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

71 Comments 11.11.11

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

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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.


HEY: Carbon is a heat trapping gas. We are pumping huge amounts of carbon into the air. We have been humans for between 200k and 1.8m years and it's not clear we're going to make it another 200.

I'd say please send for help, but there's no other help to send for.

  • Good show, old bean.

  • Best wishes and success on your new adventure.

  • Glad you’ll still be around @RWW, but I’m still extremely excited to see what happens with this. This sounds so perfect for you 🙂

  • Congratulations on finding an opportunity to apply your passion and discovery of ways to surface important information from the tumult & chaff. Glad to learn RWW wil not loose your voice.

  • Great step. Been following you as a writer, will continue follow the entrepreneur.
    Don’t hesitate to contact me, if you have trademark issues.

  • Congratulations! Can’t wait to hear more about this.

  • Congrats, Marshall. Sounds like a perfect fit for you. Will be great to watch it grow!

  • GO Marshall, go! I look forward to learning from your latest endeavor.

  • Congrats and all the best! (Btw, fix the links! )

  • Awesome. I have learned SO much from you in the ways of the infovore over the years. It has changed my personal and professional life, and I can’t wait to get my hands on whatever you come up with next. Let me know if you ever want a beta tester! 🙂

  • Excellent. Sounds fascinating Marshall, good luck!

  • I remember finding one of your first Twitter filtering how tos from 2007, and getting my first glimpse of what a future of big data would make possible.

    If anyone can crack this nut, it’s you. Looking forward to testing out the product!

  • Congrats and YAY!

  • Congrats on your exciting new venture sir! I am definitely going to be watching Plexus Engine closely and I’m excited to see what comes out of this magic piece of goodness.

  • Congrats Marshall! Looking forward to using your new service. At TrendSpottr (http://trendspottr.com) we’re also focused on identifying & predicting emerging trending information for any topic or keyword. In fact, our service is designed to “spot” trends at their earliest acceleration point to provide what we call “early insights” — information that’s available hours or days before it has reached general awareness.

    Our goal is to provide users with information that is literally “ahead of the curve”. Many newsrooms, PR agencies and brands currently use TrendSpottr to discover trending events, breaking news and emerging viral content.

    We’re launching a new premium version of TrendSpottr soon that will include additional capabilities, such as full streaming analytics, alerts/notifications and historical trend analysis & visualizations. Let us know if there may be some opportunities to cooperate. In any event, best of luck on your new venture!!

  • Marshall,

    Congratulations on the move from blogger to entrepreneur. When Plexus Engine is up and running I may have some possible clients for you – we should chat (perhaps in early 2012 when I’m back online from my honeymoon).

  • Great stuff, Marshall. Shoot me an email at ro@disq__.com sometime re: the Disqus API. Just released some new things (http://blog.disqus.com/post/12601872576/hello-oauth) and others in the works you may be interested in.

  • Sounds like interesting stuff Marshall- congrats (too early?) on this move, and I’ll certainly be watching

  • Good for you to live life according to your own terms.

  • Congrats Marshall! Portland is fortunate to have such talent here. Can’t wait to see/use Plexus Engine.

  • jon knight

    Congratulations and Godspeed, Marshall!

  • Nice!

    Looking forward to seeing this. I don’t actually cover breaking news right now but you’ll never know when I’ll be back in that game!

    FYI – Those last couple of links on this post aren’t configured properly.

  • Kmapjr

    Ohh man I think I just wet myself! Thanks I’ll be waiting for the info, as I signed up for 🙂 Thanks!

  • Congrats on the big move, Marshall! The new project looks super heady, but radical to its core.

  • Very cool, Marshall. Plexis Engine sounds exciting and I just sent this article to several people. Enjoy your new endeavor and I will be sure to follow you in one way or another.

  • AdamD

    Yay! I’m excited that we all get both RWW Marshall and Plexus Marshall. And looking forward to the awesomeness that comes out of that. But who will walk your dogs now that you’re so busy?!

  • I can’t wait to try Plexus out!

  • Very Nice Marshall! Very auspicious launch date…wishing you the best from Rio.

  • Very very cool! Congratulations Marshall — we’ll miss the effervescent and timely updates on RWW but can’t wait to see how you revitalize real-time curation with PE.

  • The web has been calling out for a service that performs this sort of analysis of what is getting hot at a topical level for ages now, and you’ve taken the brave steps to go and create it. Personally, I’ve used some of the tools such as backtweets, delicious, backtype and more recently services such as DataSift and others.

    I can see it of use already in news rooms, by bloggers searching for emerging trends in their niche and the general public just trying to find out what is hot as a whole.

    I wrote this article back in July –

    http://blog.webdistortion.com/2011/06/15/google-1-the-digital-media-war-room/

    Plexus sounds like this on ‘roids. I am super excited for this Marshall.

  • You’ve dropped a pretty lengthy description of what will be the norm once Linked Data generation and exploitation is more prevalent. Thus, I am hoping your new venture taps into the Web’s nacent 3rd dimension. There are a number of us — over the years since it became clear that Web 2.0 wasn’t the Linked Data dimension — who have sought additional company in this very exciting realm 🙂

  • Already signed in for the Beta. I would trust no one else more to ship a great product. I’ll be waiting anxiously to make the earliest review in spanish of Plexus Engine 😉

  • Congratulation on your new adventure! We’ll be missing your reports on RWW. Best of luck for PlexusEngine.Semantics FTW!

  • So excited for you, Marshall! And, well, even more excited for the rest of us to have another opportunity to benefit from your brain 🙂

  • Best of luck to you , Marshall! I’ve been reading RWW for years and look forward to using PlexusEngine!

  • 🙂

    I’m offline at meetings all day, and miss the big news! Congratulations, and looking forward to playing with Plexus!

  • Congrats! Kick ass!

  • Anonymous

    Awesome!

  • Best wishes!

  • guest

    wow. So many potential uses of this come to mind: stock markets, breaking news, law enforcement, market research, and some scary uses as well (making it simple for individuals to create a web based profile of any one) I know corporations have had the ability as well as a relative few data miners. But the potential for misuse or abuse of something like this seems kind of eerie.

    Example: your tool might scan for my online handle that may be used in multiple cases to simply and easily determine my real life identity where I thought it was somewhat (publicly) anonymous. Maybe in the wrong hands someone could determine when I was going to be away and burglarize my home. They could also potentially learn where I bank, where I work where my children go to school etc etc. Now for me personally I don’t have a lot to steal or be worried about, but there are plenty out there who do.

    (Or… maybe I am over thinking this a bit :))

  • Wow. I remember chatting with you about this last year at Defrag when it was still in the idea stage.

    So happy for you that you’ve made the plunge. From the ZapTXT days, I remember how far you would go to bend tools to manage meaningful info flow. That kind of passion sets you up really well to think through the right solution.

    Good luck!

  • Wow, thats a big one! Good luck Marshall!

  • Hey Marshall, just wanted to say thanks for all the insights over the last while and all the best for the new chapter

  • daniel wood

    Marshall – this is great news. I love your digital sleuthing schemes and would enjoy to have creative researching hacks packaged and productized. It is only right that I discovered this post through Summify… another start-up that is promoting the collective signal from the noise through smart filtering. Congratulations.

    @dtwood

  • Congrats Marshall. You have been one of my favorite tech bloggers over the the years and I will miss your analysis. I wish you the best of luck in your new venture.

  • Anonymous

    Congratulations on your new venture, Marshall! Look forward to trying Plexus when it comes out. Good luck with it!

  • Great news. Good luck with your new steps. have followed you RWW for long and will do in plexus as well.

    buzzintechnology.com

  • intuition, tech-enabled

  • Wow. Huge congrats Marshall. That’s very exciting and I can’t think of a better person out there to attack this market. I’ve signed up for my invite and am literary holding my breath waiting.

  • good luck and looking forward to plexus