My personal feedback loops

As a sort of companion piece to the previous entry, I figured it might help other web writers to know what tools are available to them, as well as to possibly fill in some gaps I have in my own process (I bet someone reading this knows how to find info on the things I'm blanking on).

So there are several communities I'm familiar with that might republish or comment on something I've created and they are as follows:

  1. Twitter

    1. tweets mentioning my username
    2. tweets mentioning my full name
    3. my tweets retweeted
    4. my tweets marked as a favorite
    5. mentions of my blog posts in twitter
  2. Tumblr (any mentions of my posts)
  3. FriendFeed (comments on my blog posts and/or tweets)
  4. Delicious links leading to my blog
  5. Google Reader

    1. Number of times and who shared a blog post of mine
    2. Any "shared with note" of my blog posts
    3. Times someone hit "Like" on my blog posts
    4. Any comments on my blog posts
  6. Facebook (any comments or likes on my photos, blog posts, and/or tweets)
  7. Flickr (any comments or favorites on my photos)
  8. Other blogs linking to my posts
  9. Google's Buzz? (mentions of my blog posts, tweets, photos, comments on them)

Now, here's my toolset.

For Twitter, I check my "mentions" within various Twitter clients as well as a search for my username "mathowie" and my full name. There's a new "your tweets, retweeted" feature only available on twitter.com itself (is it in the API yet? I haven't found any other clients with this information). I'm a bigger fan of favorites than retweets and I usually find enough info from favstar, where I look at my recent posts with favorites, but of course that's an outside service that scrapes the content and it's not complete (I've tried 2 or 3 other twitter favorite trackers and they all report different # of favorites and often show different people). The service BackTweets.com lets me track a feed of mentions of my blog URL in any tweet and it does a pretty good job.

For Tumblr and other blogs mentioning my posts, I use an old citations search at bloglines set to search all RSS feeds for my domain. I do this for several domains where I write stuff. Here's the search for my personal blog URL. I've used this tool for almost five years and it still does the trick.

I have an account at FriendFeed, and it thankfully just emails me when someone comments on anything in my feed, which is handy and direct (but could get annoying if it was more than once or twice a day).

At Delicious, I follow a network of 63 people that mark interesting stuff and sometimes my own stuff shows up there. If not, I can do a backlink search and save the resulting URL to see how many people liked it enough to save it and if they said anything about it. I wish the backlink search let me look for anything with my domain in it, but it is specific to every single bookmark but something is better than nothing there.

For Google Reader, I'm pretty much in the dark. I once tried out the Firefox extension feedly and was taken aback by the tool's overlay on my blog showing tons of Google Reader activity on every one of my posts. My initial reaction was "who the hell are all these people and why didn't I know they were talking about my stuff before?!" I'd like to see some tool beyond a special browser plugin or bookmarklet hack for aggregating Reader activity on my stuff because it's currently a blind spot.

Facebook is much the same way. Once in a great while I look at web stats and I might see a bunch of facebook.com referrers and sometimes (if it wasn't followed from their main page) I can figure out where something I wrote was mentioned. This is another feedback black hole.

Flickr offers the wonderful Recent Activity page that I loved so much I copied it for MetaFilter. It's pretty much the ultimate tool for finding what has happened with your content on the network and I hope other services are watching and following suit. I would love to see an internet-wide tool that worked like this to track stuff people have said about my writing/photos as well as any followups on comments I left on any other blog. Many companies have tried, no one has succeeded yet.

Google Buzz is another new mystery. Given people can post links there, I have no idea where, when, how or what they've said.

Conclusion

That's about it, and I know there are other communities like StumbleUpon, reddit, and Digg that might rate and/or comment on my work, but I generally don't feel like tracking them and only occasionally see them pop up in web stats.

I'm aware it may seem like I'm sitting here pushing 25 buttons like a Skinner box every hour trying to figure out if people like my stuff, but really most of this stuff is automated as RSS feeds in Google Reader, so I can just pull up GR and see that maybe two new tweets mentioned my blog, four tumblr blogs reblogged something I said, etc.

If anyone has any tips on how to track your own URL mentions in Facebook or Google Reader (or Buzz), I'm all ears.

Broken feedback loops

Last summer I wrote this quick quip on twitter about my frustrations with Google Reader and Facebook comments:

Screen shot 2010-02-10 at 12.18.02 PM

Many years ago, people started building weblog ranking lists and then weblog search engines and eventually we had a rich set of tools that let you know what someone was saying about something you posted online. At first, these were often dubbed "ego search" and there were comparisons to navel gazing that early bloggers (myself included) were known for.

Over the years I realized tracking mentions of your work across the web wasn't merely for the ego stroke, it was quite a valuable bit of feedback. In addition to the direct feedback you might get on a post through your own comments system, following mentions in Technorati, RSS search engines (I still use bloglines' citations to do URL searches of my domains), and Delicious (which offers a simple backlink search) gave a broader picture of what people liked and disliked about your work. On places like Flickr that are more about sharing photos and sometimes about the nature of learning photography, direct feedback is key to becoming better at what you do.

Today Buzz launched and I realized my annoyance expressed last July was going to get amplified again as there was yet another new channel that could chop up any piece of micro-content I've produced and let people comment, rate, and share it without me having any remote knowledge of it unless I happen to follow someone that interacted with it. It's just like how Facebook doesn't inform me that this very blog post might be shared as a link there, and maybe 7 people hit the "Like" button and maybe there are five comments on it there that I can't answer because I don't know it exists. Google Reader, as much as I love it as a tool for reading blogs, suffers the same issues.

Let me be clear this isn't an ownership issue, it's not a frail ego issue, and it's not that I don't love remixing (I do!). My point is when there are half a dozen places someone can hit a like button or mark as a favorite or leave a comment that I have no knowledge of, the feedback loop is broken. 

When I think about the years I've learned to become a more concise writer and a better photographer by throwing shit online and gathering feedback, then repeating the cycle again, I'm dismayed to see all these new tools that lack appropriate feedback mechanisms that can relay information back to the original authors.

So to future application creators I ask that you simply respect the creators of content and help them improve by offering notification, search, and/or backlink capabilities so it's possible for someone to see where their creations end up. I know it's a lot easier to just consider it all "output" within your application, but the internet is a great communication medium not just for relaying information from anyone to anywhere on earth, but for also making it a dialogue between reader and writer. 

Don't break the feedback loop. 

Update: It might help other writers and photographers to know what tools I use (that you might not be aware of) as feedback loops. Here's a follow-up post about that.

Fun with Foursquare

Screen shot 2010-02-02 at 9.25.27 PM I know I'm about two years late to this, but I'm really digging Foursquare. I remember meeting the guys behind Dodgeball in NYC before it was acquired by Google, and seeing how people used the service, but it seemed like an idea that could only fly in a densely populated place like Manhattan with its plethora of choices of things to do.

Fast forward a few years and I load up the foursquare client on my phone for the hell of it and notice that most of the downtown restaurants in my little neck of the woods an hour from Portland, Oregon are all listed with mayors, tips, and everything else. As I've driven around Portland and flown down to Southern California, I've been constantly surprised at the depth of coverage and wealth of tips available in larger cities.

The app is fun and using it is very much a game, but what I'm most interested in is how it's both a useful utility, but also has personality because it's basically crowd-sourced information from regular people. Similar services like Yelp feel more like a yellow pages with comments thrown in, where Foursquare is the exact opposite: it feels like a giant community blog with some maps thrown in.

As their database fills out, I'm interested in all the ways it could be harnessed for other applications. I could totally see a Fuelly/Foursquare mashup where you both check-in at a gas station you're fuelling up at and you can add your mileage stats to Fuelly at the same time.

Anyway, I know it's been around a while and is old news to every friend in San Francisco and NYC, but the app is useful even in the 'burbs and rural places now that more people are using it. I'd say it's officially hit mainstream.

Oh also: two quick tips. Connect your profile to Twitter and Facebook, but be sure to turn off automatic status update check-ins. Those are almost always annoying to your followers. Second tip: only add friends you've dined with in real life. The app automatically exposes your mobile phone number to your friends list which is a new level of intimacy for most social software. So unless you want to get rung up by random internet strangers from every other social network you're on, keep your friends list tighter than usual.

Notes from the Future: SSD instead of hard drives

Ssd I'm writing this on my Mac Pro that feels like a new computer thanks to the SSD (solid state drive) memory that replaced my existing hard drive. A friend of mine used to talk about this idea ten years ago — that someday RAM and flash memory would get so cheap you'd be able to fit an entire operating system on it, making it magnitudes faster than current computers. Thanks to the past decade of ever cheaper and larger memory sticks, cards, and RAM, we're finally at that moment. SSD drives are now available in sizes big enough for boot drives (including your operating system and space for apps), are available for many laptops & desktops, and start at just a couple hundred bucks.

Today I finished putting a 128Gb Crucial SSD drive in my newer Mac Pro. It was simple and the results are amazing. The hardest part was dealing with a new 128Gb SSD drive compared to my current main 1Tb hard drive. Thankfully I had a spare 1Tb drive to move all the music, movies, downloads, and document files to in order to get the operating system and application files down well below 128Gb in size. Next, I took my new SSD drive out of the package, opened my Mac, slid out hard drives, plugged the drive into a spare optical drive connector, and put it all back. Then I used SuperDuper to clone my now smaller main hard drive to the new drive, set it as the new boot drive, and rebooted. I followed the basic approach outlined in this tutorial (ignore the use of apps describe there) and was done, start to finish in less than 40 minutes (attaching the drive took 5 minutes, data copying took 33 minutes).

Overall, booting up takes about 1/3 as long. Applications launch in a second or two (even the bloated ones). Everything feels amazingly snappy, in the way that replacing a 5+ year old computer with a new one feels. About the only tip I'd give is that 64Gb is probably enough for most people if you can get iPhoto, iTunes, and all your large file storage to a separate drive. My SSD is barely using 25Gb for the entire OS, about 10Gb of applications, and assorted other files sitting on my desktop. I bought a larger drive just to be safe but I'm not sure it was necessary.

Currently, I'd put preparing your computer and installing SSD at the fairly technical nerd level but given that laptops with SSD pre-installed have been available for the past couple years it's only a matter of time before desktop computers start shipping with them. To any of my friends considering this, it's totally worth doing.

UPDATE: Jon Deal wrote me an amazing email last night detailing how to move the home directory to a new location using some command-line mojo and a hidden advanced user account feature I didn't know existed. He put it online last night here. It worked perfectly for me and saves a lot of headaches. I actually could have done this before I installed the SSD and before I shrank down the files/directories on my main drive to fit onto a SSD.

Odd Technology

I discovered a new first world problem. I called a friend's mobile phone while he was at home and we were discussing things for ten minutes or so. Then his spouse arrived home from a trip to the store and parked the car inside their garage. My call ended suddenly and I was a bit confused.

Later, I found out that as the car entered the garage, my friend's mobile automatically connected to it via his stored Bluetooth profile. His spouse was suddenly hearing my half of the conversation on the car's stereo speakers. She panicked, and hit the call end button on the steering wheel.

It felt like one of the weirdest edge case technology problems possible.

Scalable personal IT for non-geeks?

Last month, I hung out with a friend from college that was impressed by the gadgets I carried and how I used them, but didn't have the spare time necessary to set everything up like I have (stuff like moving downloaded movie files to a TV for viewing, being able to check 5 email accounts on your iphone using gmail/imap, etc).

After each explanation of how I set things up grew increasingly longer, I realized there's probably a simple business model in place for a Personal IT staff kind of thing for regular users of technology that aren't uber geeks. I picture something that isn't the Geek Squad (they only do work piecemeal, right?) but is more like a subscription service, maybe $20 a month, where you as a customer can basically get your home computer and mobile phone updated remotely with the latest time-saving tweaks. I bet someone that reads lifehacker religiously, can do IT and PC Support work, and could figure out a way to do it remotely (either remote desktop sessions, or having customers' computers phone home to grab updates and configuration scripts) could build a pretty nice business off of it.

Is there anything like this out there today?