microformats, Technology

Stowe Boyd launches Microsyntax.org

hashStowe Boyd launched Microsyntax.org this morning and announced that I will be the first member of his advisory board.

Stowe and I have batted around a number of ideas for making posts on Twitter contain more information than what is superficially presented, and this new effort should create a space in which ideas, research, proposals and experiments can be made and discussed.

Ultimately, my hope is that Microsyntax.org will reach beyond Twitter and provide a forum for thinking through how we encapsulate data in channels that don’t natively support metadata by using conventions that express as much meaning as much as they encode.

Twitter with Channel tagsSince I originally proposed hashtags in August of 2007, I’ve thought a lot about what these conventions mean, and how wide adoption of something can radically elevate the field of competition.

There is a similar opportunity here, where, if the discourse is developed properly, such conventions can actually enable a greater range of expression over narrow channels, allowing for wider participation in and understanding of conversations.

Take, for instance, Stowe’s “GeoSlash” (as christened by Ross Mayfield) proposal. Whether his syntax is the right one (or even necessary!) isn’t something that can be argued rationally. It’s only something that can be investigated through experimentation and observation. To this point, there has been no central convening context in which such a proposal could be brought up, debated, discussed, considered, tinkered with, improved, championed and evaluated.

As a result, countless proposals have been made for baking moremeta” into Twitter’s data stream, but few have really taken off (compared with the relative success of hashtags and @replies).

While I’m sympathetic to arguments (and pleas!) against adding additional structure or formatting to tweets, I think that the bigger opportunity here extends beyond Twitter (which is primarily a public broadcast channel) to other applications, regardless of whether they use Twitter as the message routing infrastructure or not. Indeed, given my recent (and very positive) experience where @AlaskaAir checked me in to my flight over Twitter, you can imagine an opportunity developing where, say, forward-thinking airlines actually collaborate to develop a syntax for expressing checkin requests via some sort of direct SMS-based channel.

The situation of multiple competing-yet-overlapping SMS syntaxes lead me, somewhat mockingly, to start documenting what I called “picoformats“. If I’ve learned anything from the microformats process, it’s that anyone can invent a schema or a format, but getting adoption is the hard part (and also the most valuable). So, in order to promote adoption, you should always try to model behavior that already exists in the wild, and then work to make the intensions of the behavior more clear, repeatable and memorable.

Most microsyntax efforts fail to follow this process, and as a result, fail in the wild. Efforts that employ the scientific method tend to see more success: hashtags modeled the convention started by IRC channels and Jaiku (Joshua Schachter also used the hash to denote tags in the early days of Delicious); the $ticker convention (from StockTwits) follows how many financial trade publications denote stock symbols. And so on.

So when it comes to proposing new behaviors that don’t yet exist in the wild, I think that the Microsyntax.org project will be an excellent place to convene and host conversations and experiments, many of which will admittedly fail. But at minimum, there will be a record of what’s been tried, what the thinking and goals were, and where, hopefully, some modest successes have been achieved.

I’m looking forward to contributing to this effort and helping to stand up the community infrastructure with Stowe. While I’m not eager to see the Twitter stream polluted with characters intended only for computers, I think that there is still much explored ground in what can be accomplished through modest modifications of the way that we communicate over these kinds of narrow, unidimensional channels.

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design, Technology, Usability, Web building

Making the most of hashtags

#hashtags logoA couple of days ago a new site called Hashtags.org was launched by Cody Marx Bailey and Aaron Farnham, two ambitious college students folks from Bryan & College Station, Texas.

I wanted to take a moment to comment on its arrival and also suggest a slight modification to the purpose and use of hashtags, now that we have a service for making visible this kind of metadata.

First of all, if you’re unfamiliar with hashtags or why people might be prepending words in their tweets with hash symbols (#), read Groups for Twitter; or A Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels to get caught up on where this idea came from.

You should note two things: first, when I made my initial proposal, Twitter didn’t have the track feature; second, I was looking to solve some pretty specific problems, largely related to groupings and to filtering and to amplifying intent (i.e. when making generic statements, appending an additional tag or two might help others better understand your intent). For consistency, my initial proposal required that all important terms be prefixed with the hash, despite how ugly this makes individual updates look. The idea was that, I’d try it out, see how it worked, and if someone built something off of it, or other people adopted the convention, I could decide if the hassle and ugliness were ultimately worth it. A short time after I published my proposal, the track feature launched and obviated parts of my proposal.

Though the track feature provided a means for following explicit information, there was still no official means to add additional information, whether for later recall purposes or to help provide more context for a specific update. And since Twitter currently reformats long links as meaningless TinyURLs, it’s nice to be able to provide folks with a hint about the content at the end of the link. On top of those benefits, hashtags provide a mechanism for leveraging Twitter’s tracking functionality even if your update doesn’t include a specific keyword by itself.

Now, I’ll grant you that a lot of this is esoteric. Especially given that Twitter is predicated on answering the base question “what are you doing?” I mean, a lot of this hashtag stuff is gravy, but for those who use it, it could provide a great deal of value, just like the community-driven @reply convention.

Moreover, we’ve already seen some really compelling and unanticipated uses of hashtags on Twitter — in particular the use of the hashtag as a common means for identifying information related to the San Diego fires.

And that’s really just the beginning. With a service like Tweeterboard providing even more interesting and contextual social statistics, it won’t be long before you’ll be able to discover people who talk about similar topics or ideas that you might enjoy following. And now, with Hashtags.org, trends in the frequency of certain topics will become all the more visible and quantifiable.

BUT, there is a limit here, and just because we can add all this fancy value on top of the blogosphere’s central intelligence system doesn’t mean that our first attempt at doing so is the best way to do it, or that we should definitely do it at all, especially if it comes at a high cost (perceived or real) to other users of the system.

Already it’s been made clear to me that the use of hashtags can be annoying, adding more noise than value. Some people just don’t like how they look. Still others feel that they encumber a simple communication system that should do one thing and one thing well, secondary uses be damned if they don’t blend with the how the system is generally used. This isn’t del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia after all.

And these points are all valid and well taken, but I think there’s some middle ground here. Used sparingly, respectfully and in appropriate measure, I think that the value generated from the use of hashtags is substantial enough to warrant their continued use, and it isn’t just hashtags.org that suggests this to me. In fact, I think hashtags.org, in the short term, might do more damage than good, if only because it means people will have to compose messages in unnatural ways to take advantage of the service, and this is never the way to design good software (sorry guys, but I think there’s room to improve the basic track feature yet).

In fact, with the release of the track feature, it became clear that every word used in a post is important and holds value (something that both Jack and Blaine noted in our early discussions). But it’s also true that without certain keywords present in a post, the track feature is useless. In this case in particular, where they provide additional context, I think hashtags serve a purpose. Consider this:

“Tara really rocked that presentation!”

versus:

“Tara really rocked that presentation! #barcampblock”

In the latter example, the presence of the hashtag provides two explicit benefits: first, anyone tracking “barcampblock” will get the update, and second, those who don’t know where Tara is presenting will be clued into the context of the post.

In another example:

“300,000 people evacuated in San Diego county now.”

versus

“#sandiegofire: 300,000 people evacuated in San Diego county now.”

Again, the two benefits are present here, demonstrating the value of concatenated hashtags where using the space-separated phrase “San Diego” would not have been caught by the track feature.

What I don’t think is as useful as when I first made my proposal (pre-tracking) is calling out specific words in a post for emphasis (unless you’re referring to a place or airport, but that’s mostly personal preference). For example, revising my previous proposal, I think that this approach is now gratuitous:

“Eating #popcorn at #Batman in #IMAX.”

Removing the hashes doesn’t actually reduce the meaning of this post, nor does it affect the tracking feature. And, leaving them out makes the whole update look much better:

“Eating popcorn at Batman in IMAX.”

If you wanted to give your friends some idea of where you are, it might be okay to use:

“Eating popcorn at Batman in IMAX at #Leows.”

…but even still, the hash is not wholly necessary, if only to help denote some specialness to the term “Leows”.

So, with that, I’m thrilled to see hashtags.org get off the ground, but it’s use should not interfere with the conventional use of Twitter. As well, they provide additional value when used conservatively, at least until there is a better way to insert metadata into a post.

As with most technology development, it’s best to iterate quickly, try a bunch of things (rather than just talk about them) and see what actually sticks. In the case of hashtags, I think we’re gradually getting to a pretty clear and useful application of the idea, if not the perfect implementation so far. Anyway, this kind of “conversational development” that allows the best approach to emerge over time while smoothing out the rough edges of an original idea seems to be a pretty effective way to go about making change, and it’s promising to see efforts like hashtags.org take a simple — if not controversial — proposal, and push it forward yet another step.

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Ideas, Life online, Society & economy, Technology

Twitter hashtags for emergency coordination and disaster relief

I know I’ve been beating the drum about hashtags for a while. People are either lukewarm to them or are annoyed and hate them. I get it. I do. But for some stupid reason I just can’t leave them alone.

Anyway, today I think I saw a glimmer of the promise of the hashtag concept revealed.

For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, consider this status update:

Twitter / nate ritter: #sandiegofire 300,000 peopl...

You’ll notice that the update starts out with “#sandiegofire”. That’s a hashtag. The hash is the # symbol and the tag is sandiegofire. Pretty simple.

Why use them? Well, it’s like adding metadata to your updates in a simple and consistent way. They’re not the most beautiful things ever, but they’re pretty easy to use. They also follow Jaiku’s channel convention to some extent, but break it in that you can embed hashtags into your actual post, like so:

Twitter / Mr Messina: @nateritter thanks for keep...

Following the , this simple design means that you can get more mileage out of your 140 characters than you might otherwise if you had to specify your tags separately or in addition to your content.

Anyway, you get the idea.

Hashtags become all the more useful now that Twitter supports the “track” feature. By simply sending ‘track [keyword]‘ to Twitter by IM or SMS, you’ll get real-time updates from across the Twitterverse. It’s actually super useful and highly informative.

Hashtags become even more useful in a time of crisis or emergency as groups can rally around a common term to facilitate tracking, as demonstrated today with the San Diego fires (in fact, it was similar situations around Bay Area earthquakes that lead me to propose hashtags in the first place, as I’d seen people Twittering about earthquakes and felt that we needed a better way to coordinate via Twitter).

Earlier today, my friend Nate Ritter started twittering about the San Diego fires, starting slowly and without any kind of uniformity to his posts. He eventually began prefixing his posts with “San Diego Fires”. Concerned that it would be challenging for folks to track “san diego fires” on Twitter because of inconsistency in using those words together, I wanted to apply hashtags as a mechanism for bringing people together around a common term (that Stowe Boyd incidently calls groupings).

I first checked Flickr’s Hot Tags to see what tag(s) people were already using to describe the fires:

Popular Tags on Flickr Photo Sharing

I picked “” — the tag that I thought had the best chance to be widely adopted, and that would also be recognizable in a stream of updates. I pinged Nate and around 4pm with my suggestion, and he started using it. Meanwhile, Dan Tentler (a co-organizer who I met at ETECH last year) was also twittering, blogging and shooting his experience, occasionally using #sandiegofire as his tag. Sometime later Adora (aka Lisa Brewster, another BarCamp San Diego co-organizer) posted a status using the #sandiegofire hashtag.

Had we had a method to disperse the information, we could have let people on Twitter know to track #sandiegofire and to append that hashtag to their updates in order to join in on the tracking stream (for example, KBPS News would have been easier to find had they been using the tag) (I should point out that the Twitter track feature actually ignores the hashmark; it’s useful primarily to denote the tag as metadata in addition to the update itself) .

Fortunately, Michael Calore from Wired picked up the story, but it might have come a little late for the audience that might have benefitted the most (that is, folks with Twitter SMS in or around affected areas).

In any case, hashtags are far from perfect. I have no illusions about this.

But they do represent what I think is a solid convention for coordinating ad-hoc groupings and giving people a way to organize their communications in a way that the tool (Twitter) does not currently afford. They also leave open the possibility for external application development and aggregation, since a Twitter user’s track terms are currently not made public (i.e. there is no way for me to know what other people are tracking across Twitter in the same way that I can see which tags have the most velocity across Flickr). So sure, they need work, but the example of #sandiegofire now should provide a very clear example of the problem I’d like to see solved. Hashtags are my best effort at working on this problem to date; I wonder what better ideas are out there waiting to be proposed?

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design, Life online, Technology, The Web Arts, Web building

Groups for Twitter; or A Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels

Twitter / Mr Messina: how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?

This is the post that I alluded to in my last one about Whispering Tweets. I’ll make a disclaimer right now that the title of this post is misleading and actually not about Groups for Twitter. In fact, I’m not at all convinced that groups (at least as they are commonly understood on sites like Flickr) are ultimately a good idea or a good fit for Twitter. But, I do think that there is certainly some merit to improving contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter. This is a rather messy proposal to that effect.
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