The Pre-Vacation Grab Bag: BackType, Facebook and Personal Metrics

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It’s been a long time since I’ve had any real vacation, so as of tomorrow I’m on it. Tomorrow, the weather gods willing, the lawyer and I will be making a quick trip to Denver for a friend’s wedding, but as of my return Sunday, I’m going to be doing nothing for an entire week. Except for working on the wedding website, I mean. And, in all likelihood, spending some time on the water.

So while I scurry to tidy up a few loose ends before I leave you all to the dog days of August, here’s a grab bag of items that might deserve their own entries but aren’t getting them.

Backtype and the Extended Conversation

Backtype, for those of you that haven’t looked at it yet, has rapidly become one of the most valuable WordPress plugins I employ. By automagically identifying and integrating the linked mentions of WordPress entries on services like Identi.ca and Twitter, I – and anyone else visiting – get a much better sense of the tone and scope of a given conversation. There are some things that still puzzle me: the BackType link will often list more Twitter mentions than the plugin integrates as comments, but for the most part it works perfectly and without any manual intervention.

One of the least surprising insights gleaned from the usage of BackType? Pieces dealing with open source and related issues generate a far higher percentage of comments on Identi.ca than Twitter.

I, For One, Welcome Our New Facebook Overlords?


While we await the imminent arrival of the desperately needed iPhone Facebook app 3.0 – 2.0 is just abysmal – another, different application is giving us a glimpse of a more Facebook-centric web. The unfortunately named feX is simple in its ambition: it merely synchronizes your Facebook contacts with those held locally on your iPhone. Meaning that all of those “So-and-so has update their mobile number and it’s been added to your addressbook” messages aren’t so useless anymore. This is a win/win, right?

Well, that depends on what you think of Facebook. To some, they’re a necessary centralization for contacts; the inevitable critical mass that’s the 21st Century equivalent of the Whitepages. To others, like Val Aurora, they’re effectively setting up a second, walled off internet. Which is, to put it mildly, a problem.

Wired had a nice piece on the differing visions Facebook and Google have for the web, which included this snippet:

Today, the Google-Facebook rivalry isn’t just going strong, it has evolved into a full-blown battle over the future of the Internet—its structure, design, and utility. For the last decade or so, the Web has been defined by Google’s algorithms—rigorous and efficient equations that parse practically every byte of online activity to build a dispassionate atlas of the online world. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions a more personalized, humanized Web, where our network of friends, colleagues, peers, and family is our primary source of information, just as it is offline. In Zuckerberg’s vision, users will query this “social graph” to find a doctor, the best camera, or someone to hire—rather than tapping the cold mathematics of a Google search. It is a complete rethinking of how we navigate the online world, one that places Facebook right at the center. In other words, right where Google is now.

Personalized and humanized sound like such nice words, and there is truth to the assertion that in many cases I’d prefer to be directed by someone I know. But at the heart of the matter here are questions of ownership, privacy and economics: Facebook’s valuation, at least to some extent, is built on its collection of data. The trouble is that the users – quite understandably – tend to think of that data as theirs, not Facebook’s. My prediction, like many other’s, is that this is inevitably going to result in a showdown over user rights versus the economic model Facebook is built upon. We’ve seen signs of this already, with the user-photo-advertising controversy. But that, as they say, is just the tip of the iceberg. Wait till that extends to messages, news updates, and more. Hell, Facebook may even be getting its own browser soon.

In the meantime, feX shows what a Facebook backed future looks like, and to be honest – privacy and ownership questions aside – it’s pretty nice. No longer do I have to update phone numbers, contact photos and so on: all of that is copied direct from Facebook.

Personal Metrics

about:me - Personal Analytics

I mentioned previously that David Ascher – CEO of Mozilla Messaging – kindly took a few minutes at OSCON to demo for me a little Jetpack enabled plugin to Thunderbird that provided him with some basic, but singularly insightful, metrics on his usage of that client. Fortunately enough, I was recently pointed to the Firefox equivalent: the about:me plugin. Though it will only work if you’re on a Firefox >= 3.5, it’s a neat little automated way to learn more about how you use your browser, and thus about your daily habits.


  1. The biggest problem with Zuckerberg’s vision as put forth above is web browsing at work. Facebook is blocked at many workplaces, and a glance at anyone’s screen while Facebook is up is enough to know, unless you have very good reason to think otherwise, that They’re Not Working Right Now.

    Google doesn’t have that problem as much.

  2. Stephen, maybe I’m just not looking at the right posts, but all I’ve seen in the comments on your site that I’ve looked at lately have been piles and piles of RTs. These are not, as far as I can see, adding any value for your readers- RTs are, to me, just noise. Now those RTs may give you some sense of who is reading/RTing, which is good for you, and maybe I’m just not looking at the right posts, but I’m surprised- I was expecting you to turn it off, not heartily endorse it.

  3. @Dan Davies Brackett: good point. Google and Facebook are viewed completely differently within the workplace.

    @Luis: interesting. certainly, the majority of the posts are retweets, but even those that don’t have some attached commentary still have value to me. who’s commenting? for positive or negative reasons? i think that has value, beyond just the trivial “oh someone commented on my stuff” aspect.

    throw in the fact that a percentage of the retweets include some sort of comment and i think it adds to the overall conversation.

    but i’ll think about your perspective, as i hadn’t considered it that way.

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