSS (if RSS items are brought into the outline), and outlining in a new way that radically improves team productivity. I bet I could do the same thing for this product that I did to business weblogs — turn it from a geeks only product and into mainstream productivity tool used by major corporations.

Based on search results for instant outliner, it appears the technology was most active between 2002 and 2005. I’m not sure the status of the project currently, although Dave Winer does subscribe to an entity called Instant Outliner on FriendFeed.

I’ve known Dave as the father of RSS. Now I know the range of his thinking included early models of microblogging and social software. Which tells me I ought be paying attention to what he’s thinking these days.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

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The Migration of Web Techniques to In-Store Retail Practices

Via ralphbijker on Flickr

Via ralphbijker on Flickr

Think about the companies doing the most technologically advanced stuff. Amazon. Google.

Grocery stores.

Say what…? The place where oranges sit in piles in the produce section. Boxes of cereal lines the aisles. The frigid ice cream aisle.

Well, they’re not in the league of Google and Amazon. But grocers are more than those aisles of food and ceilings of fluorescent lights you see. Two trends in the industry borrow heavily from the advancements on the Web:

  1. Website optimization
  2. Recommendations

I’m not talking about monitors with web pages inside stores. I mean the shopping experience has been affected by these developments. Here’s how.

Website Optimization => Store Layout and Merchandising

E-commerce sites live and die by their conversion rates. A key piece of the conversion rate puzzle is effective navigation and presentation of items to site visitors. One company that helps with that is  Tealeaf, which records and analyzes visitor behavior to help site owners optimize conversions and return visits.

In a physical space, you can’t record people’s clicks and actions. Or can you?

As reported in a recent Economist article, retailers are starting to video record shoppers’ behavior in the aisles. For instance, here’s how one supermarket used technology provided VideoMining to understand visitor behavior in its juice section:

Another study in a supermarket some 12% of people spent 90 seconds looking at juices, studying the labels but not selecting any. In supermarket decision-making time, that is forever. This implies that shoppers are very interested in juices as a healthy alternative to carbonated drinks, but are not sure which to buy. So there is a lot of scope for persuasion.

These are exactly the kind of metrics that e-commerce sites track to improve their conversion rates. Use of cameras in-store to do the same thing is analogous to tracking visitors to your website.

Personalized Recommendations

Amazon.com really led the movement to provide effective recommendations to existing customers. One report I’ve seen says that Amazon derives 35% of its sales from these recommendations. Amazon’s recommendations are generated from your shopping history, compared to others via collaborative filtering. The success of these recommendations has inspired others to build recommendation engine services, including Aggregate Knowledge, Baynote, MyBuys, RichRelevance and others.

The same thing is happening in-store as well. You know that loyalty card you present to your grocer to get discounts? It’s used to record your shopping history. Historically, grocers have done little with that information. It was more of a device to keep you coming back to the store.

But in the past few years, grocers have been getting hip to the idea that their customers’ shopping history can be used to personalize the shopping experience.

Once, I was product manager for just such a system, called SmartShop. Pay By Touch’s SmartShop used a Bayesian model to compare your purchases against those of other shoppers, and determine whether you exhibited stronger or weaker preferences for a category or product than the overall average. A set of 10 personalized item discounts were then selected for you based on your specific purchase preferences.

On a website, returning customers are presented with a set of recommendations as they shop. In-store, what’s the analog? Kiosks. Kiosks are the in-store interaction basis with customers. SmartShop notified you of discounts via a print-out from a kiosk at the front of the store. This was key – get you the discounts right at the point of decision, when you’re shopping. Not unlike e-commerce recommendations.

Prior to Pay By Touch’s demise, SmartShop was getting good traction among grocers, who were looking for ways to increase basket size, increase loyalty and differentiate themselves. And it wasn’t just SmartShop. Price Chopper and Ukrops use a recommendation system from Entry Point Communications. UK-based Tesco is the granddaddy of personalized recommendations, provided through Dunnhumby.

Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

While e-commerce benefits from being all-digital and various identification mechanisms, grocery historically lacked these. But that’s changing. Retailer have picked up the best practices of their online brethren. Things are now much more measurable and personalization is no longer the province of the online players.

Looking forward to grocers introducing Twitter into the shopping experience…

*****

For reference, here’s a white paper I wrote about SmartShop when I was at Pay By Touch:

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22The+Migration+of+Web+Techniques+to+In-Store+Retail+Practices%22&who=everyone

The Perfect FriendFeed: Themed Channels for New Users

friendfeed-logo

On his blog, FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit asks others to chime in with their own thoughts about improving the experience on FriendFeed:

If you’d like to contribute (and I hope you do), I’d love to read more of your visions of “the perfect FriendFeed”. Describe what would make FriendFeed perfect for YOU, and post it on your blog.

I’ve seen some good posts out there on the subject, many of them with suggestions for UI changes. I’m more inclined to think along the lines of Louis Gray on this one. He suggested a lite version of FriendFeed.

I’d like to suggest another approach.

FriendFeed provides pre-built lifestreams centered around different themes.

The idea is to make it easy for new users to get started.

What Is FriendFeed’s Bridge to Existing Consumer Behavior?

It’s useful to consider FriendFeed in light of the emerging success of Twitter. Twitter rides the earlier adoption cycles of email and IM although clearly it takes some mental adjustment to grasp the how and why of twittering: public declarations of activities, information finds and conversations. Run a Google search on “I don’t get Twitter” to see the past and current struggles people have.

But there is a link to prior behaviors. And with the @replies and DM, Twitter keeps that link.

FriendFeed’s models of consumer familiarity are less clear. Seeing a stream of links, pictures, tweets, etc. from someone…what’s the analog? Online forums come to mind. When I was active in marathoning, I spent time on LetsRun.com.  People would post new topics, and we’d comment on them. Each time someone commented, the topic would bounce back to the top of the page.

Of course, FriendFeed dramatically changes the forum experience: richer set of content, sourced from dozens of external sites, Likes-based ratings and you personalize the set of topics you see.

So what were the earlier adoption factors for online forums?

FriendFeed = Community + Information Tracking

FriendFeed has two primary benefits for users:

  1. Community
  2. Information tracking

Of the two, which one is more accessible to a new user?

Community requires people who are familiar with you, and with whom you are familiar. That’s tough in any social network to get right off the bat. And FriendFeed isn’t a social network the way Facebook is. You don’t set up shop with a profile page where you describe yourself and interact with friends. You pipe in content you’re creating elsewhere, and find others’ content to follow.

Facebook lets you anchor yourself, and then reach out to others. FriendFeed is a constantly moving stream.

Community does come to users of FriendFeed. But it takes time. It will be hard for non-tech geeks to get into FriendFeed right now. Sure the bacon posts and photo memes are great. But most people just joining FriendFeed won’t be part of that. In fact, the adulation of bacon posts will probably scare them.

Something that Lists have shown me is that my attention gets focused on people who share interests in a particular topic. I guess that’s not surprising. And yet it points to the value of having something in place on FriendFeed that new users can immediately get value from.

If you join FriendFeed now, you’re not going to find anyone initially that shares your interests. You can do searches, maybe follow some of the bigger names on the service. But for the majority of the population, that’s not going to get them invested in the service. They’ll sign up, look around, then become inactive.

Community on FriendFeed comes over time as you find people that share your interests. This is why I suggest that FriendFeed provide  pre-built theme channels that let new users quickly find content they care about.

Themed Channels

Themed channels would let new users find areas of interest quickly. By “themed channel”, I’m thinking of feeds that relate specific topics for users of the various 59 (and counting) services that FriendFeed supports: bloggers, YouTube users, twitterers, Flickr users, etc. Included in that would RSS feeds of keywords related to the theme.

How might it work?

  1. New user joins FriendFeed
  2. They are provided with the option of adding one ore more themed channels
  3. They select a topic that is of interest
  4. By selecting a themed channel, they are immediately joined to a dedicated Room for a topic. The Room is one that is probably managed by a FriendFeed employee.
  5. They also can be subscribed to highly rated users whose lifestreams are among the top in terms of percentage of content related to a subject.

As an example, I created a Room for NASCAR. Into the Room, I’ve added three Twitter accounts, two YouTube accounts, four blogs, one Tumblr account, Del.icio.us tags for NASCAR and NASCAR tags for Upcoming events. Imagine a racin’ fan decides to try out FriendFeed. What do you think he’s going to do? Wouldn’t it be great if he had a pre-set channel of content relevant to him?

FriendFeed Isn’t Immune from the 90-9-1 Rule

Jakob Nielsen famously wrote about the 90-9-1 rule:

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

The challenge for FriendFeed is that a lot of the population doesn’t blog or tweet. Or if they do, they don’t bring a lot of followers with them. Facebook or MySpace may be the biggest online social network they have. Asking these folks to create their own experience and find content they like is probably asking a lot of them.

But putting them in touch with user-generated content and other users who are relevant to their interests is a great way to kick off someone’s FriendFeed experience.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=who%3Aeveryone++The+Perfect+FriendFeed+Themed+Channels

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 010909

From the home office in Chicago, IL…

#1: RT @natenash203 Back to project planning for BPM implementation @ Afghanistan Ministry of Commerce. {Whoa! BPM? Things progressing there}

#2: “Businesses needed to have 20-30% engagement rates” by employees in social software to achieve ROI http://bit.ly/3aTs #e2.0

#3: RT @technacea OH: “I don’t have a blog – I guess I’m just a nobody”

#4: @LLiu Good one Lawrence. Bookmarked “The Emerging Math/Rules of Social Networks – Magic Numbers” http://bit.ly/S4J5

#5: Atlassian blog takes up the 2009 Email Brevity Challenge: http://bit.ly/TEWg

#6: What would be nice: Summize (er…Twitter search) tracks a conversation. It’d be cool to have a single link to that conversation.

#7: Note – if you make a comment on my blog and mistype/misspell something, never fear. I’ll go in and fix it.

#8: Slate’s nice historical perspective of newspapers’ reactions to disruptive technologies http://bit.ly/JE3I including the 1947 fax machine.

#9: RT @jimmyfallon @joeypfeifer I hope to. I want to see how we can play with [Twitter] on the show maybe. So far, I’m addicted.

#10: Runner geeks, you hear about Palm’s new iPhone competitor The Pre, do you think “Steve Prefontaine”? Can I get a witness?

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22My+Ten+Favorite+Tweets+-+Week+Ending+010909%22&who=everyone

Karl Rove Is on Twitter

Everyone’s favorite White House adviser, Karl Rove, is now on Twitter: KarlRoveChannel

UPDATE:  Karl Rove has gotten more real. He’s dropped the “Channel” part of his Twitter handle. Now he’s just: KarlRove

Naturally, when  you hear something like this, you want proof. You can see people wondering about this on this FriendFeed entry about this. And here’s a great write up from the #TCOT Report. Below is a screen shot from Rove’s own website:

karl-rove-website-twitter-account

So what is he tweeting? Here are a couple tweets.

#1: I2 Debate: Is George W. Bush the worst American President of the last 50 years? http ://tinyurl.com/7pvwxh

I’ve got to give him credit for tweeting something like that. Even if he is on the show where they discuss it.

#2: @livedesk I give the IL House points for speed although they should have worked this fast on setting a special elect ion to fill the vacancy.

Again, that was a fairly neutral observation.

It’s early for Karl, we’ll see how long he stays with this. Looks serious about it. And he will of course be the recipient of a lot of slams. Of course, he can just not follow people and block as needed.

Very cool in general – he’s not just talking to people in the TV studios.

Social-Filtered Search

Recently, there was a lot of discussion about running searches on Twitter, using authority as a filter. The idea is to reduce Twitter search results to only those with a minimum number of followers. The idea garnered plenty of discussion. From that discussion, I saw some perspectives that I liked:

Frederic Lardinois: I would love to have the option to see results from my own friends (or those who I have communicated with through @replies) bubble up to the top.

Jeremiah Owyang: Organizing Twitter Search by Authority is the wrong attribute. Instead, focus search by your OWN social connections. People you actually know score higher relevancy. http://www.loiclemeur.com/engl…

Robert Scoble: On both services you should see a bias of tweets made by people you’re actually following. Who you are following is a LOT more important than who is following you.

Those ideas make sense to me, because they reflect the way we seek out information. I do think there’s room for search results beyond only your friends. Here’s what I mean:

social-filtered-search

The idea above can best be described as follows:

I’ll take any quality level of search results for my close connections, but want only the most useful content from distant connections.

The logic behind this is that any quality “deficiencies” in content generated by my close connections can be made up for by reaching and having a conversation with them. That’s not something I’d do with more distant connections.

The chart above has two axes: strength of ties and usefulness signals. Let’s run through those.

Strength of Ties

Harvard professor Andrew McAfee blogged about the strength of ties back in 2007. With an eye toward employees inside companies, he segmented our connections as follows:

strong-weak-potential-ties-mcafee

The segmentation works inside companies, and it also applies in the personal world. For example, on FriendFeed, my Favorites List is akin to Strong Ties. The rest of the hundreds of people I follow are my Weak Ties. Friend-of-a-Friend entries I see are my Potential Ties. And of course there are a lot of people I never see. Those would be the “None” Ties.

The hardest part of this segmentation is that people aren’t likely to take the time to create and update their Strong Ties. Rather, Strong Ties should be tracked via implicit signals. Whose content do you click/rate/comment on/bookmark/share/etc.? Extend this out to email – who do you correspond with the most?

For example, I tried out the social search of Delver. It lets you load in your social networks, from places such as Facebook and FriendFeed, and uses content from those connections as your search index. Innovative idea. What happened though is that when I run a search, I get a deluge of content. My social networks are too big to make the service really useful.

Here’s where apps that handle a large percentage of my clicks and interactions will have an advantage. FriendFeed, with an extensive library of content from my connections, has this quality. Inside the enterprise, workers interact with a limited set of applications. The company’s IT department can set up tracking of interactions to identify implicit Strong Ties.

Bottom line: determining Strong Ties via implicit interactions is scalable and useful.

Signals of Usefulness

I’ve already described these in the paragraphs above:

  • Clicks
  • Ratings
  • Comments
  • Bookmarking
  • Sharing

Implicit data + explicit signals are the most powerful indication of usefulness.

Putting These into Place for Social-Filtered Search

When I say that I’d want to receive search results, even without many signals of usefulness, from my Strong Ties, here’s an example.

  1. I’m planning to run a marathon
  2. What marathon training plan should I use?
  3. I run a search for marathon training.
  4. I see a tweet from one of my Strong Ties: “Just started my marathon training this weekend. 4 miles FTW!”
  5. I @reply my Strong Tie, ask what training program he’s using.
  6. I now can leverage someone else’s work on this subject.

Of course, I’d want to see well-rated marathon training programs too, like Pete Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning. I’d want to see the content from my distant/non-existent connections that had the highest signals of usefulness. Not unlike Google’s algorithm.

But the key here is that I’ll make up for any deficiencies in the utility of content for someone I’m close to by contacting them. A search on ‘marathon training‘ in Twitter shows a lot of results. But I’m not going to reach out to most of these folks, because I don’t know them. I only want those with whom I can have a conversation.

As I said, the ability to track both implicit and explicit activity is key to making this work. Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter and Enterprise 2.0 all seem like good candidates for this type of search.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Social-Filtered+Search%22&who=everyone

The 2009 Email Brevity Challenge

2009-email-brevity-challenge

Are you on Twitter? Have you perfected the art of communicating a lot in a few characters? Well how about putting that talent to good use, making the lives of your co-workers better ?

I’m talking about…

THE 2009 EMAIL BREVITY CHALLENGE

What’s that? Simple, really:

Keep your company emails to 140 characters or less.

Now let me tell you a little more about this.

It All Started with a Tweet

I trade tweets with Jennifer Leggio (@mediaphyter). Well, one morning we had this exchange:

Hutch: Are you a long form twitterer? I often hit 140+ characters in my tweets, and spend time cutting them back.

Jennifer: Yup. I think it’s made me more succinct in other mediums, too.

Hutch: You’re right about Twitter making us more succinct. You know where I’m seeing it most? In my emails, of all things.

Jennifer: I wonder if I should challenge myself to only send 140-character emails in 2009? hehe

Hutch: That’d actually be a great challenge. Make your emails max out at 140 characters. Recipients would be thankful.

Jennifer: Let’s do it. In some cases (i.e. work emails requiring tons of back-up) it might be hard, but I’ll shoot for 50 percent.

From that conversation, Jennifer wrote Micro-emailing: The 2009 email brevity challenge on her ZDNet blog Feeds. As she says there:

We understand that some emails need to be longer than 140 characters (I’m not sure my boss would appreciate it if I sent her multiple 140-character emails when she needs a detailed project report). For the rest of the emails, however, we’re going to try and give our co-workers’ weary eyeballs a break. More than that, we are going to start logging these communications and tracking monthly the average number of a characters we use in our sent work-related emails. I’ll post monthly reports here on this blog.

And there you have it.

Reducing Our Dependence on Corporate Email

Consider this little resolution another strike against our overreliance on email. IBM’s Luis Suarez has been quite an advocate for reducing the volume of emails inside companies (see Giving up on Work e-mail – Status Report on Week 46 (Living without Email – One Man’s Story. Are you Next?). He has an ongoing quest to eliminate email in his daily job. He actually did that during Christmas week, as he reports:

It has taken me 46 weeks, but I have finally made it! I have finally been able to prove the point that you can go by a week without using e-mail, but social software, and still get the job done!

And upon seeing this challenge for email brevity, he offered this:

@bhc3 Absolutely! And more than happy as well to help promote it as part of the continued weekly progress reports s haring further insights

If you’re forced to be briefer with your emails, there are a couple outcomes. First, those epic emails are reduced. That probably is welcome news to a lot of workers. Second, it highlights the proper place for many email discussions: wikis, blogs, Yammer, forums, etc. You can use email more for notifications and links to the place where the longer form thinking/discussion/collaboration is occurring.

To participate in this initiative, you only need to do three things:

  1. Add a comment to Jennifer’s blog post
  2. Keep tabs on the character count of your emails (I’ll probably paste ‘em in Word, run a character count)
  3. Keep it light, low pressure. It’s an interesting experiment.

I particularly encourage you to try this out if you’re interested in Enterprise 2.0. What better way to put into practice what we all see as the future of social software inside organizations?

And drop me a comment if you’ve got any other thoughts or suggestions.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22The+2009+Email+Brevity+Challenge%22&who=everyone

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