Monthly Archive for February, 2009

Social melebrities and the externality of arrogance

The biggest impact the web and the Internet has had on society can be described using one word: "social". Social computing, social networking, social software, social media – the list goes on. The ability for humans to connect sounds simple, but it’s literally shaking up entire industries. With the rise of mass collaboration however, there has been the creation of a new class of denizen.

Social melebrities
Social media is a broad-based buzz word now becoming mainstream, to describe technologies that enables many-to-many communication between humans. A defining characteristic of social media is that it’s a public discussion. It’s like having a conversation with someone around a water cooler and the people sitting nearby join in on the conversation. Although the message is directed to one specific entity, that same message can be seen by people not originally intended to get the message.

Enter the social melebrity: a social media celebrity. They are people aware of how others can see their message, and consequently, modify their behaviour accordingly.


The problem with social melebrities. As someone becomes more engaged in "social media", a natural fact that emerges is that you become better known. People will subscribe to your content and communications, which in turn creates this sense of self-importance. It implies if people are watching you then therefore you are influential.

An externality of this process however is arrogance. It feeds into the day-to-day language of people, and creates unhealthy behaviours. Like the obsession of people getting more followers on a site like Twitter, is really a symptom of someone chasing for influence to feed their insecurity that they somehow matter.

Extending Twitter as the casestudy,
– most people that follow you are spam and inactive accounts. That growing number of followers doesn’t mean anything. That’s not influence.
– Most people that use Twitter have a job. That means, they cannot physically track every Tweet and at the same time be productive. In other words, if they are people that are doing amazing things in this world, they haven’t got time to track everything you say all the time. That’s not influence.


Remind yourself that you’re unique – just like everyone else. Once you delve into this world, just assume you are going to get a lot more exposure of your personal brand. Good on you if you do – but remember, it doesn’t matter. Real influence comes from the types of people that follow you, not from the amount of people that follow you (and following can vary in itself depending how how engaged they are in you). There’s no easy metric to determine "real" influence or reach, but there’s a lesson in that nevertheless: drop the arrogance. You might be famous now – but so is everyone else.

Data portability allows mashup for Australian bush fire crisis

Last night in Australia, one of the states developed a series of bush fires that have ravaged communities – survivors describe it as “raining fire” that came out of no where. As I write this, up to 76 people have been killed.

Victorian AU Fires 2009
The sky is said by Dave Hollis to look how it is in the movie ‘Independence Day’

An important lesson has come out out of this. First, the good stuff.

Googler Pamela Fox has created an invaluable tool to display the bush fires in real time. Using Google technologies like App engine and the Maps API (which she is the support engineer for), she’s been able to create a mashup that helps the public.

She can do so because the Victorian Fire department supports the open standard RSS. There are fires in my state of New South Wales as well, but like other Fire Department’s in Australia, there is no RSS feed to pull the data from (which is why you won’t see any data on the map from there) It appears states like NSW do support RSS for updates, but it would be more useful if there was some consistency – refer to discussion below about the standards.

For further information, you can read the Google blog post.

While the Fire Department’s RSS allows the portability of the data, it doesn’t have geocodes or a clear licence for use. That may not sound like a big deal, but the ability to contextualise a piece of information in this case matters a hell of a lot.

As a workaround, Pamela sent addresses through the Google geocoder to develop a database of addresses with latitude and longtitude.

GeoRSS and KML
In the geo standards world, two dominant standards exist that enable the portability of data. One is an extension to RSS (GeoRSS) that allows you to extend an RSS feed to show geodata. The other in Keyhole Markup Language, which was a standard developed by Google. GeoRSS is simply modifying RSS feeds to be more useful, while KML is more like how HTML is.

If the CFA and any other websites had supported them either of these standards, it would have made life a lot more easier. Pamela has access to Google resources to translate the information into a geocode and even she had trouble. (Geocoding the location data was the most time-consuming of the map-making process.)

The lessons
1) If you output data, output it in some standard structured format (like RSS, KML, etc).
2) If you want that data to be useful for visualisation, include both time and geographic (latitude/longitude information). Otherwise you’re hindering the public’s ability to use it.
3) Let the public use your data. The Google team spent some time to ensure they were not violating anything by using this data. Websites should be clearer about their rights of usage to enable mashers to work without fear
4) Extend the standards. It would have helped a lot of the CFA site extended their RSS with some custom elements (in their own namespace), for the structured data about the fires. Like for example <cfa:State>Get the hell out of here</cfa>.
5) Having all the Fire Department’s using the same standards would have make a world of difference – build the mashup using one method and it can be immediately useful for future uses.

Pamela tells me that this is the fifth natural disaster she’s dealt with. Every time there’s been an issue of where to get the data and how to syndicate it. Data portability matters most for natural disasters- people don’t have time to deal with scraping HTML (didn’t we learn this with Katrina?).

Let’s be prepared for the next time an unpredictable crisis like this occurs.