An aha moment about social data

I just got asked to contribute a story about an “aha moment” I’ve had in tech and this is what I’m submitting. I thought I’d share it here too, as I’m sure there won’t be much overlap. I’ve got a bunch of stories like this and they inform the creation of our startup, Little Bird.


When you’re raking leaves, the autumn can feel like a great time for introspection. Once, while working in my yard years ago, I found myself thinking about the internet. Specifically, I was thinking “what is it that I do on the internet that helps me learn about things before other people do – and are there other examples of the same kind of approach that I could be taking but am not yet?”

I was a tech blogger, at ReadWriteWeb, and I specialized in using tools and data to break news stories. That was my job, to find out things as early as possible.

That day is when I realized: I like to think about fields of data that are available online and treat them like hammers. They say when all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. I like to frame that in the positive and say that when you get a new kind of hammer, there are sometimes a whole new set of nails you can discover.

I used RSS feeds, Tweets, every field available in Delicious, but was there more? That’s when I realized that I wasn’t doing anything with blog comments! Blog comments were structured, publicly accessible, tied to people and timely. So I thought of a way I could leverage blog comments to learn things early.

Here’s what I did: I took Robert Scoble’s Most Influential in Tech list on Twitter and I scraped all the home page URLs off of the bios there. Scoble knew a bunch of Silicon Valley people I didn’t know. I grabbed those URLs and I took them to a service called BackType (since acquired by Twitter and shut down). BackType would take any URL and scour all the comments fields in blogs around the web, and return any new comments where that URL appeared in the URL field of the comment, delivered to you by RSS. So I created a whole OPML file of RSS feeds of comments posted anywhere by the 500 most influential people in technology, according to Robert Scoble. Then I took all those RSS feeds and I plugged them into an RSS to IM real-time notification system. And I was able to break several news stories that way: an important engineer would post a comment on some obscure blog asking about help for a secret forthcoming project and I would get a real-time notification of the comment. So then I’d go report on the otherwise secret forthcoming project. It was pretty awesome and I never told any of the people I found info from how I found out about their news, except for once at 4am in a pizza line at SXSW.

That was the day I realized that the social web is full of various fields of structured data that can be mined and monitored to learn important things, intentionally and strategically.

Now I’m the CEO of a company that does similar but gentler things: it uses data to point marketers to people they should listen to and engage with!

Marshall Kirkpatrick is a former blogger, the first hired writer at TechCrunch and long-time co-editor of ReadWriteWeb, and is now CEO of Little Bird, a company that turns social data into competitive advantage for enterprise marketers.