What I Learned from a Night Editing Wikipedia

This Friday evening I stayed in, not feeling well, and spent my night doing more editing of Wikipedia than I’ve ever done before. After reading Danny Sullivan’s frustrated blog post about his recent experience being shot down on Wikipedia, I thought it would be good to share a different experience. I think Wikipedia is super important and I love it, but editing it is not easy to do. Not because of the technical requirements, those are pretty simple, but because of the way the community there can articulate its expectations.

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After Four Years as ReadWriteWeb’s Lead Writer, Here’s My Next Adventure

It’s with both excitement and sadness that today I announce I am stepping back from my full time position at ReadWriteWeb to build a product and a company. I’ll be continuing to post at RWW regularly, but I’ve got some big new things up my sleeve as well. (Update: I haven’t announced this yet but as of May, 2012 I’m actually done with that too and am 100% all-in on Plexus.)

After years of writing about startup companies, I’m now building one myself. Specifically, I’m building a company that’s developing a technology based on some of my favorite consulting projects I’ve done for clients over the years: an app and data platform that discovers emerging topical information. It’s a learning-curve busting, “first mover’s advantage” as a service, technology for information workers who want to win. It’s about helping users “skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it’s been.”

It’s called Plexus Engine, it’s in private beta and you can sign up to be notified when it launches at PlexusEngine.com. A Plexus is a place where nerves branch and rejoin in the body and the Plexus Engine analyzes points of intersection online to detect emerging signals. Update: After we got underway and before launching Plexus Engine, we renamed it Little Bird! It’s now at GetLittleBird.com.

What’s it do, specifically? It’s not ready to be talked about much, but I will tell you this:

I’ve built my career as one of the web’s leading technology journalists by making strategic use of lightweight tools for processing data to gain first mover’s advantage.

I’ve also consulted for companies large and small on how to build and use new media technologies, launch products and identify potential hires and industry experts, using tools as well. That’s where Plexus Engine was born.

Now I’m building a technology for everyone to use in order to save time and derive value from the huge sea of data being published online.

Josh Dilworth, founder of Austin’s Jones-Dilworth, who’s done PR for SXSW, Siri, Wolfram Alpha and many more, says – “For years Marshall has had a leg up and now we know why. We are already using Plexus at Jones-Dilworth and it makes us look smarter every day. It’s instant domain knowledge — ideal for getting up to speed in new categories.”

Richard Snee, VP of Marketing at data warehousing company EMC Greenplum, with whom I was consulting when Plexus Engine was born, puts it this way: “For many B2B marketing professionals effective use of social media can be mysterious and frustrating. The work we did with Marshall helped create a blueprint for success in our social media efforts at EMC Greenplum.”

Sam Whitmore, editor of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey in Oakland, CA says of Plexus: “Mining the info that this technology does, quickly and easily, is money.”

Plexus Engine is going to be especially valuable for people working in marketing and PR, but I think anyone who does business on the web is going to want to use it.

Ok, that’s the end of the short version of the story. You should go to PlexusEngine.com and sign up for beta access. I’ll let you know as soon as more information is available. You can follow @plexusengine on Twitter for updates on the company and you can follow me at @marshallk


Now, who wants to hear some cool stories about the Internet?

I’ve been learning about how to do this kind of stuff for as long as I’ve been working online. The methods I’ve explored have been complicated, experimental and challenging but now I’m going to productize the lessons I’ve learned in a way that anyone can use them.

Back when I started blogging AOL’s Weblogs Inc. I signed up to get RSS feeds from the key tech companies via SMS alerts. (Using Sameer Patel’s old startup Zaptxt.) No one else was doing that at the time and it helped me report on news before all the other tech blogs. That landed me a job as the first hired writer at TechCrunch.

When I was at TechCrunch, I used a variety of other tools to segment my inbound streams of information and broaden the range of information I could consume. (See Open Sourcing My TechCrunch Work Flow)

At ReadWriteWeb, I’ve used a wide variety of tools to mine signal from a whole lot of noise around the web. Here are a few examples of tips and tricks I’ve employed there so far that I’ve already written about before:

Delicious Data Mining

When social bookmarking service Delicious was being “sunsetted” by Yahoo, I wrote about a system we set up for mining it for streams of valuable signals.

Here’s how it worked: we went through the ReadWriteWeb archives and grabbed URLs of companies and products we’d written about before. Then we took those URLs over to Delicious and we looked up their bookmarking history. We scrolled back to the first 20 user names of people who bookmarked those links, then we copied and pasted them into a spreadsheet. Then we repeated that process 300 times or so. Finally, we sorted the spreadsheet alphabetically and found 15 people who on 5 or more occasions had bookmarked something we had later found of sufficient interest to write about. They had a proven history of finding things early – so we subscribed to an RSS feed of everything those people bookmarked in the future. That worked really well for a long time.

Needlebasing Twitter

One day we caught wind of a local Salt Lake City newspaper that ran a story about a big new data center opening in town with a mystery anchor tenant. The paper believed that the tenant was Twitter, opening its first data center outside of San Francisco – as the company said it would, in a location undisclosed. We used the (now Google-acquired) web app called Needlebase to investigate.

We grabbed the URL of the Twitter List of the staff of Twitter Inc. and we trained Needlebase’s point-and-click screen scraping tool to recognize what a user name, Tweet text and location field (when there was one) looked like on the page of staff Tweets. Then I clicked a button and said “go!”

In just a few minutes, the most recent 1125 Tweets from staff were pulled into Needlebase and we said “show ‘em on a map!” Sure enough, one Twitter network engineer had posted a Tweet with a location attached to it right across the highway from the alleged mystery data center. He’d just left San Francisco, he had Tweeted, and arrived in Salt Lake City ready to get to work.

That Tweet was quickly deleted after we reported on it. Six months later, it was reported that the Salt Lake data center efforts were plagued with all kinds of problems and got called off at great expense. (Here’s a screencast about how to use Needlebase to scrape at least the old Twitter interface, things have changed but it’s an ok intro to Needlebase.)

ReadWriteWeb is where I learned to use Twitter as a journalist and it was only slight hyperbole when I wrote four years ago that Twitter was paying my rent. (It was through my use of Twitter on ReadWriteWeb, by the way, that Mashable learned to make use of Twitter, too.)

Backtyping Your Comments Around the Web

Backtype, a startup that got swallowed up by Twitter, used to offer the coolest feature: an RSS feed for comments posted to blog posts all around the web and signed with a particular URL in the URL field.

We took Robert Scoble’s Most Influential in Tech list of Twitter users, grabbed the home page URLs from all the Twitter bios on that list, then ran those URLs through Backtype and got an RSS feed for any comments posted by the people on the list. For some people we put their feeds in an RSS to Instant Messaging alert system, so whenever Chris Messina posted a comment on any blog around the web and signed it FactoryJoe.com, I’d get an IM within 5 minutes. We got to write several stories before anyone else that way.

Unfortunately, that service doesn’t exist anymore, but it was born from the same kind of thinking as the other examples above: what new fields of data online could I gain programmatic access to, subject to some analysis and then use for strategic advantage?

That’s part of the thinking behind Plexus Engine, too.

I’ve written about lots of other ways to use publicly available data and services to derive value from the web: How to Build a Social Media Cheat Sheet on Almost Any Topic, How to Use Blekko (or any Custom Search Engine) to Rock at Your Job, How to Use Mechanical Turk to Rock at Conference Blogging and even How to Find the Weirdest Stuff on the Internet.

If those kinds of things are exciting to you, I think you’re really going to enjoy Plexus Engine. It’s going to be some internet magic, with a ribbon on top.

I think it’s going to be a must-have technology for anyone who does business on the web. I’m looking forward to showing it to you, as soon as its ready.

Social Media is Not Ruining Journalism

I found myself responding to a Google+ thread this morning wherein a respected technology leader said “copying and pasting from social networking sites is not journalism.” Apparently he’d been seeing random Tweets referenced on TV and thought it was lazy, pointless and a sign that journalism is going down the tubes.

I’ll leave his name out of it because I’ve totally copied and pasted things he’s posted online before as the basis for acts of journalism myself!

I do take issue with the idea that the trend of bringing curated social media into other types of media is a bad idea. Here’s why, from my comment on Google+. I edited it to make it more clear.

I respectfully disagree.

1. Had you seen those tweets yourself already? Discovery, curation and contextualization of publicly available information has long been an important part of journalism.

2. If it’s random peoples’ random tweets being shared, that doesn’t sound like a value add, but there certainly is potential there for journalists to integrate multiple types of media to add value. Some Tweets are good to include, some Tweets are not. I find a lot of news on Twitter and sometimes include the tweets themselves in my reporting.

3. I would argue that journalism is expanding and you’re seeing a lot more of new types of journalism: quick hits to catch busy people up on news, curation of reports elsewhere, etc. but there’s still old-fashioned journalism being performed as well. I’m watching the Al Jazeera iPad app right now and it’s great.

I’m also working on a big article about Walmart’s mobile strategy. I’ve been working on it for a week. I’m using lots of online social media, bots, virtual assistants and hope to have 4 or 5 interviews included in my research. In the meantime, though, I’ll probably write 10 other posts for which I didn’t take the time to do interviews. All of that rolled up together = contemporary journalism. Go read some tweets, then go read some longform.org or such things.

I don’t think it’s as dismal as you think.

In fact – I think we’re making a difficult transition into a new golden age of journalism. I hope so, at least.

That said, there is a feeling of pressure to work ever faster. From a previous comment in the same conversation.

It’s hard to scale, but we honestly do try to interview people whenever we can. (I know I totally copied and pasted a comment from you awhile ago though too!) I do probably 5-7 interviews a week by phone or IM for 15 blog posts I write. I wish I could do more, but I have to rely on search and discussion with my own co-workers in most cases. I can’t spend more than 90 minutes on most of those stories and sometimes that precludes being able to connect with someone to interview. Sad but true.

Given all that – online social media is where a lot of conversation is happening and it can be incredibly valuable to news research. Sometimes that’s done well and sometimes that’s done poorly.

Corporate Social Strategist List Now Doubled in Size

Back in January I did some fun hacking together of a Twitter list and some stats about corporate social strategists on Twitter, based on a great list of people in charge of social technology strategy at companies around the world compiled by Jeremiah Owyang.

Jeremiah kept adding to his list, though, and I quickly fell behind in trying to find each new addition to his list on Twitter and adding them to my Twitter list. Last month I finally figured out a way to get myself caught up and a list that was 141 members strong is now up to 277!

Here’s that list, if you haven’t started following it already. And here are a bunch of metrics and insights into the first half of the list. (If you’re interested in this kind of research about any other business sector, but better, you should contact me, by the way.)

Here’s how I caught up on list updates, if you’re interested. I copied all the names on Jeremiah’s updated list into a Google Doc, then I copied all the names on my Twitter List into another Google Doc. Then I emailed my favorite virtual assistant service Fancyhands and asked them to send me a list of the people on Jeremiah’s list but not on mine. They did that promptly. Then I sent the resulting list back into Fancyhands on another work request and asked for everyone’s Twitter username on that list.

Then I turned the resulting list into a bunch of links to those Twitter profiles. Then I changed my Twitter password. Oooooh, scary! Then I gave my new Twitter password to my fabulous new friend Steve Malloy and he did me the favor of adding all the new people to the official list! Thank you so much, Steven, for helping all of us keep track of the Tweets of social strategy leaders around the world!