Australian entrepreneur with FanFooty (alive) and Tinfinger (dead) on his CV. Working on new projects, podcasting weekly at the Coaches Box, and trying not to let microblogging take over this blog.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A is for Aussie A-list, oi oi oi

Dead media zombie parasites Mark Jones and Charles Wright have had a bit of fun while at Phil Sims' MediaConnect conference in sweaty Queensland with Frank Arrigo's declaration that journalists can't be A-list Australian bloggers by having a stab at compiling a journo-heavy Aussie A-list of their own. Mark gives me a gig (but misspells my name), and Charles leaves me out. Cameron Reilly reports (like a real journo!) that the assembled lizards discussed gaming tech.memeorandum, and supports ex-coworker Frank.

Behind all the cheerful ribbing lies a real issue: being a good journalist does not automatically mean you are a good blogger. Australian technology journalists have largely not made the Web transition to become worthy of being called A-list. Some of them have used their Web site simply as a list of pointers to their professional articles on the Web, like Nicole Manktelow and Dominique Jackson. Some stick to personal blogging such as Angus Kidman, Alex Kidman and Caitlin Fitzsimons. Roulla Yiacoumi's dog has a blog, yet Roulla has a Web site but no blog. Alex Zakharov-Reutt's blog seems to have been stillborn (Alex Online isn't online?). Graeme Philipson seems to be stuck in 1995 back when men were men and GIFs were made in MS Paint, before we heard of blogs or Web GUI designers.

Some join the millions of other bloggers whose entries all centre around a link to a random MSM article with a modicum of comment, such as Mark Jones, Brad Howarth, Dan Warne, Stephen Withers, Rob Irwin and Rodney Gedda. Usually, these kind of sites become popular only if they keep a very narrow focus on a hot niche. Of course, the granddaddy of this approach among Aussie IT journos is Charles Wright, but he cheated somewhat by using Fairfax's considerable traffic to publicise his professional prose. I must confess to not having read Charles' stuff before, but the first thing that strikes me is that Bleeding Edge is not inherently blog-like, as evidenced by the lack of hyperlinks - not surprising, since Charles is used to writing for the Age Green Guide and it appears to my practiced eye as if what links there are have been added post-facto to a print-centric article. Another dead giveaway is that quotes from external sources are handled in-paragraph in quote marks, not encapsulated in blockquote tags. Does this make it any better or worse? No, but it doesn't help Bleeding Edge succeed as a standalone blog among those other millions of generic MSM link blogs without the infusion of incoming MSM linkage.

So what defines an A-list blogger? Part of it is luck and part is simple hard work, of course, but there also has to be something within the blogger: a spark of inspiration. Instead of parroting mainstream thought on every topic, the blogger must have strong convictions which s/he will defend to the last despite majority censure, opinions which may annoy or incense but are backed by steady beliefs. Instead of reacting passively to MSM stories as they pass through the ether with an "I like it/don't like it" as befits a lazy consumer, the blogger must develop cogent arguments to attack or defend the subject of each issue. Instead of a series of disconnected vignettes about disparate topics, the blogger must treat their entire blog like a single conversation which they are consistently influencing - anathema to the journalistic code, but necessary for a successful blog. The blogger must develop a narrative, which can only be done by allowing their own personality to express itself through the blogger's words.

Some personalities aren't suited to blogging, even if they are good journalists. There are many styles of journalistic writing corresponding to the various types of articles you may be expected to write, such as short news, long news, news analysis, feature, interview, editorial, and comment pieces. Blogging shares some of the characteristics of most of these article types, but is not exactly the same as any of them. To become a memorable blogger, the author requires a more personal, conversational tone that goes beyond anything written for a journalistic publication.

I can't help but use as an example the late Alicia Camphuisen, whom I worked with at Knapp Communications for many years (and still miss greatly). She was an excellent journalist in many ways, but editorials were not part of her repertoire. Even when she graduated to become the editor of IDM magazine she never wrote an editorial, despite having learned more than enough about the subjects of the magazine to do so. It was not in her non-confrontational nature. She had strengths in areas where I was weak - for instance, she was the most organised person I have met - but she did not feel comfortable expressing her opinions in print.

I wish Alicia was still around, but she would not have made a good tech blogger. Neither, I suspect, would many Aussie IT journos, even if they put their full minds to it. That is not a criticism, since that's like saying they would not make good nuclear scientists: the skill sets are different. This entry has not been my best work either, but I blame my journo upbringing. I'm trying to change, honest!

Friday, February 24, 2006

GFY disgraces itself

The Web 2.0 snark blog Go Flock Yourself is currently running a fanfic series starring Robert Scoble, Tara Hunt and Chris Messina (chapters #1, #2 and #3) and I've had a chance to chat with the author. Apart from a Riceian excursion into red cordial exchange, it has been woefully tame as yet.

The author promised me that #3 would include slash elements, but later made the pissweak excuse that he "took a different direction". What's even worse, one of his co-authors at GFY took it upon himself to apologise to Tara, complete with flower cloud. Later, the author crank called Scoble. What, no swearing? Lame.

What's wrong with the kids of today? Can't they write a decent snark blog any more? Where's the anger, why isn't anyone in tears? Bah humbug.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

* Ponies not included

Adam Green has been enjoying the various discussions of what are being called memetrackers by the principals of the various sites. That's understandable, since the people involved have been reasonably open in discussing their techniques and feature sets. Now he has taken the unexpected step of founding an advisory board to oversee the development of a group blog featuring the thoughts of the protagonists in this new sector, also appointing Dan Gillmor and John Musser to the board with him.

My first thought is that the phrase "advisory board" is a bit dangerous given recent events. However, since Adam said some very nice things about me recently, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. My concern, as with the RSS furore, is that the board is acting without asking the people who really matter, which in this case means the operators of the memetrackers such as Kevin, Greg and Gabe. It certainly doesn't help that Adam says this:

The posts could be at any frequency, and hopefully the colloborative effort would alleviate the defensiveness Gabe sometimes demonstrates and the combativeness Kevin seems prone to.

I don't disagree that such a venture would be fascinating to those with an interest in the field. If such a thing is to be attempted, may I suggest that instead of a blog, the concept be implemented as a wiki. Also, it's a bit silly announcing a board without having a charter. Perhaps then it could be judged by its intentions and goals, not just by the thought of "I'd love to see this".

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Permalinked memes: the next News 2.0 feature

Steve Rubel tried yesterday to prove via some rather convoluted logic that TailRank is better than Memeorandum, which brought out the Memetracker Allstars in the comments: Gabe Rivera bobbed up to defend himself, Kevin Burton tried not to sound smug, ex-Pleecher Nik Cubrilovic went the squirrel, and Matthew Chen of Megite even made an appearance. I suppose we should forgive Steve since he's in public relations which, as all journalists know, means that he's got a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock.

Steve's efforts, while misguided, may lead to something worthwhile. Part of his complaint is that Memeorandum doesn't track stories beyond 24 hours. Many of its users (me included) see this as a good thing, as it keeps the page fresh. However, one of the qualities of many Web 2.0 products is the concept of the permalink, blogs being the most obvious one. Permalinks allow for safe linking for external sites, and help with search engine ranking by creating a page that won't disappear after the spider bots have come and gone.

Gabe's approach to permalinking is to generate an archived copy of each 5-minute snapshot of the front page. He used to provide a search box on Memeorandum to Google Blog Search's index of the site but he has since withdrawn that - for good reason IMO, because I could never get reliable results out of it, or any at all in most cases. However, as Steve hints at, some readers may want to drill down not just to a snapshot of the entire meme landscape, but to see a permalinked page listing all of the parent and children links of a single meme. Steve's motives are mostly for ego searching purposes, which should not be discounted as a driver, but I could think of other valid reasons for a user wanting the feature. It would allow for more detailed views of historical records on a memetracker site that are also permalinked - and possibly also given their own fulltext Boolean search indexes.

I'll add it to the list of features planned for the launch of Tinfinger, and I expect to see it emerge on other sites in time. Thanks Steve!

Monday, February 20, 2006

If ya can't beat 'em, license 'em

Ansearch is yet another of the Aussie Internet startups with global ambitions which prove the local Web 2.0 push is definitively based in Melbourne, not smelly old Sydney. Via Andrew Pascoe and Ben Barren we learn that Ansearch, a cherry-picking search engine which launched in late 2004 making noises about challenging Google and added an online advertising arm called soush last July (another leaf logo!) to make good on that promise, has now announced that it has become an "authorised reseller of Google advertising solutions".

Like Andrew, I am peering cautiously at the wording of the announcement, and would like to hear more details (hint hint to those Memeorandum-link-hungry IT journos out there! That means you Renai.). Normally for all things AdSensian you would expect to find JenSense all over it like a Hawaiian shirt, but Andrew seems to have got the scoop on this one (gj!). Maybe when it's time for her to wake up she'll decode it for us mere mortals. Until then I'm scratching my head almost as much as when I try to parse one of Ben's posts.

Aussie Bitsers

God, I am hating these posts filled with links to other posts that wannabe-A-list bloggers are starting to post just to keep up their one-post-per-hour minimum. Alex Barnett's is particularly annoying, being merely a repost of his delicious links: every single one of these ones is either about attention, RSS or RSS and attention. Doesn't Alex get sick of the word "attention"? He'd just about have the pixels for the word burned into his retinas in 10 point Verdana by now. He asked if the delicious reposts were annoying: yes Alex, they are.

Having said that, there are a few bits of Australian news I've seen today which don't quite deserve their own posts but should be noted in short.

First, Sydneyite Nik Cubrilovic is filling in at TechCrunch while Mike Arrington goes on holiday. This is a wonderful opportunity for Nik to put an uniquely Australian stamp on TechCrunch, which I hope will involve bagging out Kiwi father figures, putting arrogant Yanks in their place and giving those bloody Poms a bit of what for. I'd love to know what sites he's going to review. Good luck Nik!

Second, Mike Walsh of the Sydney barracks of the News Corporation global hegemony has apparently involved Ben Barren of gnoos in an unnamed project. I know Mike from the first Internet boom, when I was writing for Internet World Australia - a Mecklermedia licenced magazine, back when Alan Meckler was one of the big online news moguls with internet.com as the flagship - and Mike was the inaugural point man for australia.internet.com, for which I and my colleagues provided content for a while. I remember him as a raw-faced kid with a flat-top buzzcut and a hunger for dealmaking, a far cry from the 2006 version intense urban sophisticate with a hairstyle out of GQ. I bet he's still got that hunger though ;) . I wish Ben and Mike luck in whatever it is they're doing - but Ben, make sure Rupert's cheque has a biiiiig number and six zeros after it. In US dollars.

Third and finally, Phil Sim is testing the waters to make Squash a multi-author blog. Phil keeps odd hours with his blog, starting his weekday posting run well after midnight, having spent much of the day on his main gig running MediaConnect. I get the feeling he went too hard too early, and this is a bit of an overreaction. Maybe he should ask Ben to recommend some Aussie blog voices to complement his own. Or maybe he should take a week off and reprioritise. If you're posting just to get ranking on some aggregator, you're not blogging any more. You're spamming. The prime reason for blogging is to disseminate your thoughts. There is such a thing as blogging too much. You have to give your own thoughts time to coalesce into coherency in your own head. That only comes through reading, thinking and then posting.

Dave Winer's right. There, I said it.

I've mentioned Dave Winer a lot on this blog, and some of it could be classified under "snark". However, the recent move by Rogers Cadenhead and the RSS Advisory Board to develop a 2.0.2 version of RSS despite Harvard withdrawing its imprimatur strikes me as being against what has made RSS so popular, and I think Dave's in the right on this one. Yes, it's pretty obvious that Dave must have contacted the Harvard chums and convinced them to post their withdrawal in an effort to head off the threat to the 2.0 standard being set in stone forever, but that doesn't mean you should call him a "bearded fat guy", or a "big elephant", or a "bear" protecting its honey. EDIT: Or a "Big Dog". What is he, Beast Boy? Sheesh.

The Board's mailing list has been host to a very curious discussion of late. Randy Charles Morin, who is apparently behind the KB Cafe blog network including the RSS Blog, is one of eight new members and has been ringleading along with Sam Ruby. Rogers Cadenshead posts a perfectly legitimate query on whether the ongoing work in drafting new language for a spec constitutes "change", a scary word in the context of RSS since Dave Winer has said repeatedly since 2002 that the spec is locked in at 2.0. Randy posts the following in response:

I wonder if that goal is attainable. I would suggest any new text will be perceived by somebody as a change. Clarifying that item title is plain text and not HTML is unfortunately going to be a change in the eyes of some.


Each clarification we make is unfortunately going to be interpreted as a change by someone. The difference between clarification and change is entirely perceptual. And there's enough people that are looking for us to fail (this is syndication right?), that suggestions we are changing RSS will undoubtedly grow in time.

After that, Randy somehow comes to the conclusion that he has proven that clarification = change, and thus we need a new version, QED. This seems to me to be akin to sentencing someone to death in absentia, then going ahead and hanging them in absentia. As Sam said so rudely, you just can't change RSS without asking Dave Winer first. It's not smart. It's not polite. And, most importantly, it's not going to work.

I, for one, hope that the Board gets no traction whatsoever. I don't care that the Board's changes will make RSS "better". As a coder on an aggregator which reads and writes a lot of RSS files, my life would be a lot easier if RSS was better, but I don't want it to be. There are other advantages to the RSS spec which make it strong, and I want to keep them by sticking to Dave's correct decision to lock in at version 2.0.

The first is its vagueness. Technofetishists hate how non-conformist the language of the spec is, how it doesn't adhere to verb conventions or this or that secret scroll of RFC wisdom. I say, bugger that. Its vagueness makes it accessible.

The second strength is its state of stasis. That it has not been changed in years is a good thing. The fewer versions there are, the less special cases need to be tracked by parser scripts. More importantly, it has been frozen as a spec that services amateurs, and it is a great thing that RSS can not be subsequently twisted by commercial interests into something that loses its appealing simplicity.

The third strength is its poor quality, for the same reason of being a warning sign to big corporates: Keep Off, This Isn't For You. It drives the extropians crazy, but fuck them, it's not for them either. If they want a perfect spec then let them use Atom, that's what it's there for. RSS is meant for everyone else.

There have been a lot of passive-aggressive posts attacking Dave over the last day or two, plus some snide comments about anyone who is supporting him only trying to stay on his good side for commercial reasons. Bollocks. Dave Winer is not solely concerned with self-aggrandisement, he does stand for certain principles. I may disagree with his methods sometimes, but I stand with him on those principles.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

50 Cent bling worth four million Euros

I have been waiting for someone to bob up implementing the Web version of the "paperdoll" screen that many computer RPGs display while you are creating your character. In RPGs, you get a stylised version of a human or elf or dwarf or whatever wearing underpants, then you dress him/her/it with the latest in medieval military accessories. Some of my MMOG-playing friends see the quality of this glorified Barbie-doll-dressing-up feature as one of the key determinants in their attitude towards the game. And some of those friends are heterosexual males!

That's part of why the just-announced four million Euro investment in Stardoll.com fascinates me, as reported by alarm:clock. There are two types of dolls: the full-length body as seen with Fitty on the right with selections of clothing on virtual racks to dress the celebrity as you please, or "makeovers" which are close-ups of celeb faces with a large palette of colours to make your chosen star look like a circus clown. Another mate of mine who works at an all-girl K-12 school says they have had to block access to Stardoll.com and sites like it because of huge demand.

The thing I wonder as I scroll through all the names of celebrities is: what would the Stardoll.com business plan say about legalities? Have they addressed the right to publicity of celebrities? Have they considered what would happen if one or more of the featured celebs sued the company for using their likeness/es without permission? I'd love to know.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bomb the cluster, plant memetrees instead

The launch of Personal Megite, featuring "memetracker" reading lists seeded from OPML files provided by Robert Scoble, Doc Searls and Richard McManus, has caused a bit of to and fro, not the least with Richard getting criticised for praising the service. Nik Cubrilovic, now of storage startup OmniDrive but fresh off trying to build a memetracker of his own called Pleech, beseeched those in the increasingly crowded space to forget personalisation. Gabe Rivera of Memeorandum chimed in supporting Nik on Scoble's blog.

In Matthew Chen's defence, he has actually released something. That's more than most have done lately (mea culpa!). I have watched Megite lately, and it has gone through some interesting mutations. Its current incarnation looks almost exactly like Memeorandum, all the way down to the boxes with plus signs in them to expand secondary blog lists, as I predicted. I suspect, nay hope, that that is merely one step on the way to something newer and better.

IMO, personalised clustering is not "too hard". The technology is present to be able to do it, even if only as a mashup - of course, if you're Technorati-level or higher you can mash your own DBs up. The problem is in finding an application that users want, to make the phrase "personalised memetracker" mean something - which might be different to what Megite is doing and what Gabe and Nik have tried to do.

What might be a more compelling application is to seed the memetracker with only one source: the user's own blog. Who among you reading this keeps track on Google Blog Search and/or Technorati of links to their blog? Instead of a Mememorandum-style clustered listing of primary stories with multiple secondary stories below it, the data could be displayed in what might be called a "branch-and-root" or "memetree" structure, with each of the user's blog entries as the base, outgoing links from that entry as the roots, and incoming links as branches. It could be implemented as simply as adding a second set of links above each base snippet in a Memeorandum template, or it could get all VMLish with multidimensional link trees sprouting up like creeping vines.

If done right, I think it could capture the considerable market for ego feeds, which is currently being serviced in a slipshod, scattershot manner. Technorati and countless other present and future aggregators have all of the plumbing behind this concept covered. All it needs is one prototype.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The worst thing Microsoft ever released

No wonder people don't like Microsoft. This is just hideous. And it's hosted on a MSDN site? 12-year-olds on MySpace wouldn't even laugh at it. It's a pity Scoble doesn't have the guts to call them on it. If I was a PR flonk working on the MS account, I'd be ringing up some people and having some very pointed conversations.

Edgeio and creeping kippleisation

Kipple is the word Philip K. Dick used in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? to describe the entropic detritus generated by the modern techno-industrial complex. Kipple is the stuff that made eBay famous: people realised that in eBay they had a place to file all their leftover unwanted stuff they'd stashed in the attic, and even get rid of it to people who did want it. To dekippleise their kipple, if you will.

Now Edgeio is positioning itself to enter the classified listing market with an aggregation service that indexes listings that anyone can put on their site - thus the name, referring to the so-called "edge" content which is not centralised on the aggregator's servers. Business Week has a stab at decoding the jargon.

Although Teare's demo was on blogs, that doesn't appear to be the only target. He says this will work for single items on blogs all the way to millions of items from Web stores like Amazon. He contends that RSS feeds reduce the usefulness of centralized repositories of information--most big Web sites today, in other words. "EBays and Craigslists become unnecessary and the tolls they charge become unreasonable," he says.

I respect Michael Arrington and Keith Teare and the other heavyweights behind the scenes at Edgeio, but I have a few issues with this argument. The first is that what Edgeio is trying to do is follow that old dictum for building a successful small business: start with a big business. In this case, Edgeio is trying to start with Craigslist. The problem with that is Craigslist used that strategy too, with newspaper classifieds as the big business. Does it work twice in a row for the same concept, especially when Craigslist hasn't finished killing the newspapers yet? I don't know. What I'm saying is that this concept might be a bit ahead of the curve.

My second gripe is from a reader's perspective. When I read a blog, I wish to immerse myself in wondrous prose: beautiful words which transport me to other worlds of the author's construction, where I am entertained or educated or astounded by the strength of the creator's craft and/or the power of the thinker's thoughts. I do not wish for this narrative of intellectual discourse to be interrupted by an ad for Just saw 10:20pm a Black cat with White neck-Franklin Str.btw Cal&Sac, or a listing of ATTRACTIVE, MATURE WOMAN IN HER 50's(40's), SOUGHT BY 36 YEARS OLD MAN - 36.

I haven't seen a demo of what Edgeio is like in practice, but I hope its RSS implementation is not intended to be included as part of the prose content of users' feeds, as has been the case with Technorati. I am sick of seeing tag lists at the end of posts, not just from Technorati but its imitators. Recently many blogs have started including links to automatically vote for the blog entry on Digg. It is kipple, from the user's point of view. It's the reverse of eBay: instead of getting rid of all of the rubbish in your life, you inject it into your thoughts as they appear on your blog. It's like reading a fiction novel where every 10 pages you have to take out a Post-It note containing the author's shopping list. It gets in the way of the user experience, to use a phrase of Mike Arrington's.

Not that I'm against structured blogging in general. What I hope someone does - if not Technorati, then Edgeio or someone with enough influence to start a trend - is to shift all that structured data within RSS feeds to enclosures. I would like the description tag of RSS to be confined to prose. Enclosures should be where structured data is placed. I don't know if there are any technical issues holding that back, but if there is then I'm sure those with power in the field could see the value in separating unstructured prose from structured data in the interests of users.

What the structured blogging folks are trying to do is extend the RSS spec beyond what Dave Winer locked it at in 2002 at version 2.0. I don't see the need to develop quasi-tags within the description tag, especially for structured data which could be much more elegantly expressed as an enclosure, like podcasts which themselves are structured (although somewhat differently!). With Dave himself as an advisor to Edgeio, I hope he is arguing for what I am saying.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Just be thankful Mohammed isn't involved

Mike Arrington has had a bad experience with Ed Dunn, the founder of a search engine called Fooky. It started after Mike had profiled Fooky on TechCrunch, in what was a perfectly level-headed review. Two days later, Mike joined what at the time was a shitstorm over accountability of contributors to Wikipedia with a piece about someone adding the N-word to Ray Charles' bio. Ed apparently took offence at Mike posting a screenshot of Wikipedia with the N-word prominently displayed, but only blogged about it the other day. Judging from Mike's post, Ed has taken that original misunderstanding and parlayed it into a small vendetta of emails, culminating in an accusation of stock-for-comment corruption.

Looking back over Ed's blog, hardly an entry goes by without him cursing The Man and claiming all sorts of discrimination against himself and Fooky. Ed, as evidenced by the picture at the top of his blog, is an African-American, and has apparently had to walk a rough road to where he is today. He reminds me of Derek Smart, another maverick technologist who has always done things his way in what is undeniably a very white profession - computer games, in Derek's case. I like Derek, and have exchanged many forum posts with him on various topics. I would like to think Ed is similarly loveable and that he has just made a mistake in this case which would be fixed by a simple retraction.

Mike Arrington is not a racist, and his Wikipedia post was actually anti-racist. His posting of an image with the N-word on it next to the article was merely supporting his arguments against racism. I hope Ed comes around and joins the Web 2.0 community to add a valid, authoritative African-American voice to the sea of whiteys like myself.

The Voltron method of Web 2.0 scaling

The excellent alarm:clock blog suggests what it calls a Web 2.0 roll-up:

There is way too much excitement over $12M acquisitions of modest Web 2.0 start-ups by Yahoo and Google. So why not make a run at creating another portal? After all, it wasn't that long ago that Alta Vista and Infoseek were hot portals - and there will doubtlessly be another big-time portal launched in the next few years.

A Web 2.0 Roll-up might start with Technorati for blog search, Rolyo for personalized search, and add features like Zimbra's calendar, a video search like YouTube or Revver, an IM app like Meebo, a comment tool like Digg, plus other doo-dads that you might find on the TechCrunch Index.

It's a nice idea. The theme behind it - scaling to a level where you don't need to get bought out by GEMAYA but can in fact compete with them on a level playing field - is a worthy one. It would be interesting to see how many users such a venture would have after removing duplicates from their united databases, since I suspect there is a lot of crossover already in user bases.

There are several things militating against such a move. First, that all of these companies are run by individualistic entrepreneurs who would not want to give up 100% practical control without a big liquidity event. Second, a lot of Web 2.0 companies have significant VC investment, and I seriously doubt that VCs would want to dilute their stake to be one of 20 or more ownership minnows, even if it might be in a larger entity. Third, even if a bunch of these startups lock together Voltron-style to form a cohesive whole, their combined user base is still going to be a drop in the ocean compared to the major portals. Go to Alexa.com and compare yahoo.com to any of the abovementioned sites: the graph of the smaller site barely gets off the X axis.

The only way I can see this happening is not by equals joining a collective, but by a moderately successful startup mopping up the assets of failures. But even then they're competing with GEMAYA, as evidenced by Yahoo buying up SearchFox's assets. It's a lovely concept, but it's hard to see it happening in practice.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Yahoo to search users: roll d%

News.com's Elinor Mills has the scoop on the latest innovation from Yahoo: rewarding users for making Yahoo their primary search engine. 10 different kinds of rewards are listed, under a program which is being "considered". Looking at the list, it reminds me of nothing more than random magic item generation tables from Dungeons & Dragons. Yet another example of what I've been banging on about from time to time about what MMOGs, or in this case ancestral RPGs, can teach us about compelling Web site features. Let's break down the Yahoo rewards and their D&D equivalents:

Yahoo: No Yahoo Mail ads.
D&D: Absorbing Shield.

Unlimited Yahoo Mail storage, versus the one gigabyte now provided for free.
Bag of Holding.

Outlook Access to Yahoo Mail. Users could use Outlook or Outlook Express to manage their Yahoo Mail as well as download and read it while offline. This is not currently offered.
Crystal Ball.

Five free music downloads a month for playing on a PC or portable MP3 player.
Dancing short sword +5.

Discounted music subscriptions. Users would pay nothing for the first month of unlimited access to Yahoo Music Unlimited and $3.99 a month thereafter, rather than $6.99 a month for unlimited access.
Boots of Dancing.

Donations to charity. Yahoo would give a percentage of revenues generated from user searches to nonprofit organizations of the users' choice.
Well of Many Worlds.

PC-to-phone calling credit. Users could receive $5 in calling credit per month for PC-to-phone calls over Yahoo Messenger with Voice, which costs 15 cents a minute.
Scroll of "Speak with dead".

Netflix discount. Users could receive one month free Netflix DVD rentals and pay $10.99 thereafter, rather than $17.99 a month.
Deck of Illusions.

Discounted Yahoo Personals subscription. Users could receive the first month free for joining Yahoo Personals and pay $19.95 thereafter, compared to the current cost of $24.95 a month.
Eyes of Charming.

Frequent flyer miles. Users could earn 250 frequent flyer miles each month that could be transferred to most major airline mileage programs.
Wings of Flying.

But oh dear, Umair Haque doesn't like it. Or at least, he thinks he knows how to do it better. It's certainly easy to criticise, especially since the D&D equivalents are much more valuable in terms of gold pieces than the handful-of-coppers Yahoo is actually doling out. I can see what Umair means too, but it's a question of what is valuable to Yahoo: is it making a better search product, or fighting Google for market share? To Yahoo, the former is only a stepping stone on the way to the latter, notwithstanding what their CFO said recently. At this point quality is not that much of an issue IMO anyway since most search engines are tending to look the same, so making a better product may not affect things in any case. Why not cut to the chase?

What Umair is talking about is paying users for performing actions that search engines can recognise and feed into their algorithms. (I refuse to use the words "attention" and "gesture" in this context because I think they lack additive meaning beyond using plain English.) But isn't it better for search engines to watch what users do in their natural element in the wild Web, rather than enclosing them in a sandbox with the meter ticking? It's like the difference in the moofie business between box office receipts and focus groups. Personally, I think focus groups suck in comparison to bums on seats.

But hey, I wouldn't begrudge Umair a nice fat consulting fee.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Scoops of vanilla perception

The latest Gillmor Gang podcast features Gabe Rivera from Memeorandum as its guest. I've listened to more than half a dozen of these Gang editions now, and several things are clear:

  • There are some very intelligent people on it with fascinating things to say (e.g. Doc Searls saying "Memeorandum is what Google News should have been", or Dan Farber talking about "scoops of perception");
  • Steve Gillmor is the least interesting of these people;
  • That would not matter, in fact it would be a plus, if Steve acted as a professional moderator who kept things on-topic and snappy;
  • It should be at least half an hour shorter, which would be accomplished if Steve refrained from banging on about his personal bugbears.

I'm only saying what listeners are thinking. I mean, you've got Gabe Rivera right there, yet you spend half an hour rabbiting on about something Sun did! Richard McManus says the same thing but pussyfoots around criticising Steve directly. The lengthy silences from other participants in the podcast as Steve craps on about irrelevancies speak to the same issue.

It's not as if there are a wealth of perfect Parkinsonian podcast interviewers, though, especially in the tech space. John Furrier at Podtech doesn't go hard enough, and as a result many of his interviews are glorified PR releases. Robert X. Cringely at NerdTV tends to allow his guests way too much latitude to sink into nostalgia about the good old days when computing was simple and Cringely was relevant. Even our beloved Aussie podcast guru Cameron Reilly has a tendency not to listen to his interviewees' answers, and go off on tangents relating to his own experiences instead of sticking to what the interviewee is all about.

Part of the problem isn't Steve's fault, it's the medium: conference calls don't work nearly as well as having a bunch of people in the same place. This is why I have encouraged Mike Arrington to start his own regular podcast featuring the stream of people who apparently go through his house in Atherton looking for deals. Imagine Mike hosting a show featuring the latest hotshot entrepreneurs giving elevator pitches for their new ventures at the hippest location in Web 2.0, followed by discussion between all these fresh minds about the memes of the day. Now that would be required listening.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Attack of the Memeorandum clones

First came the Digg clones, which it seems will soon number over 100. There are Digg clones for Tolkien, hip-hop and wrestling, all with the hallmark big-fonted vote count. Now Memeorandum is the subject of its own round of clustered, automated news aggregators clones, three of which have bobbed up in the last couple of days.

Matthew Chen's Megite got some Arrington love, and there's no question it's a Memeorandum clone. It has the same clustering technique on display. However, Megite does a fantastic job of making us think Memeorandum's design, characterised by many as ugly, isn't that bad after all. Not that Megite has a boring colour scheme or unnecessary graphical elements - even its logo is just text (but Comic Sans, wtf!!). It's just that it expands everything on the page where Memeorandum has optional dropdowns, making the page way longer than it should be (at least to Meme vets). It will take a bit of getting used to, if Matthew sticks with it. As to the quality of results, there are some obvious bugs that it would be uncharitable to point out at this early stage, but I wish Matthew the best of luck in fixing them. I particularly like the Entertainment section, that looks spiffy.

Newroo hasn't launched yet, although they showed that they're not stupid by giving TechCrunch an exclusive screenshot (damn, wish I'd thought of that). The two principals are Brian Norgard, who (if my Google-fu is accurate) is/was president of two other non-dotcom startups called Ferrosity and Function Training, and Dan Gould. Looks like Brian's the business guy and Dan's the coder. As an Australian, I object to them using a kangaroo as part of their logo, especially since their cartoon roo is coloured blue, a shade you would never find in any actual animal of that species. Aren't there any animals native to the San Francisco area they could use instead? I hear the quail is a good local candidate, it's the state bird of California. It's not too late to change the name of the company to Quailnews. There's even a free pun in there about quaaludes, dudes. Edgy!

UPDATE: Oops, I left out Laurence Timms' Chuquet, which I had meant to cover. First things first: sorry, that sienna/ochre/puce colour scheme makes me want to blow chunqs. Another site which makes one pine for the soothing aquamarines of Memeorandum. As for the content, it wins points for having a Japanese language blog in there, and the Flickr wall is interesting as a novelty. Why are there so few snippets of text from the clustered stories? And what's with the "Hotlinks - Level 1" business? All these issues can be easily fixed, and I'm sure will be. Whether "fixed" means "made to conform with Memeorandum" or not I don't know. Gabe has so much set the template for this area that I don't know how others can innovate in design while not alienating users. Most of the Digg clones don't mess with what works.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I was Skype-bombed and all I got is this lousy podcast

Cameron Reilly decided to Skype-bomb me today - ringing me without warning over Skype while recording his G'Day World podcast. I won't ask you to sit through the whole hour-long podcast, because Cam's got diarrhoea of the mouth which co-host Rich Giles is powerless to stop, and my interview occurs 45 minutes in. Instead, I cut out the five minutes of the interview.

I shall have my revenge. It shall be served colder than gazpacho soup.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Rooters break VC virginity

/ROOT Markets, or Root Vault or Root.net or AttentionTrust or whatever they're called, announced a US$10 million funding round today, as reported by alarm:clock. It certainly helps your funding round if the CEO and executive chairman can lead it with their own money.

One thing those alarm:clock boys alerted me to was Root's CTO, Robert Lefkowitz, who exalts in the handle of r0ml. My own handle on Web sites and email addresses is m0nty, something which annoys my mother no end since she has to remember the zero instead of an o. No wonder I've been so hot on the Rooting crowd! It all becomes clear. I'm merely replaying the Second Battle of El Alamein, with r0ml playing the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, and me as Field Marshall m0nty... oops I mean Montgomery. One of my grandfathers even fought in Egypt, although he was in Tobruk, not under Monty.

Of course, for the analogy to hold, r0ml would have to be poorly resourced, outgunned and running out of fuel. Damn, that sounds like me - I've been suffering the flu all week and did my first VC pitch today. My throat was feeling as dry as the Sahara by the end of it, and the best that can be said is that I'll be better for the experience. Thankfully the VC involved had some nice constructive things to say. But no, I don't think I'll be besting r0ml on the field of battle any time soon.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Paris is burning Google in papier-mache effigy

A Paris-based group representing 18,000 newspapers called the World Association of Newspapers has told Reuters and FT.com that it is considering its legal options against Google for what it calls "basic theft" of content on Google News. Reaction in the blogosphere runs the usual gamut from incredulous to dismissive, summed up by Dan Gillmor who witnessed the WAN's attitude first hand last year when he co-keynoted with GN creator Krishna Bharat at the WAN annual meeting.

The newspaper people are mistaken. Google does create disintermediation, but it also sends traffic. More fundamentally, it uses the Web as designed.

That may be true, and you'd expect me to be on Google's side on this one since Tinfinger is also in the news aggregation business to some extent. However, the issue is more complex than that.

Take, for example, the way GN used to handle wire feed copy. The same story from Agence France Presse or Reuters or Associated Press or wherever used to appear on Google News many, many times, corresponding with the thousands of media outlets which licensed feeds to shovel into their Web hole. I know this because I used to scroll through pages and pages of results for the same story at different sites, and it really used to piss me off. Finally the Google guys got that that was a bad customer outcome, and now you only see that story once. Ah, but which lucky wire feed purchaser gets to appear in Google's index and get all the lovely clickthroughs for that one big story? Is it randomised? Is it whoever put the story up first? Oh, but doesn't that just mean whichever site the Googlebots hit most often? Maybe it's a nice little earner for the big G, where sites can pay a little extra something-something for the premium service, hmmm, know what I mean?

The news aggregation business will throw up a number of these issues which, while they may not seem like a big deal, do warrant serious consideration. While the quotes about Google being a thief are obviously stupid and meant only for the benefit of stoking up the story, there is a definite issue to be resolved about how to deal legally with the new class of news arbitrage services which the aggregators are defining. One of the quotes rings especially true from the FT article: "Ultimately, the aggregators need the content providers." And not vice versa.