An aha moment about social data

3 Comments 03.26.15

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.

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NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

Why Don’t People Understand Social Web 101 Already?

6 Comments 02.11.15

How little do people understand about how social networks work and how should we relate to that reality?

Why don’t people understand Social Web 101 by now? I imagine the literal answer is “because they’re busy, success doesn’t seem accessible, there aren’t good role models, people are disinclined to experiment, etc.” But sometimes I’m still in shock.

This morning Gary Vaynerchuck put up a blog post pointing out that anyone can post to a hashtag and be discovered by people who click on that hashtag, whether their content is “on brand” or relevant to the originator of the hashtag or not. How little attention are people paying to the internet that they need to be told this? Are they talking about hashtags but never, ever clicking on one in the wild? (Here’s one for Twitter: #workingoutloud)

Well duh.

Last night I was listening to an episode of my new favorite podcast, the Geek Whisperers (“Social Media and the Employee Clone Army“) and Amy Lewis said that she talks to people regularly who ask her “people on the internet – how can I make them listen to me?”

Amy laughed and said the secret is clearly: be interesting.

But I don’t know that it’s a laughing matter. Is the networked social world so radically unlike everything that’s ever existed before that it’s unreasonable to expect people to pay attention and experiment a little?

Sometimes I think “this is a great opportunity to help people learn, there’s so much opportunity!” But other times I think like Amy Lewis said, let’s give people access to tools and get out of their way. Either they’ll embrace them or they won’t, there’s no sense trying to force horses to drink water.

Anyone else’s thoughts about how best to relate to the apparent mystery of all this would be much appreciated.

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NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

Uber: the hottest links about Uber today

1 Comment 02.05.15

I’m in San Francisco this week with several members of the Little Bird team, one of whom is particularly interested in Uber – as I am, as well. In order to efficiently learn more about the company, I suggested that we run a Little Bird report on the Uber Community, map out the most influential members of that community online and see what they are talking about.

(Below: the sub-communities of Uber influencers on Twitter form clusters around official accounts, investor and stakeholder accounts, marketing communities that admire Uber and dedicated Uber-haters.  Those haters are the pink cluster in the bottom right.)


I ran this report and thought that instead of just sending the hottest links to my co-worker in an email, I would work out loud and post them publicly for others to see as well.  I’ve got the report set up and bookmarked, and Uber is a really interesting company, so I’ll likely visit it often for the day or week’s hottest links.

Here they are:


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NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

You can leverage templates for structured thinking, here’s how I make them in Evernote

4 Comments 01.03.15

“We could become far more intelligent than we are by adding to our stock of concepts and forcing ourselves to use them even when we don’t like what they are telling us.” So writes John Tooby in a compilation of essays titled This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking. “We all start from radical ignorance in a world that is endlessly strange, vast, complex, intricate and surprising. Deliverance from ignorance lies in good concepts – inference fountains that geyser out insights that organize and increase the scope of our understanding.”

I don’t know about the radical ignorance part, but I like most of this way of putting it. That sentiment sits in my head alongside the Albert Einstein quote about how the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a humble servant, but we’ve created a society that elevates the servant and denigrates the sacred gift.

I love a good structured thinking process though and I like to think of them as tools I carry in my mental toolbox. Tooby, above, writes about a framework called Nexus Causality in the compilation This Will Make You Smarter. (Almost everything has multiple causes, he writes, but our brains have evolved to look for the causal factors we suspect are the ones most viable to change. That might make sense in a short term survival context, but to truly understand something it behooves us to understand the many causal factors contributing to it, the nexus causality, Tooby writes.)

That book was a place where I learned about thinking frameworks like Inference to the Best Explanation and Probabilistic Thinking as two other processes. I also like to think through things with regard to AG Lafley’s 5 Questions Every Good Strategy Should Answer. Sometimes I’ll take the approach of listing all possible factors in a decision, pick the 5 or 6 most important and make the decision based on those. Other times I’ll think through things from this perspective: what does this mean to me internally? What does it mean to me externally? What does it mean to those around me in an internal, cultural way? What does it mean to those around me in an external, process oriented way?

And I could go on. I love that kind of stuff, someday I’ll write about it more.

But for now, I was just marveling at how easy it has become for me to come back to one templated set of questions I like to ask myself each day, thanks to Evernote.


That’s my daily list I’m working off of right now. I started using it when I was not feeling well, as a way to remind myself of the many good things going on in my life. I’m revising it over time but it’s working pretty well for me. It’s one of a number of examples of templates I make use of.

Here’s how I made it and made it easy to use.
1. Make a template like this, maybe with question lines in bold for ease of distinction between question and answer text.
2. Give it a good template title and put it in an Evernote notebook where you want all the filled-out copies of this form to live.
3. Star the note into shortcuts, through the menu in the bottom right corner. (See below for what that looks like.)
4. Then, when you’re ready to rock and roll – either because you want to deploy this particular tool or regularly, like at the end of the day, during coffee, in association with some other BJ Fogg approved anchor habit – you can click the shortcut to get to your template document.
5. Now go to the lower right menu again and hit Duplicate. This will create a new version of your templated document and put it in the same folder!
6. Now go down your list of questions and type in this round of answers. Boom! A geyser of insights to organize and expand the scope of your understanding of a strange and surprising world!

These instructions assume you’re on a mobile device, as I am much of the time when I Evernote and as I am now thanks to WordPress for iOS.


I want to do this all the time, with more and more of my thinking tools.

If you’re still reading all the way to the end of this post, maybe you’re the kind of person who has some similar tips and tricks you can share. If so, please allow me to point out the comments field below.

Thanks for reading, may your structured thinking processes be illuminating and always close at hand!

I want to make sure you know about NTEN - the Nonprofit Technology Network.

NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

On “a Twitter user” as the new “an area man” in media

0 Comments 12.28.14

This Tweet from journalist Lora Kolodny got my wheels spinning and made me want to articulate some thoughts about the place of social media in general, and Twitter in particular, in public discourse. I understand Lora means here that where media used to get “man on the street” comments on matters of public interest as part of their reporting, now everyone loves to quote people from Twitter.

I think this is great and nothing to be ashamed of but I do think that the practice could be improved upon substantially. For one thing, stop leading with silly usernames. The silly username and new platform is not the point. Maybe that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

More interesting is why this practice is so appealing. I think there are a number of reasons.

First, we really live in a global culture now where we’re able to access and are interested in peoples’ opinions regardless of where they live. That’s part of the promise of the internet being delivered, right there.

Second, more peoples’ opinions are accessible than ever before, with a much lower barrier to entry to discover them. That means there’s a greater pool of opinions to choose the most interesting ones from. The average Twitter user quoted by the media may not be as informed or interesting as the commenters over on the blog Marginal Revolution (a site I’m enjoying more all the time), but there are options now! For quoting the famous and the random people of the world. You might say social media accelerates Satisficing in acquisition of third party analysis of a matter. (“Satisficing is a decision-making strategy or cognitive heuristic that entails searching through the available alternatives until an acceptability threshold is met.”)

Third, there’s the Hawthorne Effect. Sometimes called the Observer Effect, this is the idea that a person’s behavior changes when they know they’re being watched. When the media interviews people, they get flustered, try too hard, play it safe, etc. They know they are entering the public eye in probably the biggest way they ever will.

Posting to your friends and the world on Twitter isn’t like that. But it’s not like a private conversation, either. On one hand it’s like perpetually living under the Observer Effect, but on another hand it’s not – and I think people probably grow numb to the sense they are being observed, over time. Then boom, the media uses your Tweet. Probably with permission, but asked after the fact – not like a man on the street interview. I think that represents a changed relationship between journalism and part of the world it reports on.

Finally, some observation I can offer based on my company’s data. I often see a news story break in media coverage and rush to Little Bird to find out what the most influential people in relevant specialties are saying about it, in real time.

For example, when Amazon announced its drone delivery plan – I looked at what the drone experts were saying about it. Or when Google bought Boston Dynamics, I checked to see what leading robotics experts were saying in real time. You know what they were saying? Nothing. At least the top 500 or so (measured by peer validation, as we do), took hours after the story was reported before they commented on Twitter. The media, people who specialize in learning about and telling stories fast, had all the experts beat by hours. Even the experts who are super comfortable with posting their thoughts publicly in the real-time medium of Twitter. I think that’s a point for the traditional media, despite the widespread critique that they just parrot what they find on Twitter now. Not always!

That said, I always found when I was working as a journalist, that two great ways to capture unique value from the social web were as follows:
* First, search inside the archives of the blogs of subject matter experts to see what they’ve written in past long-form content on the topic of the news you’re reporting. (I did this by creating Google Custom Search Engines that let me search across all the top blogs in a subject, once I’d found the top blogs at least.)
* Second, reaching out to relevant experts by Twitter Direct Message and getting real-time quotes works great. If you can identify which experts in a relevant field already follow you, you can DM them and they love providing quotes by email.

My company makes both of those practices easy to do, but for whatever reason we’re finding marketers are more willing to do them than journalists, so far. I would love for that to change.

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NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

10 Lessons I learned on Twitter in November

2 Comments 11.30.14

I’m cleaning my house, watching Jason Calacanis’s 90 minute interview with Reid Hoffman and was inspired to dig into Little Bird’s LinkedIn data as a result. Christopher Penn‘s blog post about analyzing your Twitter history over 2014 inspired me to look at my history from this month. You can too at

And from that chain of great content, I was inspired to share 10 of my most popular Tweets from this month. I tweeted 200 times over the month, on average almost 7 times per day, so these are the top 5% with a little bit of editorial and framing this as lessons I learned, that I shared with my Twitter community and that resonated.

In order of most recent to least:

I liked this blog post, I shared a link to it in our Slack chat room for sharing cool stuff, our fabulous designer Jason Zeiber enjoyed it and posted the subheads. I thought that was a good value add and decided to one-up him by posting it on Twitter, using @ mentions to introduce relevant parties and people loved it. On one hand the lesson here is that, in ten different ways, startup growth is an ongoing process. But another lesson is that people really appreciate not just curation but summary and introduction. This one got over 4,100 impressions.


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NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.

Great explanation of how we might use wearables at work someday

1 Comment 11.25.14

I love push notifications – I made my career as a journalist with them, from the first stories I beat TechCrunch to (which led them to hire me as the first writer there) through crazy data hacks with multiple thresholds for push notifications for ReadWriteWeb. Now today as an entrepreneur, I use mobile push notifications to jump on opportunities to engage with key people in my life: market influencers, investors, my lawyer, a wide variety of people. I mostly chose high-value streams and get all their content sent by push.

But what does that look like for the market in general and in a future made up of wearable technologies? It’s a little hard to imagine as I sit in my office in the dark, with my phone charging next to me, lighting up with push notifications every 30 to 90 seconds. Other people aren’t going to deal with the level of signal to noise ratio I’m willing to, and most of the time our phones are in our pockets.

I loved this explanation from Bryan Mills on Annuity Outlook Magazine, in an article titled The Future of Client Engagement – Wearable Technology.

I think this goes beyond financial professionals, that’s just their audience. I think this kind of real time text update from VIP sources could be applicable to lots of people. One big question I have: is this level of real-time UX something users are excited about? If so, I want to build more of that. But I’m not sure that more than a handful of us are into it, like this at least.

I want to make sure you know about NTEN - the Nonprofit Technology Network.

NTEN helps nonprofits learn to use the web effectively.