// Internet Duct Tape

How to Subscribe to RSS Feeds with Google Reader and Internet Explorer

Posted in Google Calendar and Gmail, RSS Syndication, Technology by engtech on November 08, 2007

Mastering the Google

In August I was being the dutiful son and trying to get my father hooked on RSS feeds. (It’s like the Ring — if you get someone hooked on RSS you no longer have 700 unread items in Google Reader)

I hit a snag: his browser of choice is Internet Explorer and there wasn’t a simple way to “one-click subscribe” like there is in Firefox. I couldn’t come up with a quick solution while I was there, but I did bitch about it afterwards which lead to one of my readers coming up with a solution using Google Toolbar. Thanks!

To Install

Step 1: Install Google Toolbar (if you don’t already have it)

Step 2: Install the Add to Google Reader button for the toolbar

To Use

Step 1: Click on an RSS feed link

Subscribe to feed
Click to subscribe using RSS

Step 2: Click on the RSS icon in the Google Toolbar

subscribe with Google Reader and Internet Explorer

Step 3: Choose the Subscribe with Google Reader option

one click subscribe with google reader

The only gotcha is that you have to click on the feed URL before clicking on the Add to Google Reader button. This is because the Google Toolbar Button API doesn’t support RSS feed autodiscovery (something they’ll hopefully rectify). It’s still not as simple as subscribing to a feed with Firefox, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Thanks for helping me with this Eric, this is a great example of the lazyweb in action.

For the geeks in the audience, building a custom button is quite easy. I’m going to have to give it a try some time.

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<custombuttons xmlns="http://toolbar.google.com/custombuttons/">
    <title>Add to Google Reader</title>
    <description>Add to Google Reader</description>

The Attention Age: Accelerando, Software Agents, Filters and Gatekeepers

Posted in Book Reviews, Digital Culture, RSS Syndication, Software, Technology by engtech on October 17, 2007

Last night I finished reading Accelerando by Charles Stross. Like many of the books I read these days, I heard about it from another blogger. It feels like a spiritual sequel to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, John Brunner’s the Shockwave Rider and Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. It is about information overload to the nth degree and too much change in too short of a time.accelerando charles stross

Accelerando is broken into 9 fragmented stories with decades passing in between them. This is too bad because it was the initial segment, only a few years in the future, that I found most interesting. Our protagonist is hooked up to a portable computing network of software agents that he uses to continually data mine and plug-in to a “river of news”. As he communicates with other people he spawns off parts of his “distributed brain” to research more information and get back to him.

The greatest inventions usually come from seeing the possible connection between two separate things (eg: peanut butter and chocolate). Like in the Shockwave Rider, our protagonist is successful because of his ability to gather and process information is so far beyond an average person’s. Being immersed in the information stream he sees the connections and trends that other’s can’t see.

These connections lead to so many successful ideas, that he can’t possibly execute on them himself – because the time it takes to implement them would take away from the information processing that is his true talent. He makes a career of giving away his ideas and surviving off of the reputation gain and support of his sponsors he’s made so successful. Very much like Doctorow’s concept of whuffie – reputation as currency.

The book progresses to talking about the post-human experience after digitization has reached the point that we can successfully digitally encode human personalities. Post-death society, heads in jars and living bodiless on the internet. There’s a really good bit on how the next major species will be intelligent corporations and artificial spam intelligence. But what really interested me was the initial chapters so close to the beginning 21st century: how do we use technology to deal with information overload?

(You can get a copy of Accelerando for free online – which is very useful because the copy I borrowed from the library was missing the last page – now that’s frustrating)

It’s Getting Harder to Find Information

We’re in the middle of a great revolution where anyone can become a self-publisher. But that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? Anyone can become a self-publisher. The low barrier to entry makes the competition for attention fierce. At some level we’re all on par with the lowliest spammers, trying to compete for other people’s attention. There is so much new content being created all the time at the only way old content stays in the public record is if the Great Google God returns it in a search result.

This is only going to get worse because Google has created a new caste of blogging serfdom. People create content and splash Google ads on it with the hope of that it will do well in Google search results so they can get paid.

There’s many a “business model” that relies completely on Google-Google Search for traffic and Google AdSense for revenue. And there’s an even larger amount of so-called business models that rely almost completely on Google for traffic, even if the money comes in via other means.

I think you know what happens to the money when the traffic stops.

I use the term “business model” above loosely, because a model that is entirely dependent on an outside company, for either traffic or revenue or both, is not really sound. You’re not in charge and you have very little control, because if Google decides to change the rules, you’re out of luck. Based on that, I would argue that relying on Google is not a business at all.

I’d say you work for Google.

From the Teaching Sells e-book

Where are the Smart Filtering Agents?

One of the things I remember clearly about the idea of intelligent agents in the early 90s was how it was going to revolutionize how we consume information. Instead of having to *gasp* pick up a newspaper, autonomous software agents would search the net finding tidbits of information what we were interested in and adapting and learning from how we interact with the results. Sci-fi books like John Varley’s Steel Beach dealt with the relationships between humans and these evolving artificial intelligences.

Take a moment to glance at the Wikipedia page on software agents; it’s quite good.

The 90s hope for intelligent agents has congealed. RSS has gotten us part of the way; now we can pick voices out of the chaos that we allow to push information to us. We can subscribe to alerts on search subjects that interest us. But aside from custom recommendation engines like Netflix and Last.FM there isn’t really a bot out there for finding information for us.

The Future: RSS Filtering

I see the fledgling baby steps of software agents delivering news. There are several sites competing for being able to filter through a list of RSS feeds and recommend the best news items to you.

There’s also the “build your own” filtering agent approach.

And let’s not forget the ability to monitor search terms.

One of the more enlightened concepts I’ve come across is FaveBot that wants to bring you the custom information you want about your favorite actors, authors and musicians.

Is the Answer Better Gatekeepers?

Is having an intelligent software agent the right approach or is it better to let humans do the filtering? The past year has seen an incredible rising in using crowdsourcing to decide what is the best information available. This is how digg, reddit, stumbleupon and the delicious popular page find interesting information by using the wisdom of mobs. Unfortunately when the user-base grows too large it becomes watered down to only common denominators.

The other approach is to find human editors to act as your gatekeeper. I’m not talking about hiring your man in Mumbai, but rather niche news sites like Slashdot, BoingBoing and Fark, and to a greater extent using the network of blogs you enjoy to act as your information gate keepers.

The last.FM music service is an amazing tool for finding new music to listen to. What makes it even stronger is its ability to find your “neighbours” – people you don’t know who have similar musical tastes. Listening to your neighbourhood radio is like having a friend who’s a DJ and always pushing new and interesting songs at you.

last.fm music neighbourhood

I don’t know any of these people, but I like their musical tastes.

Maybe instead of software agents we need software that connects us to other people who have similar interests? I read LifeHacker because I know the editors have very similar sensibilities to what I find interesting. Jon Udell shares my same love for information organization and manipulation. Jeff Atwood has perhaps one of the most engaging blogs for general geekery and love of programming, and his twitterstream is always full of interesting links.

The only downside to filtering information is that restricting your input to the people you already agree with creates a reinforcing feedback loop and destroys your patience and your ability to be around people with differing outlooks.

Related Posts

Distraction Free GTD: 32 Todo List Web Applications

Web Browser Tips & Tricks

The fine folks at LifeHacker have forced me to tip my hand with their post on using Web Runner as a distraction free browser. Web Runner is a tiny site-specific web application that runs using less resources than Firefox or Internet Explorer.

The whole idea behind a site specific web browser is that you want to access a web application without being tempted to access other sites. You want to access a site without being distracted by the rest of the Internet. A good example is an online todo list or GTD application. You want to be able to quickly access your todo list to add or checkoff items without getting caught in an Internet black-hole.

internet is a big distraction

(via Coding Horror)

To make things easier for everyone I’ve created a huge bundle of Web Runner web applications centered around accessing ToDo/GTD web sites. This is a list of the supported sites.

Want more sites added? Leave a comment.

Step #1: Install Web Runner

  1. Go to this page on the Mozilla Wiki
  2. Choose the Windows, Linux, or Mac installer
  3. Run the installer

Step #2: Download My “Distraction Free GTD” Web Bundle

  1. Download this zip file (Update 2007/10/10)
  2. Unzip the contents to a folder
  3. Click on a .webapp file to launch the web application you want

Every web app has hotkey history navigation (ALT+LEFT, ALT+RIGHT and ALT+HOME).

Leave a comment if you have any problems.

Blog Tip: Create a Link Post in 3 Seconds

Posted in Becoming a Better Blogger, Delicious, Technology, Yahoo Pipes by engtech on October 03, 2007

Bloggin Tips and Tricks

This is the successor to my post on how to build a weekly digest in 3 seconds.

One question I’m frequently asked is “how do you build those Best of Feeds weekly links?” The way I do it is pretty complicated, but I’ve found a much simpler solution that I want to share with you all. Building a list of links is something every blogger does at one time or another, and it doesn’t have to be hard.

Why Create a Link Post?

Link posts are great ways to share and acknowledge interesting links. Linking to other blogs is what makes the blogosphere tick. If you don’t routinely read and link to other bloggers then your using your blog as a one-way soapbox instead of as a medium for sparking communication and building relationships.

Link posts can be used for a variety of reasons:

  • Weekly Round-up
  • List of resources about a subject
  • List of group writing participants
  • List of contest participants

Here are some more tips from the experts on why create a link post

Step #1: Use Delicious to Save Links

I’m a delicious power user and it’s my favourite site for bookmarking interesting links. It integrates nicely with whatever web browser you are using.

This video explains how to use Delicious to bookmark sites

Delicious already comes with a way of posting a daily link report, but I don’t like it because I feel like I’m spamming my regular readers if my blog is filled with “links for 2007-10-02” instead of stuff I wrote myself. I much prefer posting once a week, or having full control over when I post my list of links.

But the delicious tagging system is so useful for building a list of links around a specific subject, and for attaching short descriptions around each link. For instance, I used the ‘project3’ tag when I was picking out my favorite posts from the Project 3 group writing project on Daily Blog Tips.

Delicious also integrates nicely into your web browser, no matter what it might be.

Step #2: Use Delicious Link Builder

I’ve created a Yahoo Pipe that builds a list of your del.icio.us links that you can cut-and-paste into a blog post.

  1. Put in your delicious username
  2. Optional: Filter your links by a tag
  3. Optional: Filter your links by date
  4. Optional: Limit the number of links (maximum is 31, this is a limit from del.icio.us)
  5. Click ‘Run Pipe
  6. Cut-and-paste the results into a blog post using your WYSIWYG editor

Delicious Link Builder

The Results

This is an example of a list from my delicious saved bookmarks.

That’s all there is to it. Bookmark web pages with delicious, then go into Delicious Link Builder when you want to make a list of them.

You can start by bookmarking this post. :)

Advanced Users – Pretty Cut-n-Paste

I use a Greasemonkey script in Firefox to make the output of Yahoo Pipes a little bit nicer.

  1. How to Install Greasemonkey
  2. How to Install a Greasemonkey Script
  3. Install Yahoo Pipe Cleaner

Advanced Users – Clone Your Own Pipe

If you’re logged into Yahoo then you’ll have the option to ‘clone’ my Pipe (Delicious Links Builder). This means you have your own copy of it and you can change the default values for the fields to whatever you want, eg: always default to your username, and to 7 days worth of links.

Advanced Users – StumbleUpon

If you’re using delicious to save bookmarks, you can also use another handy Greasemonkey script I created that lets you save web pages to StumbleUpon at the same time you’re saving them to Delicious.

Related Links

There’s Plenty More

See the full list of free software I have created.

You can get frequent updates about all of my new software, tools or blog themes by subscribing to IDT Labs by RSS or by email. Or you could just subscribe to my main blog, Internet Duct Tape.

Subscribe to feed

This post was written as part of the Geeks Are Sexy Ultimate “How-To” contest.

Blog Tip: Creating a Blog Maintenance Start Page with Netvibes

Posted in RSS Syndication, Technology, Technorati, Twitter, WordPress.com Tips by engtech on September 25, 2007

Bloggin Tips and Tricks

In Blogger GTD, Leo mentioned that it was a good idea to have one inbox for all your blogging related notifications. I hate cluttering in my inbox, but I do agree that it makes sense to have a single point of reference rather to spend 5 minutes checking some information in one place and then spend 5 minutes checking information in another place. As Skelliewag says, those 5 minutes add up over the course of a day and by the end of it you’ve wasted an hour.

Directing everything to my inbox would never work for me, but it is possible to have a single start page for all your blog maintenance activities using Netvibes. If you aren’t familiar with Netvibes it is a combination of an RSS feed aggregator and a widget platform. It is analogous to iGoogle (but works better). In simple terms Netvibes lets you put lots of information in one place and look at information from several web pages on a single page.

blog maintenance netvibes start page

If you’ve never tried it out before then please visit http://netvibes.com — they let you play around with a default page even if you don’t have an account.

This is what I put on my blog maintenance start page. Replace internetducttape.com or engtech.wordpress.com with your blog URL.

Column 1: Comment Administration and Social Site Monitoring

blog maintenance netvibes comment monitoring

The first column is for things that I want to respond quickly to — comments and checking to see if my site is submitted to Digg or Reddit.

Box #1: Comments RSS feed: http://internetducttape.com/comments/feed

Or you could use my WordPress Comment Extractor / WordPress Trackback Extractor to get only the comments or only the trackbacks.

Box #2: Shortcuts to WordPress administration activities using the Netvibes Bookmarks widget.

Bookmarks: http://www.netvibes.com/subscribe.php?module=Bookmarks

I add the following bookmarks:

Box #3: Social Site Submission Watchdog is a custom Yahoo Pipe I created.

Click on this link then

  • change your blog URL
  • click on Run Pipe
  • copy the RSS link to Netvibes

Column 2: Blog Stats

blog maintenance netvibes check blog stats

It’s a bad idea to check your blog stats multiple times a day, but is it so bad if you’re also checking blog comments, emails and instant messages at the same time?

Box #1: This will only work for WordPress.com bloggers, which is too bad because it’s a great way to check stats at a glance.

WordPress.com Mobile Widget: http://gamespotting.net/wordpressnetvibes.html

Box #2: Technorati Rank from RSS. Another custom Yahoo Pipe. This one is a little more complicated to install because you’ll need your Technorati API key.

Click on this link then

  • change your blog URL
  • find your Technorati API key and cut-and-paste it
  • click on Run Pipe
  • copy the RSS link to Netvibes

Box #3: Filtered Blog Reactions from Technorati. This is another custom Yahoo Pipe. It shows the blog URL as the title and links to the front page instead of directly to the post.

Click on this link then

  • change your blog URL
  • click on Run Pipe
  • copy the RSS link to Netvibes

You could use this RSS feed instead: http://feeds.technorati.com/search/internetducttape.com

Column 3: Direct Communication

netvibes blog maintenance communication twitter

I use the second tab as a way to keep a quick check on how I stay in contact with other bloggers — through Gmail and Twitter.

Box #1: Gmail: http://www.netvibes.com/subscribe.php?module=Gmail

I use a dedicated Gmail account for blogging — I don’t receive any personal or work related email with that account.

Box #2: Twitter Replies RSS feed: http://twitter.com/statuses/replies.rss

This shows some of the power of Netvibes — you can view password protected RSS feeds.

Box #3: Twitter: http://www.netvibes.com/subscribe.php?module=Twitter

Create Your Own Blog Maintenance Start Page

This gives you a few ideas of how I use the service, but the possibilities are endless.

For instance there is a Facebook widget: http://www.netvibes.com/subscribe.php?module=Facebook

Not to mention several widgets that let you directly embed a web page. Using those generic modules you can embed Google Reader into Netvibes and other crazy stuff like that.

What are you going to put on your blog maintenance start page?

9 Techniques to Promoting Your Social Web Application

Posted in Software, Startups and Business, Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on September 21, 2007

Social Software and You

This is a continuation from The Problem with Social Web Applications.

“web applications are created as social software where you have a friends list, collaborate on a document with multiple people and it is easily to share information and communicate. The downside is these networks consume a lot of attention and too much time is wasted building profiles and adding friends – for some of these sites building a profile and adding friends is the only utility they have.”

Putting the inherent problems of social web apps aside, how do you build a web app that has traction, gain users and hopefully explodes virally? I’ve been paying attention to this space for far too long and this is a round-up of the tricks and techniques successful and not-so-successful social web applications use to promote themselves.

I’m completely excluding any technique that relies on spending money. It’s a given that you can buy traffic and attention through various mean. Instead, I’m focusing on the self-powered techniques companies can use to build organic buzz and word of mouth advertising around their web application.

Technique #1: Beta Invitations

The easiest way to generate buzz for your social web app is to create an artificial scarcity for applications. You can email invitations to people every day and they won’t give you a second glance, but if invitations are hard to come by then the invitation becomes a valuable commodity instead of easily ignored spam. Gray market economies grow around beta invitation trading, even if the accounts themselves are seldom used.

Beta invite success stories: Gmail, Joost, Pownce

Gotcha: “Blog Friendly” Beta Invitations

The gray market beta invitation economy that you want to generate buzz is built off of the back of bloggers. Invitations are an easy way for bloggers to provide value (or the illusion of value) to their readers at no cost other than time. How bloggers feel about your beta invite campaign, and your application, will come from how easy you make it for them to send out invitations.

Medium lets me invite people by posting a URL on my blog. All of my readers who click on that URL can get into the Medium beta and are added as ‘friends’ with no effort on my part. Compare this to Joost invitations require a cut-and-paste of every email address into a desktop application. Sending a single Joost invitation will take me at least a few minutes because I have to load a desktop application. It could potentially take much longer if the desktop application needs to be updated.

Gotcha: Scarcity of Beta Invitations

One way sites screw up is by giving away too many beta invitations up front. If you are using manipulation to create buzz around your product then you need to create artificial value by implying that the people who have access to your service are more privileged. If anyone and their lolcat can get in then how do you create the false sense of hype that comes from people talking about a product you don’t have access to? It’s like the false economy around diamonds.

Technique #2: Social Engineering Trickery

A social engineering technique that works very well for getting people to accept their user account is to say “your friend created a profile for you!” It’s cheesy but it gets the invited user to sign-up. The easiest way to engage someone’s curiosity is to make it about them. People are always interested in themselves, and in what other people may have said about them.

Examples: Spock and Yahoo Mash

Technique #3: The Video Demo

A very effective technique for creating interest in your product before the doors are wide open is creating a video to promote the service and show how people can use it. The iScrybe calendar is a great example of a video that went viral and created a lot of buzz around a product that still hasn’t materialized (disclaimer: I’m a beta tester).

CommonCraft has created a business behind making videos that explain product in simple no-frill terms that somehow work better and remain more interesting than the flashiest demos.

Gotcha: Leaking Features to Early

The only problem with giving a video demo of a product doesn’t exist is you give your competitors that much more time to copy your features. By the time you release you’re competitive advantage might no longer exist.

Technique #4: The Press Release

I’ll let this video CommonCraft developed for PRWeb discuss the value of press release kits for generating buzz.

Gotcha: Spamming Bloggers with Press Releases

As a blogger, one of the dangerous of having your email address on your About Me page is the number of press releases you receive. I’ll reluctantly admit that I do occasionally write a blog post about a service that catches my eye. However, the method of contact has also made me ignore sites like CrossLoop.com that I later realized was very awesome and solves a problem I often have about how to fix someone else’s computer remotely. Why is your application different than any other of the many emails I have received?

Technique #5: The Address Book Import

Always make it as easy as possible for people to invite their friends to use your social web app. The email address book is the only existing workaround to the “social graph problem.” Make it as easy as possible for users to invite or connect with their friends using address book import and supporting the major webmail sites (Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail) as well as instructions on how to upload from Outlook or Outlook Express. Plaxo even offers a free javascript widget so ANY social website can offer address book import with little effort.

Gotcha: Giving Out Your Email Password

Jeff very correctly points out that giving out your email password is ridiculously stupid, since a malicious site can hijack your login information for any website and potentially gain access to your credit card or banking information depending if you use the same email address for everything. There has also been more than one case of startups sending emails to your contacts without your permission (see SixDegrees.com, Quechup and RapLeaf).

Gotcha: Address Book Import with Custom Invite

If you are going to brave the address book import (admittedly I do it often) then it is imperative that the invite sender can customize the message to the invitees. Thanks to the wonder of “automatically add anyone you’ve ever had an email conversation with to your address book” technology, if you do full address book spamming you might be contacting people who have a very loose connection to you. LinkedIn does it right by giving the sender several precanned invitation messages that can be customized at will. Another technique is to limit the number of invitations someone can send at once to prevent spamming.

I had a shock this weekend when I sent Yahoo Mash invitations out and my custom email invitation was never sent — instead they were given that spammy ‘engtech created a profile’ message. I went to the trouble to explain why I was sending the invite, what Yahoo Mash was about, and linked to a TechCrunch article about the service. This is what they saw instead:

Success stories: LinkedIn, Plaxo

Failures: Yahoo Mash, Quechup, RapLeaf, sms.ac…

Don't send out stupid invitations like this one

Technique #6: Leverage Existing Success

In all aspects of life success can breed success. Would Paris Hilton have been in the limelight if she wasn’t the heiress to a ridiculous fortune? When larger companies launch a new web application they need to leverage the success of their existing sites. A common complaint when Google or Yahoo launches something new is that it doesn’t integrate well with their existing portfolio of web applications. Use the success and lessons learned from existing applications to slingshot your new web application into stardom. This is much easier to do when it is the same small team developing the application.

Success stories: 37signals

Technique #7: Corporate Superstar

One of the easiest ways to get buzz about your web app is to hire someone who is well known in the industry. This can be a detrimental factor because their involvement can overshadow the product itself or bring too much attention to a product before it has had a chance to mature. However, I think there is always more of a positive factor because it is easier to improve a product than it is to build the kind of buzz these people bring to anything they are involved with.

Examples: Jason Calcanis, Guy Kawasaki, Kevin Rose, Marc Andreessen, Joel Spolsky, Aaron Swartz

Technique #8: Send Out the Bacn

Social sites try to keep you interested by sending ‘tickler’ emails whenever any little action happens related to your account on their site. These emails are functionally useless, but they drive you back to the site. It’s not spam, it’s bacn — useless emails from a website that you’ve given permission to contact you. It’s the worst form of permission marketing and smart sites will set a sane default where they only contact the person once a day at the very most. Stupid sites will quickly see their emails detected as spam since clicking the ‘Report Spam’ button is often much easier than creating an email filter or finding out how to unsubscribe or change notifications.

Very few sites get that if you’re going to email someone that they have a message, you might as well include the message with the email. Even fewer sites understand that people should be able to respond to the message directly from email. Improving the customer experience always trumps increasing page views or any other metric.

Sites that get it: Twitter, StumbleUpon

Sites that don’t get it: Facebook, Yahoo Mash

yahoo mash bacn spam

Technique: Don’t Require an Account to Try It

(update because I forgot it the first time around)

One of the absolutely best ways to promote your app is to let people use it without requiring an account to sign in. OpenID hopes to provide a universal account that you can use anywhere, but other sites like Geni and JottIt bring you directly to the application and only prompt you to create a user account when you want to store your information.

Technique #9: Solve a Problem

The easiest way to build buzz around your web app is to solve a real problem. Many “web 2.0” sites are repeating what has been available in desktop software for decades. For the ones that do something original, it often serves no real purpose. Messaging friends? I have email and instant messenger programs. Writing documents, spreadsheets, calendars? I have office suite applications. Translating desktop software gives decreased performance with the ability to easily collaborate and access documents from any location that has Internet access.

There are very few web applications that solve a problem that desktop software never did well. They add real value to a user’s life in a way that is new and innovative. Desktop software never handled music discovery (last.fm) or photo sharing (flickr and now Facebook) as well as their web counterparts. Too many web applications are social for no reason or offer solutions without a problem to solve. As my blog friend Steven says:

Adding value to one’s personal pool of knowledge or giving to another’s doesn’t depend on vast numbers of useless contacts. Value comes from one to one communication and then following whatever paths that come from that conversation.

Bonus: The Yahoo Mash Report Card

Last weekend I had a chance to check out Yahoo’s “we were too cheap to buy Facebook, let’s get that egg off of our face” entry into the social platform war with Yahoo Mash. The experience inspired this post. How did Yahoo Mash rate?

+1 point for creating approximately 2 hours of ‘I want a beta invite!’ buzz
+2 points for convincing me that Mash invites had some value and I could earn some social capital by sending invites to everyone on my address book
-10 points for refusing to send my handcrafted invitation that explained what Mash is and why I was sending out invitations
-20 points for sending that ‘engtech created a profile for you!’ spam instead of my custom invitation
-3 points for being ugly
-2 points for not having any utility beyond creating a profile
+2 points for the ability to edit other people’s profiles — something different
-4 points for not leveraging all the other Yahoo services I use
+5 points for introducing me to Yahoo Avatars — much cooler than Mash

my yahoo mash avatar

Links You Can Use

The Problem With Social Web Applications

Posted in Startups and Business, Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on September 18, 2007

Social Software and You

This is an exciting time because unlike traditional software that runs on your computer [1], web applications are created as social software where you have a friends list, collaborate on a document with multiple people and it is easily to share information and communicate. The downside is these networks consume a lot of attention and too much time is wasted building profiles and adding friends — for some of these sites building a profile and adding friends is the only utility they have.

Brad Fitzpatrick touches on this with his social graph problem — we need a way of moving our social network around with us as exportable and importable data. Read/Write Web has an overview of the issues behind the social graph problem. Companies like Facebook and MySpace capitalize on the network effect — the more of your friends who utilize the site, the more useful the site is to you — while Plaxo is one of the companies who are targeting the problem of creating a portable social network you can use on any web site.

There are two fundamental problems with using social web apps. The first is the lack of a unique identifier on the web — you know who you are but there is no way for two websites to know that you are the same person. Email addresses are one way to solve this problem. OpenID is another way to solve the problem of identity on the Internet, but it is fraught with it’s own issues such as too many providers / not enough consumers, who owns your OpenID and how trivial it is for someone to steal your OpenID authentication through phishing. OpenID is better than captcha for leaving web comments, but I wouldn’t trust it with my credit card information.

The second problem with social web apps is social network fatigue. The average person has the time to actively use 2 to 5 social web sites and become part of a community on them. No one has the time to be part of more sites than that, and we get burn out from having to create accounts and add friends on sites after site. This is called social network fatigue and has spawned spoofs like BugrOff and Social Networking Rehab, as well as applications like Delicious Stumbles and Social Poster to make it easier to maintain profiles on multiple sites.

If you’re a new social software company then it’s hard to attract users because of all the incumbent sites who already have their attention; if you’re an old social software then it’s hard to keep users because so much of the initial addiction comes from adding friends. (Not that they’re really your friends, but you know what I mean)

Tomorrow I’ll explain the techniques used to promote a social web applications [2].

[1] Of course, having a dedicated application on your computer is usually a million times more efficient than running an application in a web browser.

[2] aka Why Yahoo Mash Sucks

Related Posts

Delicious Stumbles – Post to Delicious and StumbleUpon at the same time

Social Bookmarking and Social Voting

Delicious and StumbleUpon are two different social networks that let you save websites you like. Delicious Stumbles is a time saving tool for the Firefox web browser that will let you update your StumbleUpon account easily when you bookmark pages on delicious.

This video explains social bookmarking using delicious.

Yesterday Muhammad Saleem announced the Social Media extension for Firefox that lets you quickly browse how a site is saved between delicious/digg/reddit/stumbleupon. I’ve been hitting the same problem from another angle — how to quickly submit from one social bookmarking site to another.

I’m a hardcore delicious user. I use it to save everything. That’s how I build those “Best of Feeds” posts on Saturday. One problem with being a hardcore delicious user is that it means I’m not as active on other social networking sites. If I like something I save it to delicious and then get back to whatever I was doing.

I find delicious to be the quickest site for tagging and the easiest site for searching through pages I’ve bookmarked before. The problem is that I also wanted to submit my saved sites to StumbleUpon. As a blogger, StumbleUpon is a great source of traffic — not to mention a great way to find interesting sites to share and find people who have similar interests. Dosh Dosh has a great post on why StumbleUpon isn’t just a source of traffic — it’s a great tool for anyone. By crossposting the sites I find interesting to StumbleUpon as well as delicious I improve StumbleUpon’s ability to find pages I like.

Delicious Stumbles

With Delicious Stumbles I get all of the super-useful features I like about delicious (speed, recommended tags) but I also teach StumbleUpon more about what I like without having to spend all that time cutting-and-pasting between two accounts.

  • Submit a page you’ve saved to delicious to StumbleUpon using the same URL, title, tags and description
  • Use delicious’ super-quick tagging features instead of StumbleUpon’s really slow tagging
  • Stumble any of your existing bookmarks
  • Stumble a page while you’re saving it to delicious

How to Install

Delicious Stumbles works best with the “old” Delicious extension.

Show Me How It Works

Save a page how you normally would on delicious. But before you click Save, click on the Submit to Stumbleupon link.

delicious stumbles submit to stumbleupon from within the delicious extension

This will open up a new tab to submit on StumbleUpon with all of the information already prefilled.

delcious stumbles stumbleupon submission

You can even go back to any pages you have saved before on delicious and quickly stumble them.

delicious stumbles submit to stumbleupon from within the delicious extension

What Are You Waiting For?

If you use both delicious and StumbleUpon then this script can save you at least a minute every time you submit a site. How many sites do you submit a week? Install it now.

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Do You Make These Mistakes with Wikis? 9 Ways To Build a Wiki That Doesn’t Suck

Posted in Technology, Wikipedia, Writing Better Documentation by engtech on September 12, 2007

Wikipedia and Wikis

There’s something about the hint of fall in the air that has always appealed to me. It’s my favorite time of the year, and as the seasons change I find the motivation to apply change to my own life. Last month I had the epiphany that I’ve been far too busy and I need to get a handle on the way I spend my time. The Internet is buzzing about using David Allen’s Getting to Done system to be more productive. There are a hundred and one different software tools you can use with the system; for the past week I’ve been using a personal wiki software called d-cubed/d3 gtd to do it.

Astute readers may guess from the title that there’s a rant coming up, and I want to prefix to say that I have nothing against d-cubed/d3 gtd. It’s good software. I respect Tom, the guy who built it, and appreciate what he’s done and how he’s been available for help. I’m still using and enjoying d-cubed/d3 gtd. No, my beef is with the entire foundation behind d3: that dark Hawaiian voodoo called wiki.

What Is a Wiki?

“Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any Web browser. Wiki supports hyperlinks and has a simple text syntax for creating new pages and crosslinks between internal pages on the fly.

Wiki is unusual among group communication mechanisms in that it allows the organization of contributions to be edited in addition to the content itself.

Like many simple concepts, “open editing” has some profound and subtle effects on Wiki usage. Allowing everyday users to create and edit any page in a Web site is exciting in that it encourages democratic use of the Web and promotes content composition by nontechnical users.” — Ward Cunningham, creator of Wikis

The first time I saw a wiki was in 1996 and I remember being struck by two distinct thoughts: “wow, that’s ugly” and “why would I want to let people edit what I write?” Fast forward eleven years later and one of the most popular sites on the Internet is Wikipedia, a publicly editable encyclopedia. My uncanny ability to predict what’s going to become widely popular explains why my stock portfolio is doing to badly (damn you, Microsoft Zune).

This video from CommonCraft does a very good job of explaining what Wikis are good for. The wonderful thing about wikis is that wikis are wonderful let you quickly edit a web page and let more than one person collaborate on a document.

You might recognize that video from a post I wrote on LorelleOnWordPress that includes other videos that explain RSS, Social Networks, and Social Bookmarking. How Stuff Works gives even more information about how wikis work and what they are good for.

Wikis in Practice

The two strongest features of a wiki is that 1) anyone can edit a page and 2) it is quick to do an edit. Put those together and the power of a wiki is that they make it trivial to correct mistakes in the current document you are viewing. Wikipedia shows the power of collaborative editing — what is hidden is the massive effort and time sink that people put into it.

“With enough eyes all bugs are shallow.” But any programmer can tell you that a project with poor communication between different contributors always turns into SNAFU. There is great benefit to having many people improving a document through collaborative editing, but not if they aren’t all heading towards the same final result.

Photo by gadl

Small Scale Wiki Personal or a small group of people Works well
Medium Scale Wiki 10s of people Can grow out of control if there isn’t a clear vision and people don’t own things
Large Scale Wiki 100s or 1000s of people Usually a public wiki where some contributors are actively acting against the best interests of the wiki
Massive Scale Wiki 10000s of people Works well because there are enough contributors to handle the massive amount of work involved

I’m not an expert on wikis by any means, but I have used PBWiki, TWiki, TiddlyWiki and Wikipedia before. I’ve used wikis in multiple contexts from personal information storing, to corporate intranet backbone to internet social software. Wikis seem to work best on the small scale and massive scale. It’s in the middle with a medium/large number of collaborators information gets confusing. Like some plants, wikis tend to grow the same way no matter who is building them. Wikis grow wide and shallow, not narrow and deep. This makes them perfect for something like a dictionary or encyclopedia, but not as good for document tracking on an Intranet. Wikis favour a large number of pages at the same level instead of a tree hierarchy.

Creating a wiki is a grassroots process.

How Wikis Should Be Organized

  • Administration
    • Forms
    • Time Tracking
    • Vacations
  • Engineering
    • Project1
      • Design
        • Product Spec
      • Verification
        • Verification Spec
        • Verification Environment
        • Verification Plan
        • Regression Results
      • Validation
    • Project2
  • Manufacturing

What Wikis Really Grow Into

  • Administration
    • Forms
    • Time Tracking
    • Vacations
    • Phone Numbers
    • Board Room Booking
  • Engineering
    • Project1
    • Design
      • Product Spec
    • Verification
      • Verification Spec
      • Verification Environment
      • Verification Plan
      • Verification Review Minutes
      • Action Items from Friday’s Review
      • How to Run a Test
      • Lab Tracking
      • Regression Results
      • Validation
    • Project2
  • Manufacturing

Wikis tend to spread out wide rather than have a strict hierarchy — and this can make it very hard to find what you’re looking for.

“Wikis are great for ad-hoc arrangement and re-arrangement of data, but they don’t respect existing data. And with 2-million-plus documents in dozens of formats sitting in our document management system, we need to respect existing data. Wikis will be useful to the extent they enable us to re-use, remix, reorganize, review, and extend those documents. What is needed is a wiki that is created, edited, and saved in Word.”

Why Do Wikis Suck?

If you aren’t familiar with wiki software (and you’re still reading?!) you should skip this section. I’m not talking about a specific wiki implementation, but general wikisms I’ve noticed in the various wiki software I’ve tried. If your WikiFlavour doesn’t have these problems then give yourself a pat on the back because you dodged a bullet.

The inventor of WikiWords should be shot

  • I understand that the core of wikis is that they can be quickly edited but creating links haphazardly is the primary reason why wikis grow like weeds instead of carefully tended gardens.
  • Having non-standard capitalization (CamelCase) automatically links to another page on the Wiki is only useful approximately 10% of the time.
  • The other 90% of the time you have to go back and re-edit a page to remove unintentional WikiWord links.
  • It promotes writing everything in lowercase to avoid the unintentional creation of WikiWords.
    CamelCase is the dumbest linking structure ever invented. Even the Wiki page on Wikipedia agrees with me:

    “Originally, most wikis used CamelCase when naming program identifiers. These are produced by capitalizing words in a phrase and removing the spaces between them (the word “CamelCase” is itself an example). While CamelCase makes linking very easy, it also leads to links which are written in a form that deviates from the standard spelling. … There is no easy way to determine which capital letters should remain capitalized. As a result, many wikis now have “free linking” using brackets, and some disable CamelCase by default.”

Wiki syntax reinvents the wheel

  • Wiki software uses its own syntax for formatting text in an effort to be more human readable than HTML.
  • Wiki syntax succeeds in being more concise than HTML, but more often than this means your normal punctuation or capitalization is being misinterpreted as wiki syntax.
  • Non-standard — different Wiki software uses different syntax.
  • Is learning wiki syntax really easier than HTML? <b>bold</b> is easier to remember than ”bold”.
  • WYSIWYG HTML editors are a solved problem thanks to software like TinyMCE — using wiki syntax is much more complicated then learning a WYSIWYG editor that essentially works like every other wordprocessing software you’ve ever used.
  • If I don’t like having to learn a non-standard formatting syntax when switch between 3-5 different programming languages on a weekly basis, then how do normal people feel about it?

Wikis create an information sink-hole

  • It is hard to import information into a wiki from other sources.
  • It is hard to export information out of wikis (eg: RSS feeds).
  • Wiki data remains stationary, when users want filtered data moving at them via email or RSS.
  • Where’s the API? Wikis are intended to make it “easier for humans to edit” documents, but corporate wikis can benefit from automation like updating a report or a log on the wiki instead of sending updates by email. Wikis need an API so that it is easy to create scripts to add or edit pages on a Wiki.

Large scale wikis become chaotic and disorganized

  • Multiple collaboration means no one owns anything — organization comes from someone having a vested interest to organize and maintain.
  • Information is hard to navigate consistently because there is no unifying vision to the structure.
  • Large scale wikis turn into a flat hierarchy of documents with no hierarchy.

Having multiple editors *requires* tracking changes

  • With multiple editors on a document, version control and discussion of changes become essential requirements.
  • All changes should be saved and easily backed out of.
  • Need the ability to protect pages (lock) from edits.

Wikis and Search

  • Using WikiWords as titles makes it near impossible to build a decent search system. Wikis usually generate overly concise URLs or incomprehensible URLs with no meaning.
    • Always have to click on search results to see what the document really is because the title isn’t descriptive enough.
    • The default search results are usually “what search found first” with no attempt to sort by relevance.
    • If I’ve learned anything from GMail it’s the power of search+tags. So the problem with finding information in a Wiki is really a problem with search.
  • Search isn’t as big a problem with publicly accessible wikis because you can use Google. It is a much bigger problem with personal/intranet wikis. Data goes into the wiki but good luck EVER finding it again.
  • The ability to “Jump” to a specific WikiWord is
    • usually misinterpreted as a search form
    • encourages the use of short WikiWords that makes a large scale wiki more of a mess
    • is sometimes case sensitive which adds much more complexity than entering search terms for a specific document


  • Many wikis offer plugins for adding additional functionality.
  • Adding plugins creates another layer of complexity and potential conflicts with upgrading the core software.
  • Developing custom plugins can be a huge time sink — it’s nice to have the ability to do so, but it should be a last resort.
  • Dependence on plugins can create chicken-and-egg scenarios that complicate upgrading the wiki software.

Plugins that greatly improve the wiki software’s functionality should always *become* core functionality. This is a classic problem with all software that supports plugins — at some point they need to be packaged together into a distribution so that the majority of users can appreciate them instead of living in the dark age.

Building Wiki Software That Doesn’t Suck

You know what a wiki is, you know why wikis end up sucking, and if you’re still reading this far then you’ve probably used a wiki yourself. Some wiki software gets it right, but unfortunately the core distributions of many WikiFlavours are still missing some of these essential features. This is a list of what I think *every* wiki software should do to improve the WikiExperience for everyone.

1. Make It Simple to Edit, Not Just Quick to Edit

1.1 Disable WikiWords and CamelCase

Users have to create links by hand instead of unintentionally creating links because of capitalization. It will lead to meaningful document titles with headings longer than JimsListOfBugs.

1.2 WYSIWYG text editor

Let Ctrl-B bold the selected text! Contributors should not have to write in all lowercase with no punctuation in constant fear of accidentally embedding wiki syntax.

2. Help Me Find What I’m Looking For

2.1 Indexed search that orders by relevance

I’ve mentioned before that wikis need to build meaningful URLs that are human readable. They also should be able to rank pages based on what links to it, and to do something smart like click tracking where if I always click on result #6 when I search for product plan then MAYBE it should be one of the first results.

2.2 Navigation clues

Wikis need to support effective navigation with good titles, breadcrumbs, and easily created tables of contents. When I’m looking at a page I should be able to easily the parent hierarchy and child pages, as well as neighbouring pages.

3. Never Lose Data

3.1 Store and track changes

Wikis need version control for every change and easy rollback for all edits. Users need to have notification, watchlists, and easy changelogs. This is mostly a solved problem to various degrees, but it’s still surprising that some personal wiki software doesn’t support this.

3.2 Refactoring

I’ve said that wikis grow like weeds and that need a gardener to prune them. Refactoring and reorganizing pages needs to be simple to do and well supported. Information should be easy to move and automatically leave a forwarding address behind.

3.3 Discussions

Each page on the wiki needs to have a behind the scenes discussion page where direction can be agreed on, differences can be debated and issues can be captured in a message board / forum format.

4. Getting Data In and Out

4.1 Document management

People are going to want to attach all kinds of documents to wikis: from office documents like pdf, doc and xls, to traditional media files like images and video. These attachments should be treated the same as wiki pages when it comes to search and version control.

4.2 Wikis need APIs for in/out

One of the things people often complain about is importing/exporting data from a wiki. They’re meant to be easily human editable, but for some reason they overlook that you likely have a existing information in another format that you want to merge in and retain as much formatting/linking as possible. If there is an easy-to-use API then data can be moved around by writing scripts.


Wikis are very powerful when used correctly, but unfortunately there are 51 flavours of wikis and what has become best practice in advanced wiki software can seem painful archaic in software that still follows in the footsteps of the WorldWideWiki. Yes, I’m looking at you WikiWords. Wikis are becoming the defacto standard for modern corporate intranets, while they are undoubtedly better than the static and out of date web sites that existed before the still have a long way to go in some areas where intranets have always been weak — namely search.

Any day now Google will be opening up registration for it’s JotSpot wiki software. It’ll be interesting to see if they can get over their product schizophrenia and intelligently integrate wikis with wordprocessing, spreadsheets, slides, blogs, email, calendar, rss readers and build an intranet solution that far outclasses anything currently available. They have all the pieces, and the killer knowledge that everyone is missing — how to build an intranet search that works over all the formats.

It’s sad that downloading documents from the corporate intranet and using Google Desktop search is still 95 times more effective than using intranet search.

Links You Can Use

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Universal identity and single sign on using openID? No thanks

Posted in Technology, Web 2.0 and Social Media by engtech on August 15, 2007

Universal standards and open data formats are the holy grail of modern information technology. With different vendors creating competing products they always try to lock users into walled gardens where they use their product and only their product. Or you get hybrids like Facebook applications where you can use other products provided they play by our rules. Companies have no incentive to work well together. After all, it’s only the consumers who suffer.

Radio Shack's evil EULA - by buying this, you waive your consumer rightsPhoto by doctorow

In an ideal world the consumer would be able to use whatever application they want to and move our data from one app to another with minimal hassle. We want to be able to use the email application of our choice in any context. We want a single synchronized calendar of our choice and still be able to share events with other people. We want to maintain one list of contacts and use them in every “social” web application. Consumers want to maintain control over our information, not spend all of our time maintaining applications and trying to get them to talk to each other.

One of the holy grails of web technology is single sign-on: the ability to use different web applications from one user account. Instead of having to remember 20 (or more like 30-50 in this web2.0 social app environment) login credentials, you’ll only have to remember one.

Every few years it seems like there’s another attempt at creating a universal login. Microsoft had Passport (now Windows Live ID). Google has unified its services to all use a single Google Account for authentication. Yahoo has never been great at integrating all of its services under one umbrella, but they certainly try (Flickr and Pipes use the Yahoo account, but del.icio.us and MyBlogLog don’t). People are saying that Facebook may be the future “universal account” since so many people use it. But the problem with all of these choices is that each of them is run by a centralized company. Do you trust them? Will you always trust them?

Photo by thelastminute

OpenID is the most popular decentralized system for single sign-on and maintaining a universal digital identity. It’s a very cool concept. Instead of having to worry about maintaining multiple user accounts and passwords (which should be different on different sites), openID lets you maintain one account and one online identity – without having that identity dependent on one company. At least that’s what the purple koolaid wants you to believe. If you stop to thing about it, you’re still dependent on whatever company you are using as your openID server.

The decentralization that is openID’s strength is also it’s biggest weakness. If your openID server goes down then you’re locked out of *all* of your other web accounts that used that login. WordPress.com supports openID but I’ve had problems with it [1] that have prevented me from using it to login to other accounts. It’s never a good idea to put all your eggs in one basket, but it’s much better to have one basket that works well than to have multiple baskets that have to work together properly or they won’t work at all.

It reminds me of those stupid wireless headphones for iPods. You can replace the small, portable earbud headphones that come with the iPod with larger headphones in order to be free from wires. But you greatly increase the dependencies needed to listen to music. Not only does your iPod have to be charged, but your wireless headphones and wireless transmitter ALSO have to be charged. The chances that they’re all going to be charged at the same time is much less than the chance that your iPod will be charged. The end goal of being free from wires isn’t worth the complexity the solution adds to the system – the solution introduces more things that can break and go wrong.

wireless headphones for ipod

This is the problem with openID. In order to login to a web app with openID the web app needs to be working AND my openID server needs be working. The greater number of interconnecting parts decreases my chances of getting everything to work together much more than the benefit of not having to manage multiple user accounts. OpenID is easy enough when it works, but if your server is having issues then it can be frustrating to know that you could login just fine if only the stupid server was up and working.

It works ok if you’re openID account is your own domain name because you can use delegation to point it to another server, but if you use someone else’s openID server then you’re screwed. It’s a very cool hack to use your web url as your login ID, but I’d only do it if you own your own domain name and plan to own it for as long as you’ll be using it to access those accounts.

The sad truth is that we already have an open identity that works — our email addresses. Smart web applications use our email address as our login identity. Almost all web apps allow us to recover our password using that email address [2]. Email is the only login identity we really need to remember; every other identity can be found by searching our email or using the password recovery feature.

Photo by jblndl

Updates and clarifications:

The scenario I’m talking about is when you don’t have full control over your openID URL. It doesn’t matter who your openID provider is as long as you can redirect your URL to another provider if it goes down. Many sites have been advertising that they support being an openID provider, telling you to use their URL as your openID. They make no mention that you should use them as a provider, not as your URL. You should *always* have full control over your openID URL.

Neomeme hits openID from the point of view of how it can be used to easily stalk someone over the Internet.

Jan Miksovsky notes that openID is too confusing for first time users.

  1. When I try to use my WordPress.com openID it says that I’m not logged in even though I can access my dashboard. I’m not sure if this is a cookie issue, custom domain names, or if it’s related to peak usage times (always seems to happen at noon or 5pm), but it’s been hard to get to the bottom of.
  2. How do you recover your from your openID server going down if you don’t own the domain name? I couldn’t find any information on how to do it. Your openID should not be an account. You should be able to keep your account but change your openID login credentials, much like how you can change the email address your account is registered to.

Greasemonkey Script: Yahoo Pipe Cleaner

Posted in Firefox and Greasemonkey, Technology, Yahoo Pipes by engtech on August 13, 2007

Hacking RSS with Yahoo Pipes

I’m a very big fan of Yahoo Pipes. It’s an amazing service that lets you take information from websites (using RSS, XML, JSON) and then do all kinds of filtering and manipulation with it. It is all done with a slick graphical user interface but it is not for the faint of heart — it is much easier to create new pipes if you have a programming background. But once a pipe is created it is simple for other people to use it. For example, this is how you can create a blog digest post using a Yahoo Pipe I’ve created for you.

Yahoo Pipes can create automated lists that you can cut-and-paste into blog posts. My only real complaint is with the HTML markup they create. It doesn’t look good when you cut-and-paste it into a WordPress blog. This is where Yahoo Pipe Cleaner comes in. It is a Greasemonkey script for Firefox that fixes the Yahoo Pipe output so that it looks nicer when you cut-and-paste it into a WordPress blog.

  • removes any H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, H6 headers
  • dofollows the links (removes rel=nofollow)
  • replaces paragraphs with list elements
  • removes all class/id CSS selectors

Without Yahoo Pipe Cleaner


  • Facebook Tip: Broadcast your Facebook status as RSS

    RSS is one of the most useful tools out there for moving information around on the web. Recently the concept of “micro-blogging” status updates has become very popular with applications like Facebook, Twitter and Pownce. The only problem is that it is a pain to update many sites at the…

  • How Do People Use Google Reader with Internet Explorer?

    Any computer geek worth his salt has been through the drill: you go to visit a family member for dinner and eventually they mention some arcane problem they’ve been having with software you long ago expunged from all of your computers. Common culprits are the Unholy Triad: Microsoft Outlook,…

With Yahoo Pipe Cleaner

  • Facebook Tip: Broadcast your Facebook status as RSS
    • RSS is one of the most useful tools out there for moving information around on the web. Recently the concept of “micro-blogging” status updates has become very popular with applications like Facebook, Twitter and Pownce. The only problem is that it is a pain to update many sites at the…
  • How Do People Use Google Reader with Internet Explorer?
    • Any computer geek worth his salt has been through the drill: you go to visit a family member for dinner and eventually they mention some arcane problem they’ve been having with software you long ago expunged from all of your computers. Common culprits are the Unholy Triad: Microsoft Outlook,…

Get Yahoo Pipe Cleaner

You can find installation instructions for Yahoo Pipe Cleaner here.

Facebook Tip: Broadcast your Facebook status as RSS

Posted in Facebook, Technology, Twitter, Yahoo Pipes by engtech on August 08, 2007

RSS is one of the most useful tools out there for moving information around on the web. Recently the concept of “micro-blogging” status updates has become very popular with applications like Facebook, Twitter and Pownce. The only problem is that it is a pain to update many sites at the same time. It is better to pick one and broadcast RSS to the others. I’m going to show you how to broadcast your Facebook status to Twitter.

IMPORTANT UPDATE: The Twitter Facebook App now lets you control your Facebook status from Twitter. This tip lets you posts your Facebook status in Twitter. Using them together is a very bad idea.

How to Find the RSS Feed for Your Facebook Status

This is actually the hardest part.

  1. Login to Facebook
  2. Click on Profile tab
  3. Under the Mini-Feed heading click on See All
  4. Click on Status Stories from the right hand column
  5. Right click on My Status and copy the link

facebook rss status

Filtering Your Status with Yahoo Pipes

I’ve put together a Yahoo Pipe that filters your status. This isn’t necessary, but it makes the status updates look a little bit better in other applications like Twitter. It removes your name, and changes the link to go to your profile instead of the individual status. Feel free to clone it and tweak it some more.

Eric is washing his cat.


is washing his cat (from Facebook status).

and the feed link is set to your Facebook profile.

  1. Go to this Yahoo Pipe
  2. Copy your Facebook status RSS feed
  3. Click Run Pipe
  4. Click on Subscribe
  5. Right click on Get as RSS and copy link

You can now put this filter RSS into TwitterFeed, your blog sidebar, etc.

Special Thanks

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How Do People Use Google Reader with Internet Explorer?

Posted in Firefox and Greasemonkey, RSS Syndication, Technology by engtech on August 06, 2007

Web Browser Tips & Tricks

Any computer geek worth his salt has been through the drill: you go to visit a family member for dinner and eventually they mention some arcane problem they’ve been having with software you long ago expunged from all of your computers. Common culprits are the Unholy Triad: Microsoft Outlook, Internet Explorer and Norton Anti-Virus. But what’s much worse than when solving some niggling problem that is only caused by their choice apps is when you volunteer to enter the belly of the beast and perform some “improvements” of your own free will.

To all the computer geeks reading this I offer you a humble warning: nothing good can come from volunteering to “improve” a family member’s computer. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

I was at my father’s house this weekend. A relaxing day of pool, reading and sun followed by a delicious barbeque left me content and sated. My normal cynicism when it comes to technology was at an all time low. He isn’t as technically minded as me, and for a long time I’ve been wanting to get him set up using an RSS feed reader. He has never used them before but he understood the basic concept: RSS is like getting email newsletters of website updates, but without clogging your email. RSS is a blogger’s best friend. It lets us keep track of each other’s updates painlessly and effortlessly. He has a blog of his own and using Google Reader would make it very easy for him to share posts and links on his blog using the Shared Items feature and a widget in his blog’s sidebar.

rss feeds the oprah way

Google Reader was an easy choice because it is the feed reader I use every day. It is the most widely adopted web-based RSS reader with 50-60% market share. The interface is similar to Gmail. It lets you quickly scroll through items, starring stuff you want to find again later and sharing items with other people. But the deciding factor for me is that it is the reader I use every day — always get your family members using the same software you do if you want to have any hope of troubleshooting problems later.

The initial steps were easy: create a new Gmail account for his blog identity that doesn’t use his real name (since that is displayed by your Google Shared Items), add that identity to his Blogger blog as admin, and add his Google Shared Items as a sidebar widget on his blog. It all went very smoothly until I started subscribing to feeds.

Internet Explorer 6 Sucks for RSS

He is still a die hard Internet Explorer 6 user, and it’s all my fault because of articles like this where I explain how to downgrade from IE7 to IE6. Internet Explorer 6 is really bad for reading RSS feeds because it doesn’t understand RSS at all. I so rarely use IE6 that I had forgotten that it doesn’t know how to automatically find the RSS feed for a page (“RSS autodiscovery”) and that when you click on an RSS link it displays crap like this:

interet explorer rss feed looks like crap

What are you supposed to do with something like that? The answer is that you cut-and-paste the feed URL and add it to Google Reader manually. Is someone new to RSS ever going to do that? No.

There is an easier way of doing it using a bookmarklet — a piece of Javascript that you save as a bookmark (or “Add as Favorite” in IE lingo). You can find a bookmarklet for doing that in Google Reader under Settings and then Goodies. Unfortunately it didn’t work properly because of either his Internet Explorer security settings or because of a conflict with Norton Anti-Virus. He likes to save his bookmarks on the desktop to access them instead of using the Favorites menu, so the chances of getting him to use a bookmarklet were already slim to none. Back to the drawing board.

google toolbar example

Instead of trying to figure out the conflict, I decided to add the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer. Google Toolbar is a great little add-on for any web browser. You can edit the buttons to add all kinds of neat things like searching within the current website, notification of new Gmail messages, toggling highlighting of search terms on the current page and Google Reader notification of new posts in your RSS feeds. But what is missing is a way to one-click subscribe to the current site in Google Reader.

Screw this. One of the “advanced” features of Internet Explorer 7 is better RSS integration, so it’s time for an unplanned upgrade. 15 minutes and one reboot later we’re running the latest and greatest IE7 — and having the exact same problems!

How Do People Subscribe with Google Reader in IE7?

When you click on an RSS link in IE7 you at least get something you can read with an option to subscribe to it. But it only defaults to the built-in Internet Explorer 7 feed reader — it doesn’t give an option to subscribe to Google Reader. It’s much better than IE6 but it still doesn’t solve my problem: I want him to be able to add subscriptions to Google Reader with one click. The bookmarklet still isn’t working properly under Internet Explorer 7.

I’m tired, frustrated and desperate so I decide to pull out the big guns. Firefox has this amazingly little tool called Greasemonkey that makes it trivial to add additional functionality to your web browser. I know that there’s a Greasemonkey script to let you one click subscribe to RSS feeds in Google Reader. I know that it’s possible to manhandle IE to force it to be able to run Greasemonkey user scripts… Google tells me that a plugin called IE7Pro can do it, but after I install IE7Pro it doesn’t understand how to install Greasemonkey scripts.

WTF? THIS IS SO SIMPLE TO DO IN FIREFOX! Why in the world is everything so hard in Internet Explorer? How do people surf the Internet like this?

For any non-believers in the audience, let me show you how easy RSS works in Firefox land.

Firefox + Google Reader = Crazy Delicious

Firefox understands when a website has an RSS feed auto-discovery link. You don’t have to search through the entire page to find the stupid orange button, you can click on the button in your address bar.

Step #1: Click on the Orange Icon in the Address Bar

rss feed auto-discovery

Step #Who Cares: You Only Do This Once

The first time you use it, it will display the feed in a nice, human readable way, with a yellow box asking you what you want to use to subscribe to this feed. Google Reader is one of the options and you can set it up to *ALWAYS* use Google Reader from now on.

always use google reader to subscribe to rss

Step #Skip This With Greasemonkey: Choose Between Google Homepage and Google Reader

Unfortunately, Google isn’t smart enough to remember your preference between Google Reader and Google Homepage — so you have to always chose the red pill or the blue pill. There is a handy Greasemonkey script to fix that though: always subscribe to Google Reader.

one click subscribe with google reader

One click subscription to Google Reader thanks to Firefox and Greasemonkey. Quite a bit easier than:

  1. Right Click on RSS feed URL
  2. Copy shortcut
  3. Log in to Google Reader
  4. Click on Add Subscription
  5. Paste short cut into form
  6. Click Add

…which seems to be the only way to do it in Internet Explorer 6 that worked reliably for me.

Please Tell Me I’m Wrong

When I’m writing rants about frustrating moments of needless computer complication there is always the nagging voice in the back of my head that I’m missing something obvious and making things much harder than they have to be. I hope this is the case.

I was surprised that someone hasn’t built a one-click “add auto-discovery feed to Google Reader” button for the Google toolbar. A little digging shows that it isn’t be possible because the kind of things you can do with Google Toolbar is actually quite limited. This is too bad because it would get more Google Reader users using the Toolbar and more Toolbar users using Google Reader.

My experience with Google Reader + Internet Explorer wouldn’t have been so bad if the bookmarklet had worked for me. But given the fact that 58% of people surfing the web are using some form of Internet Explorer (compared to 35% for Firefox) and that Google Reader is the most popular web-based RSS reader… well, it’s no surprise that more people aren’t reading RSS feeds. It’s hard enough to explain to people why RSS is useful when you can’t show them how to subscribe to an RSS feed consistently in one or two clicks.

If the best feed reading software doesn’t integrate seamlessly with their web browser of choice then why should they jump through hoops getting it to work when they’ve never even used RSS before? And it really doesn’t help that most of the mainstream news portals on the net still don’t offer full feeds. If you don’t read blogs then it’s hard to explain the power of RSS — mainstream sites still don’t get how RSS without full feeds isn’t worth reading.

The Solution to Social Network Site Fatigue

Social Software and You

Social network site fatigue is when you’re sick and tired of trying to find your friends when everyone jumps ship to the Next Big Thing (Friendster to MySpace to Facebook, Twitter to Pownce, etc). The biggest problem with the web 2.0 revolution of “social network apps” is that there is no universal identifier. In real life, governments use social insurance numbers to tell the different between two people with the same name. If you look at the web as a big database, we’re missing a universal key that lets us know that engtech on Digg is also ninetimessix on StumbleUpon who is also Eric on Facebook and Internet Duct Tape on WordPress.com.This is an epidemic problem with all web services. Even in cases where there *IS* a universal common identifier there is no guarantee that every site will support it. Companies either lack the technical know-how, or they fear sending their customers to their competitors if they make it too easier to move data around.

The Universal Identifier for Movies

imdb logoEveryone can agree that IMDB is the #1 database for information about movies. They also provide an ID number for each movie and TV show. For example, Six Feet Under has an ID of 0248654 and you can access a lot of information on IMDB directly if you know that number corresponds to Six Feet Under the tv show. Rotten Tomatoes understands that IMDB is the #1 database for information about movies, and you can link to any movie on their site using only the IMDB number.


brings you to


Any web site about movies that doesn’t understand that the IMDB number is the universal identifier is shooting themselves in the foot because they are making it harder for users to mash their new site up with existing sites about movies. IE: If I had a blog about movies where I always linked to IMDB, I could trivially change those links to Rotten Tomatoes for all of my old posts because RT understands the IMDB number.

What is really surprising is that even though Amazon has owned IMDB since 1998, you cannot browse Amazon results using the IMDB number. Sure, there are nice hacks like the Movie Dude script for Firefox that will crosslink the movie sites for you… but it would be so much easier with universal IDs. The same would go for social network sites.

Facebook As a Universal ID?

facebook logoFacebook hype has been through the roof, with many pundits wondering if the closed garden of Facebook is going to become the official storehouse for online identity (at least for the next few years). Their ingenious apps platform lets other websites piggyback off of the Facebook social web, giving us a hint of social site nirvana: being able to maintain one set of friends on Facebook and use that same set on every other social site. But that is contingent to how well Facebook plays with other sites.

NetVibes has already shot the first volley against Facebook’s bow with their new application that exports Facebook data into NetVibes. It would be nice to see Facebook becoming a social network hub. ClaimID, the bright future of open identity, even has a Facebook application. My hope is that the ClaimID app will let me find the claimed identities of my online friends and act as a hub for my social network activities. One friendlists to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

claimid logo

But There Already Is a Universal Friendslist!

The silly thing about all this time we waste with friendslist management is that we already have a universal friendslist: our address book. Any social site worth it’s salt will let you batch import all of your existing friends by uploading a file or logging in to your web-based email account. Plaxo has been fighting to become the universal address book, it gives you the ability to automatically push out contact information updates to anyone who has you in their address book. They’ve even gone so far as to implement some killer developer tools like Javascript and REST widgets – I’ve seen a few startups add address book friendslist import to their web app in literally minutes by using the Plaxo tools.

plaxo logo

There are definitely some smart eggs at Plaxo, as they’ve been repositioning themselves with Pulse as an open social network where users can share contact information and their web presence easily.

universal synchronization

But who will win the battle of the social networks? Will it continue the same cycle of a new network being popular every two years? One thing is certain, as long as there isn’t an easy way to migrate data and contacts between these network, it will be the users who lose.

Facebook Applications and Privacy – How to Configure Facebook Applications

Posted in Facebook, Online Privacy and Reputation Management, Technology by engtech on July 23, 2007

One of my friends wanted to secure the profile for her 17 year old daughter and she was asking me what the heck all the application privacy settings mean on Facebook. I didn’t have a good answer for her. If I’m asking myself “wtf does that application setting mean?” I figure there’s more than one other person in the crowd with a dim light bulb over their head. Here’s what I could figure out to the best of my knowledge.

Now you too can become one of the 1% of the people on Facebook who understand how their Facebook apps (widgets) are configured.

facebook application privacy levels

Adding an Application

I was surprised that Facebook does not give more information on what these options mean when you’re installing an application. I know that designing “simple” user interfaces is hard, but you are doing something wrong when your users have to go to such great lengths to do something as simple as adjust your privacy settings.

Know who I am and access my information

This option has to be checked in order to install ANY application. This is Facebook’s way of covering their ass.

cover your ass
(photo by ambergris)

Put a box in my profile

If this is unchecked then the application won’t show up on your profile at all, but may still spam your mini-feed and news feed.

(photo by ugandan giant)

Place a link in my left-hand navigation

On your left hand menu under Search there is a list of your application that only you can see. Clicking on these links usually shows you cool stuff like recent updates from your friends who use the same apps. This setting controls whether or not this app shows up in that list.

facebook application privacy left hand menu link settings

This setting only affects how you see your applications.

Publish stories in my News Feed and Mini-Feed

This is the “spam the crap out of your friends” feature. TURN THIS OFF FOR MOST OF YOUR APPLICATIONS! The mini-feed is that list of things you’ve been doing on your profile page. The news feed is the list of things you’ve been doing that shows up to all of your friends when they log into Facebook. Do you really want to spam them with every single thing you Digg, Stumble or save to Del.icio.us?

facebook privacy application mini-feed newsfeed

You can adjust the mini-feed and the news feed individually by editing your application settings later.

Place a link below the profile picture on any profile

Underneath your profile picture there is a text list of your applications. These links can display additional information like the number of songs you have added, pages you have bookmarked, etc. If you have a lot of applications this list can become unwieldy, so try to limit it to your five favorite applications.

facebook application privacy profile

Adjusting the Privacy Settings

Some applications (particularly the ones created by Facebook) have application specific privacy settings that you can adjust from within your “application privacy options” or by editing your application settings. I don’t know why they didn’t make it consistent for all applications.

Editing the settings of an application will give you the following extra option that weren’t available when you first added it.

Control who can see the application on your profile

This is a standard drop down choice between everyone, all your networks, some of your networks, your friends, yourself, or no one. If you chose not to have a box in your profile when you added the application then this will be set to “no one”.

Individual control of mini-feed and news feed setting

When you are adding a new application there is only one setting for mini-feed and news feed. If you edit the application later you will be able to have different settings for your mini-feed and news feed (which is a good thing — have lots of updates on the mini-feed but not as many on your news feed so you don’t spam your friends).

facebook application privacy news feed setting

Applications and Limited Profile

You can control which of the official Facebook apps are shown on your limited profile under Privacy Options >> Limited Profile. As far as I can tell unofficial apps never show on your limited profile (or maybe they always show and there is no way to turn them off).

Control the Information Given to Third Party Applications

Under Privacy Options >> Applications >> Other Applications you can control what other applications can find out about you when you don’t have them installed (IE: if your friends have them installed). I highly recommend leaving most of the boxes unchecked. The only way you can disable ANY information from leaking out to your friends’ applications is by removing all of your applications first.

Blocking Applications

Did you know that you can block specific applications from contacting you or showing up in the news feed? You have to go to the application page and then chose Block Application. You do not need to install the application to do this. Yes, this means you can stop people from trying to bug you with those zombie/vampire apps.

Removing Applications and the Information Inside of Them

If you remove an application it does NOT delete any of the information inside that application. If you uploaded photos, videos or posted a note then all of that information will still be there unless you delete it inside of the application before removing an application. Good news: you can remove an app and then re-add it later on and be right back where you started. Bad news: it’s harder to get rid of embarrassing/incriminating info than just “removing the application”.

5 Things to Remember

    1. Don’t spam your friends — turn off the news feed for applications that update frequently
    2. Too many links — turn off profile links for applications other than your favorites
    3. Control who can see it — there’s no good reason to share apps with your networks instead of just your friends
    4. Delete THEN remove — you have to delete the information inside an app before removing it
    5. Stop being annoyed — block the applications you don’t like

      The Facebook applications privacy settings are pretty danged complicated, and in usual Facebook style the controls to access them are all over the place. But now you know what the different settings do and have an idea of how you can use them. Blocking annoying applications can make the site a lot less annoying, and you can control your own settings to keep from spamming the crap out of your friends. The only real gotcha is that you need to delete embarrassing information from an application before you remove the application.


      “Be sure to customize your privacy settings on the Privacy page if you are uncomfortable being found in searches or having your profile viewed by people from your school, workplace or regional network. Remember, unless you’re prepared to attach something in your profile to a resume or scholarship application, don’t post it.” — Official Facebook Safety page

      Did you find this page useful? Then help spread the word by sharing it on Facebook, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon or other sites.

      Related Posts

      FeedBurner Tip: Create a private area for your RSS subscribers only

      Posted in Building a Community, FeedBurner, RSS Syndication, Technology by engtech on July 16, 2007

      Reader SurveyWhen it comes to blogging the most important people are the ones who take the time to read your RSS feed. They’re your long term readers who are in it for the long haul, much more so than the people who stop by your blog because they found it through a search engine or a social bookmarking site. They’re the ones who promote your articles, and the ones who’ll let you know when you’re falling off your blog game.

      It’s important to build a rapport with them, and one of the ways to do that is by giving them special offers that aren’t available to regular readers of the website. This could be an electronic book, information on how to submit reader links, or beta invitations to other websites like Pownce and Joost.

      But how do you send these links to your RSS readers without displaying them on your blog?

      FeedBurner to the rescue

      customer feedburner feedflarIf you aren’t using Google’s FeedBurner service for your blog then you should be. (It has built-in integration with Blogger, and the rumour mill says that it will be added to WordPress.com at some point.) FeedBurner has these things called FeedFlares that show up at the end of your RSS feed. They can do things like dynamically list the number of comments on that post, or how many times it has been dugg or saved to del.icio.us.

      It’s really simple to build your own FeedFlare that links to anything you want. Dosh Dosh has a detailed guide explaining how to do it. I wrote a list a while back explaining why I think FeedBurner is so great.

      How to create a Custom FeedBurner FeedFlare

      1. Login to FeedBurner
      2. Click on My Feeds
      3. Click on the feed you want to edit
      4. Click on the Optimize tab
      5. Click on FeedFlare from the sidebar
      6. Under “Personal FeedFlare” cut-and-paste your generic feedflare link and click add to FeedFlare

      I’ve created a Password-Protected Post on my blog for my RSS readers at http://internetducttape.com/easter-eggs/reader-appreciation/

      So I would use the following custom FeedFlare:


      That will give you something like this:

      create a custom feedburner feedflare example

      Thanks to Dosh Dosh for showing me how to do this. I had a previous hack in place where I had a del.icio.us account and I would use the FeedBurner splice with del.icio.us to share things with my RSS readers only. Using a FeedFlare is much more elegant.

      WordPress Tip: Create a Digest Post in 3 Seconds

      Posted in Becoming a Better Blogger, Technology, Yahoo Pipes by engtech on July 13, 2007

      It’s a good habit to post a summary of your recent posts once or twice a month, but like all blog maintenance it can be a pain in the butt if you don’t make it as easy as possible. Here’s a hack that’ll let you create a summary of all of your posts over X number of days using a handy-dandy Yahoo Pipe.

      How to Create a Digest Post

      1. Click on this link to go to the Yahoo Pipe
      2. Change “Truncate feeds older than 7 days ago” to the number of days back you want to go
      3. Change “Enter RSS URL” to the feed address to match your blog
      4. Click on the Run Pipe button
      5. Cut and paste the output from the pipe into a new blog post using the WordPress rich text editor

      Ta-da! Now you’ve made a digest post. You can edit the text and summaries as necessary, or adjust the date and re-run the pipe if the amount of time is not correct.

      Advanced users can make a clone of that pipe and change it to have your feed url and the date range you want by default.

      Sample Digest Post

      This was cut and pasted from the pipe output with no modifications.


      Advanced Users

      It doesn’t look great when you cut-and-paste the code from the Yahoo Pipe to a WordPress blog post. You can fix that by using my Yahoo Pipe Cleaner script with Greasemonkey.

      See the full list of free software I have created.

      You can get frequent updates about all of my new software, tools or blog themes by subscribing to IDT Labs by RSS or by email. Or you could just subscribe to my main blog, Internet Duct Tape.

      Subscribe to feed

      More Pipes

      Here’s a list of more Yahoo Pipes I’ve created.

      Be My Friend (on social network sites)

      Unless you’ve had your head in the sand (or *gasp* you aren’t obsessed with Internet culture), then you’ve noticed that we’re seeing more and more web service startups over the past few years. Last year I flamed the Bubble 2.0 soundly in “Web Too.Many.” Earlier this year I tried to get an idea of what websites people actually use by starting the What’s Your Web 2.0? meme.I think I’m past breaking when it comes to my attention span and the number of services that I use. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some I heartily recommend. If you use some of these services as well, then please go ahead and “friend” me. And yes, there is a Facebook account in the list.


      Software Hosting


      • Twitter – sharing, republishing
      • Tumblr – aggregating my online presence
      • Jaiku – sharing, republishing


      These are sites that I used to use often, but I’ve given up on:

      • MyBlogLog – too much spam
      • Flickr – it’s easier to share photos with friends on Facebook
      • RottenTomatoes – it’s easier to share movie reviews with friends on Facebook
      • Technorati – never indexes me properly
      • Blogcritics – got some books, but they aren’t a very good source of traffic
      • LinkedIn – until the next time I’m looking for work
      • … more than I can possibly remember.

      What got me thinking about this is trying out Pownce for the first time and seeing how horrible it is at re-discovering my friends.

      I just sent out some invites to Kevin Rose’s Pownce to my FeedBurner subscribers. (Thanks for hooking me up, Adam)

      Pownce First Impression

      I’ve seen other complaints that the biggest problem of Pownce is “what do I do with it?” It’s probably the most powerful web-based instant messaging client out there.

      I was very surprised that they Pownce doesn’t have an “import contacts from address book” feature. That is rapidly becoming the only way to easily import the list of your friends from one web app to another. I was trying out Blue Swarm the other day and they are using a very slick widget from Plaxo that does easy address book imports. All web startups should use this, since email address contacts are the only universal data format for identifying your friends on the web.

      This is a perfect example of why the Facebook application experience is so powerful… signing up and maintaining a user account is the major barrier that prevents most web startups from gaining a massive user base. “Social” web sites have an even bigger barrier in that you have to move or re-find your network. Facebook apps allow for any application to have the same user account and social network.

      Obviously I think it would be pretty awesome if that Plaxo contact importer also supported Facebook as well as Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, and Yahoo.

      What Others Have to Say

      Scoble: “I see many of the same people in my friends list on Twitter, Jaiku, Facebook, and now Pownce. Pownce is growing faster than the other ones right now, though. 728 people have already added me on Pownce. I can’t take many more social networks.

      Memoirs of a Bystander: “My question is this: Is there any value actually garnered from adding an obscenely large amount of random people as your friend on various social sites? Honestly, if a social networking site it meant to enhance you life through discovery of new interests, music, recommendations, etc…, is that easily done by wading through thousands of people?”

      Mashable: “And it is this: on Pownce, you can send a message, or a file, or a song, or an event, to one person; or three of your friends; or only your family; or everyone.”

      SocialHam: “Now more than ever Email seems to becoming a dead medium so can micro blogging sites fill in the gaps?”

      JetPacked: “Can’t decide between pownce and twitter? This should help. Here’s how to post your pownces to twitter.”

      Daily Grumble: “Social networking is a very difficult area for a new service to break into. How on earth are you going to persuade users of other, more established social networks to come to your service?”

      Greg Verdino: “Are social media mavens living inside a bubble of our own making, artificially inflating the impact that most of these nascent technologies are having on the population in general, and ultimately getting our companies and our clients riled up over something that will, over time, turn out to be, well um, nothing?”

      How to synchronize your iPod (or iTunes) to Facebook using Last.fm

      Posted in Facebook, Music, MP3s and Internet Radio, Technology by engtech on June 29, 2007

      I started listening to MP3s around 9 years ago, and bought my last CD around 5 years ago. Digital music has become a way of life for me (as it is for most people), to the point where I have around way too many devices for playing MP3s: computer, stereo system, DVD player, game console, cell phone, car and dedicated MP3 players like an iPod.

      Yet I’d be the first to tell you that digital music on demand over the Internet is so much more convenient then maintaining, sorting and backing up a large digital music library. Especially when web sites like Last.fm give you great artist discovery based on what you’ve already been listening to.

      Another great way to discover new music is by seeing what your friends are listening to. People often using MP3 playing software to automatically update their blog with what they are listening to. Livejournal goes so far as to add a “listening to” field to every blog post. But blogs are so 2001, I’m going to show you how to update your Facebook profile with what you’ve been listening to on your iPod, using last.fm as the middle man.

      I’ve been using this technique for a month now and my friends can see what I’m listening to, top tracks of the week, top artists… and best of all with one click they can either play the song or find out more information about the artist. The extra bonus points come from Last.FM getting better and better at discovering music I’ve never heard of yet instantly love.

      Share This

      Digg This StumbleIt //engtech is sooo del.icio.usshare on facebook

      What You Are Going to Need

      • a Windows PC [1]
      • an iPod
      • iTunes software
      • Facebook account
      • last.fm account
      • people who want to read your Facebook profile to see how much you rock (and roll) [2]

      A few assumptions: these are general directions, and not a step-by-step walkthrough. I’m going to show you the theory, and point you to where to get better information.

      [1] The theory still works even if you use players other than iPods, or if you are running on Linux or a Mac. You can sync pretty much anything to last.fm, which means that you can sync it to Facebook. See more info on what last.fm supports here.

      [2] This is, surprisingly, the hardest part.

      The Easy Part – Synching Last.fm to Facebook

      Thanks to those fancy new Facebook applications every one is playing with (have you given up on Super Poke and Free Gifts yet?), there are several ways to update Facebook with your recently played tracks on last.fm:

      1. The official Facebook app by last.fm
        • Pro: people can click on the play icon to listen to the music on your profile.
        • Con: They have to click on the app to see your recent updates. They can see your last.fm username.
      2. Unofficial last.fm apps for Facebook
      3. Last.fm Plus by Paul Wells This is what I use — highly recommended
        • Pro: *Much* simpler and less cluttered than the official plugin, not Flash-based. Can hide your last.fm username.
        • Con: People have to leave your profile page to play the music.

      I recommend Last.fm Plus over the official application. This is what it looks like. The play button will play the song/artist while clicking on the name will bring them to a biography of the artist with options to play samples, download MP3s, watch videos, buy albums or listen to similar artists. It’ll also show you information like what the most popular song by that artist is.

      How to sync your iPod with Facebook using last.fm

      Here’s what the linked page looks like for Hot Chip.

      Hot Tip: When installing Facebook applications, uncheck the “Publish stories in my News Feeds and Mini-feeds” so that you don’t spam the crap out of your friends. Find more information about Facebook application privacy settings here.

      (photo by dan morris)

      The Less Easy Part – Synching Your iPod to Last.fm

      There are several ways of synching your iPod to last.fm

      1. The official last.fm client (they finally added support!)
        • Pro: Part of the official client, less likely to break when iTunes updates
        • Con: Only works if you have your iPod set to automatically sync to iTunes
      2. iSproggler (Windows) or iScrobbler (Mac) This is what I use — highly recommended
        • Pro: Supports manually synched iPods.
        • Con: Have to choose the “Update iPod” option whenever you want to update. Can give a “script is using iTunes” warning when quitting iTunes.
      3. Yamipod software for Windows, Mac or Linux (iTunes replacement)
        • Pro: You can copy it directly on you iPod so that you’ll always have it with you. Can be used to copy songs back to PC.
        • Con: You have to run Yamipod *before* running iTunes or any other manager in order for sync to work. The forums usually have many support threads about getting Yamipod to work with last.fm. Have to manually click the send button.
      4. Amarok software for Linux/Unix (iTunes replacement)
        • Pro: Also supports more devices than just the iPod (iRiver, Zen, others)
        • Con: No Mac/Windows support, so I didn’t try it
      5. Uber geek: script for bridging your iPod to last.fm
        • Con: Looks like it is the least supported of all of these methods.

      As you can see, there are too many choices. If you have your iPod set up to automatically sync to iTunes, then use the official last.fm client. I’ve settled on using iSproggler since I find it’s more reliable than YamiPod.

      Updating your Facebook playlist in 3 Easy Steps

      The one time setup steps are

      1. setting up your Last.FM account,
      2. installing LastFM Plus on your Facebook profile and
      3. installing iSproggler on your computer (and configuring it with your Last.FM user account)

      After that the sync process is

      1. Open iTunes
        • Open iSproggler (if not configured to open automatically with iTunes)
      2. Connect your iPod
      3. Click on the Update iPod button in iSproggler
      4. That’s it

      This works great, and the playlist charts Last.FM Plus generates are above and beyond anything else I’ve seen in other Facebook music apps. I’ve been using it reliably for over a month now, and I highly recommend this technique to anyone with a Facebook account and an iPod.

      Internet Duct Tape is a blog about clever hacks and Internet mashups. You can subscribe to updates using an RSS reader or by email.

      Related Posts

      The Programmable Web – Yahoo Pipes

      Posted in IDT Labs Software Development, Perl, Technology, Yahoo Pipes by engtech on May 30, 2007

      Duct tape is a great tool because it is so shiny and sticky. You can use it to glue so many things together, even if they end up looking like Frankenstein by the end of it. All you need is a camera, a cellphone, an MP3 player and a piece of duct tape to get yourself the only mobile convergence device worth having. The programming language Perl has quite often been called “duct tape for the internet” because it lets you easily transform text and interact with web sites.

      (photo by philgarlic)

      Here is a simple Perl script that downloads an RSS feed and bookmarks each entry to del.icio.us:

      my $delicious = Net::Delicious->new(
      my $feed = XML::FeedPP::RSS->new($rss_url);
      $feed->normalize();         # Sort by pubDate and remove non-unique
      foreach my $item ($feed->get_item()) {
        my $description = $item->description();
        $description =~ s/<.*?>//g; # remove HTML
        my %args = ('url'=>$item->link(),
        my $retval = $delicious->add_post(%args);

      The problem with Perl is that you have to either run it on your own machine, or buy web hosting that lets you run your own Perl scripts (or Python/Ruby). This is a real pain in the butt.

      Enter Yahoo Pipes

      Yahoo created one of the most innovative web tools I’ve ever seen. Yahoo Pipes lets you do all kinds of conversions and filtering on the web without requiring a web host to host your programs. If you want to convert XML/RSS data to other XML/RSS then look no further.

      There’s still room for improvement:

      • Scraping web sites that do not have information in XML/RSS. There are other companies that let you do this, but they’re even harder to use than Pipes (IE: dapper.net).
      • Notifying you when your pipes don’t work. That makes finding existing pipes and mashing up multiple pipes tricky as best. It’s hard to use a tool when things constantly change underneath you.
      • It would also be nice if allowed HTML in the Pipes descriptions as it is hard to describe how to use them sometimes.
      • Better debugging messages when developing your own Pipes

      Yahoo Pipes is targeted towards programmers, not casual users, but there is still a million and one things you can do with it. Here are some of my pipes that are free for other people to use.


      Social Sites


      Got Pipes?

      Are there any specific RSS feeds mashups you’re looking for but don’t have the Yahoo Pipes expertise to create? Leave a comment on this post and I’ll see what I can come up with.

      See the full list of free software I have created.

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