NEWS AND UPDATES FROM IDEUM
In designing Websites that have a social dimension we’ve learned the importance of developing a social networking plan. While the standard methods of Web design -such as wireframes and mockups- are still part of the process, we’ve been concurrently working on plans for social interaction.
Back in 2006, when we developed the American Image site, which uses Flickr, we learned the hard way that failing to properly plan for social interaction can have negative ramifications. The American Image: The Photographs of John Collier Jr. was one of the first examples of a museum using Flickr to house a primary collection. We created a mashup that pulled the images from Flickr into the American Image site.
At the time, we were new to Flickr and failed to fully appreciate all of its workings. The critical mistake we made was a simple one: we put most images into Flickr all in the same week. (See: John Collier Jr. Photostream.) While this served the mashup well -we had a well-populated online collection and a lot of images in the shooting script educational activity- we missed out making a bigger splash in Flickr itself.
Anyone who is familiar with Flickr understands that it takes time to connect with contacts. By contributing photographs over time you’re more likely to make more friends and you have a better chance of having some of your photographs make it into some of the more visited areas of the site. For example, Leonard Gagnon’s Daughter’s knitting was a top photograph on Flickr on October 26, 2006.
If we put out 15 photographs a week for 18 months, it is likely would have had even more success in expanding our audience in Flickr. While this is just one example of a lost opportunity, it does point out some of the issues involved in creating mashup sites. We’ve used this experience to help us think more broadly about planning for sites that rely on social interaction. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Understand the Platform
Understanding the workings of any social site you might be connecting with is the key to creating a successful plan. The details are important. How do you make friends and contacts? How do groups work? How do you get “featured” on the site? Getting featured can mean huge traffic. A perfect example is the Ontario Science Centre’s Space Toilet Video, which was featured on YouTube.
How you interact on these sites can make a great deal of difference in how successful the project may become. Each type of social networking site is different; understanding a particular site’s culture and workings can make a difference to the effectiveness of your approach. For the American Image project, we connected with a number of influential Flickr groups, including: Black and White, The Maine Pool, Professional Photographers, New Mexico Photos by New Mexico Photographers, and many others. This outreach helped us find Flickr members that had shared interests.
For another Flickr-based project that we’re currently designing, we’ve already identified the groups in Flickr we intend to join and to which we intend to contribute. We’ve also looked at how we will “tag” our images to make sure that they are more easily found. In general, we are examining all aspects of our presence in Flickr. Everything from our profile, to how we’ll manage our contributions, to how we might interact with others has been outlined. We continue to honing networking plans as we work through the design mockups.
Make Time Estimates
It is easier to estimate how long it will take to build a site. than it is to estimate how long it might take to maintain it. The social aspects of these types of projects are unpredictable; we never know how many people may come by, or how they will interact. Still, we can try to estimate how long certain tasks may take. Beth Kanter, on her blog, wrote a post and created a chart on “How Much Time Does It Take To Do Social Media?” However, once you’ve decided on a platform you’ll still need to break down individual tasks to try get an accurate estimate of time.
One important consideration is: even repetitive tasks can take up a great deal of time if they are multiplied. For example, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MoCA) has a MySpace page with 11,500 friends and counting. Just the act of approving friends can take some time (think 11,500 clicks). Of course, this doesn’t even include answering email inquiries or other types of interaction with “friends.”
Having 11,500 friends in MySpace is a good problem, but it does bring up the unpredictable nature of interaction in these types of spaces. In our new Flickr project, we’ve estimated the time it will take to respond to requests and have tried to estimate how many we might expect. The difficulty here is the number of requests not the time it takes to respond. There are other wholly predictable parts of the plan, including how many photographs we intend to post, and how many groups we intend to join. Separating the predictable from the more dynamic aspects of social media is important in planning.
Planning for Problems?
It is easy to envision how visitors might abuse the system or cause problems with your presence in a networking site (after all, this may be the single most common excuse keeping museums out of social spaces). Inappropriate comments-either inaccurate ones or worse-happen, and we need to be ready for such occurrences. Still, planning for these potential negative interactions shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the process.
Also, it is important to remember that sites like YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, and others have mechanisms that help moderate their respective environments. For example, we’ve yet to see an inappropriate comment associated with photographs for the American Image project, nearly two years later. For the most part, good things happen when people interact online and planning for positive interactions and success is important as well. (How does one respond if one gets 10,000 requests for friends? MoCA got volunteers involved.)
Authenticity and Critical Mass
Pre-planning for social interaction not only prepares you (and your client) for how much time and effort might be required to maintain a presence, it can also lead to a more effective approach. In creating our new plan for engagement on Flickr, we’ve found popular and relevant groups and have identified influential online community members, who we think will have a strong interest in connecting with our project. In addition, we’re looking outside of Flickr and developing a strategy to get museum supporters to join, hopefully strengthening ties with current members of the museum.
Long term, we’re looking at creating a blog, some associated widgets, and perhaps a Facebook group focusing on the photographs in the collection. How you extend a presence from one social site or format into another might be a good topic for another post.
Making a more conscious effort to manage your presence in social networking sites means you’ll be more thorough, more thoughtful and hopefully be able to maximize opportunities to connect with others. Still, planning can only go so far. In practice, unpredictable encounters will arise, as will challenges and new opportunities. The presence has to be authentic, it can’t all be worked out ahead of time; after all we are talking about social interaction here.
Our new Flickr-based mashup, will be an interesting experiment. Unlike the American Image, this project will rely primarily on user-contributions (to a Flickr group). Obviously, our connections with others in Flickr and their photographs and stories will go a long way toward determining the success of the project.
Taking advantage of the opportunities presented is a critical issue for museums, who generally have small audiences. There is a need to try to reach a critical mass of visitors, which can lead to more meaningful interaction online. We’ll post more about this project and role planning played later next month.
This week we completed building our first multi-touch table prototype. With customized software, a 50″ diagonal surface, and a resolution of 1280 x 720 the table is designed to accommodate multiple simultaneous users. The table is comprised of a short throw projector, infrared LEDs, two infrared cameras, and projection screen which adheres to the tempered glass top. The framing material is extruded aluminum. We sourced the materials from all of the world; Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Canada, Japan, and the US.
The base software that communicates with the infrared cameras is called Snowflake and is developed by Natural User Interface, a company in Sweden. We’re developing a gesture recognition library in Flash, that will allow us to plug in support for various gestures in the exhibits that we develop.
The screen shots (above) show how the software detects the drawing of circle. The green lines represent extensions of line segments captured when the finger is moved across the table surface. The yellow points show intersection points, the final point of interest is where the circle is closed. By detecting that point we can distinguish between circles, infinity signs, and spirals using basic topology. This is just one of many gestures were exploring.
This first table prototype has led to designs for a production version that we will be installing this winter at the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Amarillo, Texas. We’ll be conducting user-testing there as we work through the design challenges that a multiple user and gesture-based interface presents. Our first application will be a mashup allowing museum visitors to explore satellite maps and photographs. A similar application is also in the works for the Vulcan Park and Museum in Birmingham, Alabama to be installed in Spring of 2009.
We’re excited about the potential that multi-touch and multi-user exhibits present. Visitors can easily collaborate and communicate around these table-top exhibits. The use of intuitive gestures can allow us, as designers, to move away from traditional graphical user interfaces and toward a set of more natural and intuitive controls.
We’ve proposed a full-day workshop on multitouch and Internet applications for the Museums and the Web 2009 Conference. I’ll write another blog post once the workshops for the conference are announced. We’ll post more updates as we continue to work on these exhibits.
Update February 4, 2009: We’ve released our multitouch table you can check out a video and get the full specifications.
Twitter continues to rise in popularity and dozens of museums now use this micro-blogging service. While we have yet to employ Twitter with one of our museum clients, there are a diverse group of museums large and small already using Twitter. Just search for “museum” on Twitter and you’ll find a number of examples (such as the Discovery Center from Springfield Missouri below). It seems likely many more museums will follow in the coming months.
Though we’ve just begun to build our own Twitter presence for Ideum and have personally been on Twitter since 2006 (www.twitter.com/jims), although I barely used the service at first. Recently, I’ve been more interested in the service, and I’ve come across a number of utilities that make Twitter much more useful and easier to integrate into other site. Here’s a round up of some of the better ones:
2. TweetLater. This site allows you to schedule posts to Twitter. You can even set up automated thank you notes to new followers.
4. Twitter on Facebook. The Facebook application for Twitter.
5. Twitt.icio.us. A simple barebones utility that lets you import links from your Twitter account into your del.icio.us account.
6. Twitter Tools. A plug-in that integrates Twitter and WordPress.
7. Twitterbar. A Firefox tool bar for posting Websites to Twitter from your browser’s address bar.
8. Tweetr. A desktop utility for Mac and Windows that let’s you update your Twitter status. You can post photos, check updates, and more. Built with Adobe Air.
9. Twitteroo. Send messages to your Twitter account from your desktop for PC.
10. Twitterpost. A Mac-based desktop Twitter tool.
Another point to remember is that your Twitter presence has an RSS feed associated with it. This allows you to add your Twitter stream to any readers or RSS enabled widgets. Finally, to learn more about Twitter and microblogging in general, you might want to take a look at TweetCrunch which is dedicated to the subject. If you know of any other useful utilities, feel free to add them to the comments.
Along with looking at Google analytics, Google crawl stats, and other server-based statistics we’ve been tracking RSS Mixer’s Alexa Ranking. The figures we see on Alexa are certainly encouraging, even at this early date. (RSS Mixer has been out there for less than a month.) Yesterday, RSS Mixer was ranked the top 23,527 site in the world on Alexa. With literally hundreds of millions of Websites out there we’re very pleased to see this.
Alexa Rankings are determined by data sent from users who have the Alexa Toolbar and “other diverse traffic data sources.” It is a somewhat imperfect from a statistical point of view–it is not as accurate as server-side statistics. Still, Alexa does provide the ability to roughly compare the popularity of various sites. There’s more about Alexa Rankings on their site.
The other statistical information we have indicates the same strong growth for RSS Mixer. Over the next few months, we’ll see if can be sustained.
The public alpha for RSS Mixer has now been up for a week. The site started out with around 18,000 feeds in the directory. These were added over the last year, since the launch of the initial prototype last summer. The count now stands at 24,000–a relatively large increase for our first week. This total number of feeds translates into nearly 3 million posts in the RSS Mixer directory.
A mention in Mashable! (RSS Mixer Makes Mashup Easier), along with a number of mentions in China (most notably Web Share 2.0) and a post in a Spanish language blog (Geeks Room) among others–helped add nearly 3,000 feeds in just 24 hours. Things have slowed down a bit since, but we are still serving up a lot of pages and supporting an ever-increasing number of widgets and feeds.
When the prototype site went live last year, we were swamped and the site was crushed by spikes in traffic. This time around the structure of the application and the database is much improved. Not only can we handle the load, the time it takes to deliver pages is vastly improved. Take a look at the chart below from Google Crawl stats. This shows how Googlebot (which indexes pages) has spidered the RSS Mixer site over the last 90 days. You’ll notice as the Alpha site replaced the prototype there is a huge spike in activity, as new pages are added to Google. Check out the bottom graph and you’ll see the download time fall off the chart!
This drop-off shows the performance improvement in RSS Mixer. Of course, if we continue to add 6,000 feeds and approximately 750,000 post every week–we’ll have to revisit our site structure in the coming months.
Tomorrow, myself and Chris Gerber, our top Flex developer will be presenting at the New Mexico Internet Professionals Association’s (NMIPA) monthly meeting. We’re going to discuss Adobe Flex and how we’ve used it in recent projects. For example, the video player on the Open Exhibits Website was created with Flex, as was the Media Player and Web widget for RSS Mixer. We even created a interactive exhibit for NASA using Adobe Flex. (It will be released in October, and we’ll add it to our portfolio, then.) If you’re local, join us. There’s more about the event at the NMIPA website.
Mashable! (the #13 ranked blog in the world, according to Technorati) has just written a very positive article about RSS Mixer. Our launch last week competed with Google’s Chrome release, so it has taken a while for the story to get out there. (The lesson here is never release anything when Google has got something new to share.)
In the article, the writer, Doriano “Paisano” Carta, goes through many of RSS Mixer’s features including; widget output, OPML support, and the Firefox Add-on. After all the work, Ideum has put into the site over the last year, it was nice to see positive comments like this one…
“It is extremely easy to mix and mashup many RSS Feeds in no time at all. The interface is well-designed and helps make the process very simple.”
There’s more at Mashable! see RSSMixer Makes Mashups Easier,
Update: You can listen to the story at Pimp My News!
If you have a Twitter account, you probably already have blog, a Facebook page, a Flickr account, a YouTube account along with other points of presence on the Web. For many of our museum clients, managing this extended presence with limited resources is a constant challenge. So anything that comes along that makes this process easier is of great interest.
This week we created a Twitter site for RSS Mixer. I wanted to find a way to help keep this Twitter site up-to-date without having to manually enter every update. I came across TwitterFeed which takes your RSS Feed and automatically posts updates to Twitter. It is simple to use and while it isn’t a replacement for manually adding updates, it certainly helps and saves you having to manually update every blog post to Twitter.
The RSS Mixer site is now available! The new alpha release has a ton of new features, a new database structure, and it is running on our own custom-built, dedicated servers. Here’s a brief description of the site from our press release…
RSS Mixer (www.rssmixer.com) is a free service that allows visitors to efficiently mix multiple Web feeds into one. The mixed feed is then viewable as a new RSS feed, Web page, and mobile (iphone) formatted page. All mixes and feeds in RSS Mixer are also available in 5 widget formats: Apple Dashboard Widget, Yahoo! Desktop Widget, Google Gadget, Vista Desktop Widget, and as an embeddable Web widget. There’s even a Media Player Web widget that plays mixed audio and video podcasts.
We have built RSS Mixer to (hopefully) handle whatever comes our way. For example, I just posted a mix containing over 400 podcast feeds from an OPML file. All the feeds were added and mixed in a just a couple of minutes. While site is still alpha and we’ll likely have to work out some issues, we’re happy to finally have it publicly available. Thanks to everyone who helped test the private preview releases earlier this year. We’ll post more updates as the site continues to develop.
Update: We suspended the RSS Mixer service in late 2008.
An article that I wrote for the July/August issue of the Association of Science-Technology Center’s Dimensions magazine is now available online. Appropriately for these economic times, the issue focuses on ways in which science centers can save money and do more with less.
The article, Nine Free or Nearly Free Ways Museums Can Take Advantage of Web 2.0 covers a variety of Web-based services and touches on some of the open source initiatives that are now available to museums. I also list a number of inspirational examples, demonstrating how science centers and other museums are using Web 2.0 technologies.