iTunes AppStore & The Tyranny of Choice

When I’m looking to buy a new video game, I have 2 primary sources: The first is Video Game blogs (I generally read Joystiq & the IGN Xbox feeds), the second is my friends – whom I mostly to use to ask about games I’ve first heard about via one of the above.

But my practice for learning about new apps is different – it’s nearly 99% from my friends, 1% from blogs (if I’m being honest, mostly from Daring Fireball, which is my (and many, many other people’s) go-to place for new Apple/iOS-related opinion. Since about 1 month after it opened, the iTunes App Store itself has been more or less useful useless (thanks, Evan!). Cream doesn’t rise to the top in that store. Look at the top 5 apps in any category – you’re as likely to see utter garbage as you are a beautifully designed app or brilliant, original game (based on how network TV works, I’d go as far to say as the most original NEVER get the most attention). This because the metric used for the top charts is based on downloads (Top) and sales (Top Grossing). There’s not really a mechanism for “most interesting” and if there were, unless it was weighted by people’s whose opinions I like, would still not be useful.

It ends up that I now more or less completely ignore the App Store as a source of recommendations for apps. Even the app-related blogs aren’t so hot, because, for them to be useful filters, Its needs to be focused on particular categories of apps – or it’s just too general – similar to how sites that review all forms of music pale compared to sites that mine just a few genres. Whatever the issue is, the App Store is failing for me as a source of new apps – I’m paralyzed by the Tyranny of Choice: Which of the 18283 education apps do I want? Hell, even deciding between the 120 “Hot” Education apps is too much choice.

What’s needed is a sort of “social ranking” mechanism – sort of like the vote up/down of Reddit, Digg, etc. But actually, what I’d like is something even more refined. I’ll state now that I really don’t care what the vast majority of the world thinks. I care about what people that I respect think. These vote up/down algorithms should be measured in concentric circles: First & foremost, what my friends like. If, say David likes an app, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll like it too – at least based on historic precedent. & I don’t care about 5-star ratings. All I care about is thumbs up/thumbs down. The next circle out from that should be what friends of David, but who aren’t my friends, think about an app – one of those birds-of-a-feather ideas – if David likes this people, maybe I will to. Beyond that, should be people who’re influential “generally” think. Leveraging something like Klout could be useful for this level of recommendation. I might not know the person from Adam, but if more often than not apps that they recommend are subsequently recommended by people in their circle of friends, that’s a good sign.

This seems like a perfect area to start exploring interest data-mining/app possibilities. While you could simply shoe-horn on an up/down voting method over the existing, more-or-less useless 5-star rating system, I don’t think even this is necessary. Here’s what I’m imagining:

  • An iTunes plug-in that allows me to share what Apps I own (I’m equating ownership as a “thumbs-up” – this might be overly simplistic, but it’s a place to start). This sharing could be anonymous or not. Maybe I need to actually “rate” an app to share it, so I can hide apps I don’t want to rate or share.
  • Leverage my existing social networks to see which friends I care about. This is a well-established method: Let me “follow” my twitter, facebook, linked in, google/yahoo/hotmail contacts, etc. I strongly believe that this system needs to asynchronous – more like twitter than like facebook.
  • As I like apps that someone else has already liked, the weighting the system gives to that person’s likes, relative to me, should be weighted higher – because it means that I’m more likely to agree with them in the future – a bayesian weighting system.
  • Over time, as my circle of followers grows & shrinks, as people in my circle add/remove/rate up/rate down apps, I’ll have an ever-changing list of suggested apps. Which makes app developers more money, makes apple more money, makes my devices more useful to me.

So there’s some hitches that I see in all of this as I currently have it down:

  1. People have to download a plugin to iTunes (or, they have to sign into a website then manually find their apps). This manual start-up process is a rather large barrier to entry.
  2. People actually have to rate apps & do it regularly as their app-library changes. A code-snippet that could be added into apps, similar to the existing “rate us in the app store” would be nice & helpful – but would require this get big enough.

Thoughts, people? Is there already something like this out there? If not, and you’ve got some money, want to fund me to make it? Or, want to make it yourself? Let me know – I’ll be an eager tester of it!

 

Blogs, Contests & Comments

The Vancouver Blogger scene is incredibly well tied-in with the Vancouver PR Community. I generally think this is a good thing – they scratch each other’s backs, and I get to stay informed via voices that I know, trust (or not) and are consistent. And more often than not, this leads to contests, wherein a blog reader wins stuff, or tickets to events or whatnot. Both Miss 604Hummingbird 604 run contests regularly. I recently won a contest on Outdoor Vancouver‘s blog. So these are good things. Usually, entering the contest consists of a)tweeting a specific message b)leaving a comment and sometimes a third option on Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, etc. The tweeting I get – it makes the contest (and thus the message) viral. Most of the time, I don’t mind abusingmy twitter account to do this, but just recently I’ve decided to create a separate twitter account that I’ll use just to enter contests – while I might want to enter all sorts of contests, my friends might not be so interested (I differentiate between followers & friends – I tweet for & with my friends – followers can come and go as they please), and I don’t want to spam them. But I understand, from the point of view of the blogger & sponsor why tweeting for a contest entry is good.

But then we’re often asked to comment on the blog itself. And this seems odd to me. I’m of the opinion that blog comments are for conversation, for response to ideas put forward. But contest-entry comments are inane and usesless – the vast majority exist solely to fulfill the requirements of the contest, and add nothing to the conversation. This is especially true if the contest winner will be drawn at random, rather than via a subjective evaluation of the ‘best’ response. Look at the ‘Cirque Du Soleil KOOZA: Win Tickets” post on Miss604 (I’m not, it should be noted, picking on her in particular – this is just a great recent example) – there are (as of time of writing this) 178 comments – each one an entry into the contest. The contest runs for 3 weeks, and we the public are allowed to comment once a week for an additional entry. So there’ll likely be well over 500 ‘comments’ on the post – but all will be simple contest-entries rather than any substantive content. So what’s the point? It many ways, it (for me at least) reduces the appeal of the blog as a whole – while I’ll read the posts, there’s no point in reading the comments because they’re more or less spam. And comments, retweets, Facebook links, trackbacks make up your blog’s social sphere. There’s power in having that sphere be ‘clean’ I think, which having useless contest-entry comments simply detracts from.

But, again looking at Miss 604’s site, read her post prior to the contest “A Does of Vancouver” It has but one comment, but it’s a real comment, a response to the post itself. And useful – adding something to my experience of the post. But and so, what is the answer to all of this? Here’s my suggestions to blogs that run contests, to keep your blog’s social sphere “useful”:

  1. If your contest-winner will be drawn at random via a number-generator, don’t use your comments for entries. Use a polling system perhaps – but make people register to “vote” on the poll just like leaving a comment. Then choose 1 or more votes to win.
  2. If you require specific content to be in the post, but it’s still a random-draw, use  a separate data store for that – so it’s clear throughout your archives what are contest entries, what are comments.
  3. Just use the external viral engines like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc.

If you’re someone who runs contests on their site, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – not running contests, I’ve never had to put my own ideas into practice, so maybe there’s valid reasons for using the comment system that I haven’t thought of.

If I don’t say “hi”, it’s not because I don’t like you

Last night I was standing in line behind a woman whom I know quite well – she’s a design partner, I speak with her almost weekly on the phone, etc. I’ve no idea if she saw me or not. I don’t think so. But I didn’t say “hi”.

When I pass people I know on the street, I almost never stop and talk. I rarely even wave. I will, most of the time, acknowledge them with a head-nod and a smile.

If I’m invited somewhere, and I don’t know who will be there, I often simply won’t go. Or, if I do, I’ll spend most of the time only with the few people I knew were going to be there – regardless of whether or not I know other people where I am.

This isn’t because I don’t like you all – I do! I really like you! It’s just that, most of the time, I try very hard to have in-person (or on-phone) social interactions solely on my terms, my schedule. If I don’t, it just all becomes too much for me. When I don’t stop and chat with you on the street? It’s because the very possibility of making small talk about something, or being careful to ask the right sort of questions, to not confuse you with someone else, to be smart and engaging and everything I want you to think that I am is so incredibly overwhelming to me that I literally break out in a cold sweat and start envisioning doomsday scenarios. My headphones, a near-permanent accessory in my ears, are the most culturally polite protection against that.

When I go to an event, be it dinner with friends or a tweetup or a party or a professional function, it takes time & effort to “gear up” for that. As I’ve gotten older (more confident?) the effort required has lessened. But the recovery from the event hasn’t lessened much. I will “prepare” to encounter the people whom I know will be there. When feeling good, I’ll make an effort to chat with people they appear to know. But rarely, if ever, will I chat with someone with whom I have no prior known connection – I just find it too much for me. I feel like I am getting better prepared for strangers, but overall, I still give myself a failing grade. I’m amazed at Jeff, my business partner, who seemingly effortlessly meets everyone and charms them with ease. He likely knows the name of (& general public story of) everyone in our office building. I know the names of my staff, and maybe 4 other people.

A week where I go to two or more things is incredibly draining, and, I’ve noticed, affects my whole life. I’m moodier, more tired. One of the greatest revelations to me is just how incredibly healing it is for me to spend time with Liam & Leah, who are truly the binary stars at the center of my universe.

In some ways, the internet is perfect for potential shut-ins like myself (I say that with some humor – I’m not a shut in, but I can easily see an alternate life path where, essentially, I become one). I love social media because it gives me a highly-filtered method of learning how to interact with new people. When I do go to social-media-related events, people with whom I’ve interacted with online are less intimidating, I think in part because we’ve already established a rhythm and parameters of our interactions.

So yeah, I won’t often say “hi” to you. But I might just @mention that I saw you later on, when I’m safely behind my screen. 🙂

Wanted: A twitter/comment plugin combo

When I post an entry (such as this one), I have a wordpress plugin (called Twitter Tools) that sends out a tweet (meta-linking update: like this) telling everyone that I’ve posted something. To manage comments, I use Disqus, which, amongst other systems, allows people to authenticate at twitter to then post a comment. Which is nice, and I like it.

But! Sometimes, seemingly more often than not, people will @-reply to me on twitter with a comment on my post. And I will often @-reply someone else about their post (that was announced on twitter). So here’s what I want:

  1. When I post an entry that sends a tweet, capture and store the ID of the tweet that I sent.
  2. Whenever someone @-replies or retweets that stored tweet, aggregate that to the comment-section of my blog, so that the entire related conversation is visible in one place.
  3. For bonus points, given that everything I post is also pushed as a post to Facebook & everything I tweet ends up as a status update on there too, it would be great to extract any responses to those as well, in the comments section of my site.

Does anyone know if such a thing exists?

BCHydro Power Outage Alerts: A suggestion

Today, when the power went out at work, the first thing I did (after getting my laptop tethered to my phone) was to go to the BC Hydro Power Outages page, then check the list of outages and finally, double-checked the map to see if that was the correct area. As I clicked on the map, I noticed that each outage has a unique ID (quite sensibly).  I then noticed that there was a mobile site. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work on the iPhone, because it’s a super-old-school WAP deck.

But! Here’s my suggestion. Given that there’s a unique ID per outage, why not let me “sign up” to receive updates? everytime an engineer updates the status of the outage, there could be a system in place to deliver that update to me automatically. Ideally, I’d be able to choose any number of ways of getting updated: Email, SMS, Facebook, Twitter, whatever,  but the most simple to implement would probably be email updates.

That way, I wouldn’t have to constantly check the site, or worse yet for BC Hydro, call them, and everyone would be happier because they can passively receive information rather than having to actively hunt it out.

Beyond this manual per-outage-sign up idea, the next step would be for me to be able to create an account at BC Hydro and input one or more addresses that I would like to “watch” for power-service updates. For instance, I’d like to know about power issues at my house & at my office.

I don’t know if this power outage/service data is “public”. If so, this seems to be another great open data hack for some determined person to build out. If anyone from BC Hydro IT sees this, I’d certainly love to talk with you about trying to build this out – I can’t (at a quick glance) find a way to get this information easily off-site for use by a “power-watcher” app.

The power of Twitter & the “Ellen Effect”

So, on Thursday, one of my clients, the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA) was linked to from the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Blog, after being mentioned on the show. At the same time, a tweet was sent from the @TheEllenShow twitter account (As an aside, the reason for all of this is that Anna Torv, who is the star of the Vancouver-filmed show Fringe, fosters kittens for VOKRA, so she’s now much cooler in my books than she was before I knew this). Because of this one-time spike, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at VOKRA stats to see what sort of effect this had on their site, particularly as I had been worried a huge flood of traffic might down our servers (for the record, they passed with nary even a flinch. The charts below will show why).

The Ellen Bump
The Ellen Bump

As you can see, traffic generated from Ellen gave VOKRA a huge, but very brief, jump in traffic, from an average of 300 visitors a day to 3900 visitors. Which is nice to see. But, given Ellen’s reach (she’s the 4th-most influential woman in media & has over 3 million followers on twitter), I had been expecting a larger bump from it.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is how that traffic arrived at VOKRA:

How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA
How Ellen Viewers reached VOKRA

Twitter blew the link on Ellen’s blog out of the water, driving 3 times more traffic to it than the links on the blog. Of the twitter traffic, all but 100 of those clicks came either from the individual tweet or the main page of Ellen’s account – the split is about 50/50 (of those 100 remaining visitors, all but 3 came from my own tweet – thanks, followers!). Being mentioned on the show was nearly as powerful as the tweet. Breaking down those Google searches, the most common was “kitten rescue vancouver ellen“, which suggests to me that comes from people watching the show and searching. A mere 839 visitors clicked through from the blog post itself. Although, perhaps not that surprising: It takes far more investment in the topic to do that, as likely, you’ll

  1. Watch the show & become interested in the topic
  2. THEN go to the Ellen show’s website and read more
  3. AND FINALLY, click through to the end point.

Which is yes, only one extra step, but in terms of buy-in, seems much, much more to me.

A final analysis. What VOKRA wants more than anything when you go to their site is one of 2 things:

  1. Apply to adopt a kitten
  2. Donate to them

What’s disappointing is that all this traffic had almost no effect on either of those 2 goals. There were a few more applications than usual over the past couple of days – a total of 14, vs, I believe, 8 for same period the previous week. And there was no effect on donations – no increase in either number of donations or amount over the previous week (given the increase in visitors, their donations-per-visitor ratio in fact just took a huge hit).

My conclusions to the above? VOKRA’s homepage is not as effective as it should be in communicating those 2 goals, and should be looked at (hopefully this analysis will mean that I get the chance to do). Analyzing what visitors did at the site, nearly every visitor clicked on the big cat banner picture – and then nothing else. The 2nd most popular click was to the blog post about being on Ellen – and then nothing else. In fact, the links to adopt & donate did not see a similar-sized jump in clicks, whereas the blog, gallery  & about us pages all did.