Thursday, March 26, 2009

PHP Users Group Meeting Tonight

See PHP Users Group Meeting Tonight at its new home on

The presenter at tonight's (3/26/2009) Burlington, VT PHP Users Group meeting will be Paul Reinheimer of php|architect. His presentation, "Easy Problems are the Hard Problems," will take an in-depth look at the easy/hard parts of web applications. There will be pizza for your consumption (provided by Found Line). If you're a web developer in the area then I hope to see you there! If you know any web developers who may be interested, please let them know about tonight's meeting.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Web Is Not A Visual Medium

See The Web Is Not A Visual Medium at its new home on

A claim you may have heard me make before is that the web is not a visual medium. Some of you know exactly what I mean and some of you probably think I'm nuts. For those of you who think I'm crazy, let me elaborate. You, like most people, probably experience the web visually. However, this visual aspect is only one facet of the web. Underneath the visual aspect you will find that the web is a structured, or semantic, medium. This means that people (or even machines) of varying capabilities (as opposed to disabilities), using all sorts of user agents (a fancy way of saying web browsers) can experience this same web non-visually. If built correctly, the same web page should be accessible to you visually as well as to visually impaired people, search engine robots, people that want to use text only web browsers, people using older versions of web browsers (backward compatibility), people using mobile devices, and user agents that weren't even invented yet when the web page was first built (forward compatibility).

There's one catch. There are many web sites and web applications built on the incorrect assumption that the web is a visual medium. The web designers and web developers who build these web sites and web applications break the web. In order to not break the web, web designers and web developers need to use open standards starting with plain old semantic (X)HTML. This semantic (X)HTML can then be progressively enriched/enhanced using CSS (for presentation) and JavaScript (for behavior). This approach works well with the concept of One Web which "means making, as far as is reasonable, the same information and services available to users irrespective of the device they are using."

Craig Cook has a good article about How to Grok Web Standards in which he addresses many of these ideas and more. If you still think I'm crazy, hopefully it's not because you think I'm wrong about the web not being a visual medium. If you don't think I'm crazy then maybe in another blog post I'll talk about why I think that content management systems (CMSs) in general, and WYSIWYG editors specifically, break the web.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Social Graph

See The Social Graph at its new home on

In my last post about the semantic web I mentioned the XFN project which allows individuals to define their relationships to others simply using semantically marked up hyperlinks. I also said that a global graph can be made of all of these relationships making the "walled gardens" of existing social networking sites obsolete. Before I continue, I should probably mention that the word "graph" in this context refers to graph theory in computer science, not a chart or diagram (although these graphs could be visualized). At risk of over-simplifying: graph theory talks about how individual "nodes" connect to one another and how data can be extracted from looking at these connections.

Google has an interesting project called the Social Graph API that lets developers "utilize public connections their users have already created in other web services. It makes information about public connections between people easily available and useful." It uses public XFN as well as FOAF data to accomplish this. FOAF is, interestingly enough, an example of something designed around the W3C's Semantic Web specification. Here's a video that explains a bit about how Google's Social Graph API works:

The power of this open data is another example of why facebook won’t last as a walled garden. I don't expect existing social networking sites to simply disappear. However, open standards like XFN and FOAF will help level the playing field amongst social networks by allowing even small social networks to benefit from the network effect. Having lots of social networks trying out different things can only be good for innovation in the long run.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

TMD VT Social Media Recap

See TMD VT Social Media Recap at its new home on

Wow, thank you to everyone who participated and helped make Town Meeting Day Vermont '09 a social media success! In the spirit of openness, I wanted to share some things that Jason and I learned from the experiment. First of all, some disclaimers. It's important to note that we were just one small part of something that was bigger than us. Our goal was to encourage people to use tagging on Twitter, Flickr, blog posts indexed by Technorati, YouTube, and Delicious so that others could easily find Town Meeting Day related content. It didn't matter to us if people used directly, what mattered was that people used the relevant tags when publishing or when searching. In fact, I doubt that had much of an effect on adoption of the #tmdvt hashtag on Twitter, which was the site that, by far, had the most tagging activity.

Before you continue reading the rest of this blog post, you should read my first post on Town Meeting Day Vermont, Bill Simmon's Town Meeting Day & social media, Cathy Resmer's Town Meeting Day 2009, and Ryan Freebern's Townsourcing; or, the promise of localized community media for some background and other perspectives… OK, back? Great!

A big thing we noticed was that since most users found out about through Twitter, they expected the same level of immediacy as Twitter from the other websites we aggregated. Flickr, Technorati, and YouTube all had delays that were longer than what users expected. Delicious bookmarks didn't show up immediately but were still relatively quick. We couldn't quite figure out why some of the content from Flickr was delayed. It seemed to be based on a variety of factors, such as the account's submission frequency (possibly as an anti-spam measure).

As I mentioned earlier, the heaviest tag usage was on Twitter with over 360 tweets from countless people using the #tmdvt hashtag. Next up was Flickr with over 150 uploads tagged with tmdvt09 from a handful of users. Only 6 blog posts used the tmdvt09 tag and were picked up by Technorati: 1 was my original post about the tag, 1 was from Vermont Public Radio's blog, and 4 were from The Seven Days Staff Blog. I think there were more blog posts that used the tmdvt09 tag, but for whatever reason these didn't get indexed. Only 2 YouTube videos were uploaded and tagged with tmdvt09. There were 21 bookmarks tagged with tmdvt09 on Delicious; however, none were tagged enough to be considered "popular" by Delicious.

CCTV Channel 17 pointed out that they were posting exit interviews to and that there was no option for that on It appears that doesn't support tagging or categorized feeds so we had no way of syndicating content specific to Town Meeting Day from or CCTV's channel. However, a representative from was paying attention and was quick to respond to my tweets, which I was very impressed by.

I was also impressed with local news outlets bridging the gap between traditional and social media during Town Meeting Day. Seven Days, Burlington Free Press, Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Community Access Media, and CCTV Channel 17 all had a presence on Twitter, and some had a presence in other social media as well. I had conversations with representatives from several of these news outlets and there was a general interest in further engagement in

The original sketch for included tabs for traditional media outlets in addition to the tabs for various social media websites. I don't think social media will replace traditional media. Traditional media provides the resources (i.e. time and money) to do real reporting and the authority that comes with that legwork. I do, however, believe that traditional media and social media can learn a lot from each other, which is part of why we wanted to put them at the same level on

In order to include traditional media, we needed Atom or RSS feeds specific to Town Meeting Day content. In my research, and in talking with several people from the media, I couldn't find anyone who was currently doing this. The Seven Days Staff Blog was the closest with their Town Meeting Day 2009 category. However, they didn't have an Atom or RSS feed set up for this category, so it would have been very difficult for me to try to aggregate that content. My challenge to the news media is to provide more fine grained feeds so that your readers can decide exactly what type of stories they're interested in reading. It will likely increase the number of people who subscribe to your Atom or RSS feeds and allow people like me to make mashups using your content.

I think there is a lot to be learned from this experiment and I'd love to hear what insight others may have about this. Let's continue the discussion online. Also, it might be interesting to have an offline discussion sharing perspectives from this year's Town Meeting Day and ideas for similar events in the future. If you're interested, let me know!