Monthly Archives: November 2011

[Webapp Idea] Twitter Link Browser

I use Twitter quite some. A lot of the people I follow share quite a lot of links. When I browse twitter on my mobile in the morning, I can’t check out all the links. I usually ‘Favorite’ the links that seem interesting and then browse them later. I’d actually prefer a better interface to this, which enables me to tag these links privately so that I can look for them later as well.

I found one such webapp whose name I now forget. The problem with it was it had a sucky interface and didn’t let me preview all the links properly. Then there’s also Tweetree which offers previews of shared links. I also like the Google Reader/Gmail sort of interface which keeps track of new links and already read links. And also, when multiple people share the same link, I’d like to see it all collapsed as one with “X, Y and Z shared this” next to it. Or something.

So this is one thing I’d like to build using Google App Engine.

The steps to do so would be as follows:

  1. Find a nice Twitter API interface for Python which can preferably be integrated with Google App Engine.
  2. Write code to get tweets from your Twitter timeline.
    2(a) Learn how to use Twitter OAuth.
  3. Detect tweets with links. When they do, extract the unshortened link.
  4. By now, you have a set of links, and can choose to display them as you wish.
  5. Use the App Engine datastore to store previously viewed links. Possible attributes to be stored along with link can include users who shared this link, timestamps of tweets which shared these links, viewed-or-not (when dropping into database after extraction, this attribute should have the value ‘No’), title of linked page. Also store time of last login.
  6. Workflow: On login, extract links from timeline and drop into database until the timestamp of the tweet you’re reading is lesser than the time of last login. Then display those links with ‘viewed-or-not’ value as ‘No’ as ‘Unread items’ and the rest as ‘read’ items. On clicking each link, mark them as read. Also provide checkboxes to mass-markAsRead.
  7.  Basic interface: Gmail HTML sorts. Previews and stuff can come later.
Components to build a basic version:
  • OAuth
  • Tweet-getter
  • Link-extract-and-drop-in-database. This in turn includes Link extractor, unshortener, title-getter, database interface.
  • Database queries to view links and mark them as read/unread.
  • User interface.
Anything missing so far? Loose ends? Anything can be done better? Are you working on this? Any advice on getting started or any of the individual components?
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RIP, Reader

Yeah, this is yet another one of the funeral dirges for Google Reader. And I post it here instead of on my personal blog because I need to get into the habit of writing about technology here. Google Reader is hardly ‘technology’ as I intend it to be… I want to use this place for research updates and paper summaries.  But the anxiety about ‘not being good enough’ when it comes to all that is so much that I don’t want to write anything even remotely geeky. I need to snap out of that. And it’s NaNoWriMo, it’s about quantity more than quality. So here we go 🙂

So basically there are two main arguments against Google Reader’s integration with Google Plus. First is about how the user interface is sucky. And the second is about how the removal of sharing has killed the whole spirit of Reader. A third, if I may add, is that the platform/API is so bad, and everything is so messed up at first look that I can’t seem to wrap my mind around how to write a wrapper that makes things better.  Oh wait, there’s a fourth as well – the ‘stream’ format, as opposed to the folders-and-tags format, is the very antithesis of what Reader is supposed to be.

Let’s start with the appearance. Yes, white space is good. It makes things look ‘clean’. But that’s only when you have very specific things you want your user to see on your page. It works great for the Google.com homepage, for instance… all you want is a search bar. But when it’s a feed reader, it doesn’t work at all. When I log in, I don’t want to see half my screen space taken up by needless headers and whatnot. The bar with ‘Refresh’, ‘Mark as read’ and ‘Feed settings’ are needlessly large and prominent instead of being smaller and not taking up much space. They aren’t used all that much, to start with, that justifies their large font size. The focus here shouldn’t be on the options, but on the thing I’m reading. Fail.

Then everything’s gray, including links. If something’s not blue or purple, my mind doesn’t consider it a link. Sorry, but those are unwritten conventions on the Web. There’s no reason to change that now, and gray is a horrible color to show that something’s different from the rest of the black text. And the only spots of color on the page are a tiny dab of red to show the feed you’re currently reading, and a large button on the top left that says ‘Subscribe’. Dab of red, seriously? I much rather preferred the entire line showing the current feed highlighted instead of that little red bar. And I don’t add new feeds to read everyday that I need a large ‘Subscribe’ button. And when I do add feeds, I don’t add them using google.com/reader… I’m on the website I want to add, usually, and add feeds by clicking on the RSS icon, and then adding to reader.

Then the UI for sharing. It’s a lot more clicks to share something now. And yeah, the gripe is that whatever I share will be shared only on G+, but we’ll get to that in a moment. My problem with having to pick what circles I share with each time I share a feed is that it’s too much decision making too often. Atleast give me a set of check boxes of my circles so that all I need to do is two clicks instead of having to start typing my circle names.

It turned out, if you wanted to share something without publicly +1-ing something, you’d have to go to the top-right corner and click on ‘Share’. Well, how is that intuitive? And why would anyone design it that way, especially when the previous way to do that was by clicking on ‘share’ right below the post? Surely, it could have just had the Circles thing appear when you clicked the ‘share’ button, and +1-ing it could be a different button? And keep the top-right Share button if you like?

Now about sharing. I can share something with folks from Google Reader, yes, but they can only read it from Google Plus. Someone said that’s like retweeting something on Twitter from your client, like say Tweetdeck, but those who follow you can see your RT’s using only twitter.com. How retarded is that? I want a one-stop shop where I can do all my reading instead of having it spread over a zillion other places.

Due to which one of the things I wanted to do was build a wrapper website that integrated links shared on your G+ stream with your Reader feeds. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around how exactly it would work, but that’s one thing I certainly want to do.

The ‘stream’ format sucks for reading shared links. I have this problem with Twitter too, but on Twitter, you can ‘Favorite’ tweets which contain links and then read them one by one later. In fact, I was wondering about a platform that takes links on your Twitter timeline and puts them together for easy reading, feed reader style. Google Plus however has no such feature which you can use to tuck away stuff for later. If you’re too busy, you skip over a shared link and it’s lost. I much preferred the model where your feeds would all accumulate and if it got too much to handle, you could always mark all as read. Even better when your feeds would be properly organized.

And then Google Plus does a bad job of displaying shared links. It shows a small preview, but that’s more often than not insufficient. Buzz was better in this respect… atleast your images could be expanded, and posts could be expanded so that you could read it right there. Ha, one positive of this would however be that people would get a lot more hits on their websites. And it is not immediately apparent as to how inconvenient this sort of a visual format is, because people don’t share so much on Google Plus yet, and they don’t yet use it as a primary reader or such extensive use that it gets on their nerves.

And finally about the thing that has had the largest impact. Sharing.

Previously, in 2007, when Reader didn’t yet have sharing, we’d all come across nice links we’d want to share with our friends, and then either ping them on IM with it, or mail them the link. Needless to say, it was irksome. For both us and our friends. But somehow, when you shared it on Reader, the intrusiveness of sending links went away. It was just there, and if you liked it, you said so on the comments or by resharing it or referencing it in conversation. It stopped feeling like you were shoving it down someone’s throat, or someone shoved it down yours.

Sharing was also a nice way to filter content. For example, I loved reading Mental Floss’s feeds, but couldn’t stand the feed-puke that were feeds like TechCrunch and Reddit, whereas it was the other way for some of my friends. So we just followed each other, and I read the TechCrunch and Reddit content they deemed good enough to share, while I shared the interesting tidbits from Mental Floss.

Google Reader, I remember feeling, was a nice incubator for observing social network dynamics and introducing social features. It was my first first-hand exposure to recommender systems, before I moved to the USA and could actually shop on Amazon or watch movies on Netflix. It was interesting seeing how the recommendations incorporated stuff from your GTalk chats, your searches, stuff you ‘liked’… I remember freaking out about how after chatting often with a friend in LA my recommended feeds included a lot of LA-related blogs. And there was a search engine based treasure hunt at my undergrad college, and a friend and I remember saying “Oh man, googling stuff for this contest is so going to affect our Reader recommendations”.

It was also where I was recommended tons of blogs on ML and NLP and IR, due to which I went to grad school where I did, and did my thesis in what I did.

Also fun was the ‘Share as a note in reader’ bookmarklet. That way, I could share stuff from anywhere on the Internet with people who I knew would appreciate it.

Now it seems as if the Plus team wants to go and prove right that ex-Amazon Googler who said Google can’t do platforms well. Instead of providing services which can be used in a variety of ways to provide ‘just right’ experiences for a variety of people, Plus is trying to do it right all by itself. And failing miserably at that. The reason for Twitter’s success is the sheer variety of ways you can tweet – from your browser, from your smartphone, from your not-so-smart phone using Snaptu, from your dumb phone via text, your tablet, your desktop…. and I just don’t see that happening with Plus yet.

Maybe I wouldn’t be so mad if all the folks I share with on Reader were on Plus, but actually, hardly anyone is. And I don’t check my Plus feed on a regular basis either. I wouldn’t mind going on Plus to just read what everyone’s sharing, but the user experience is so bad I wouldn’t want that.

Google should have learnt from when it integrated Reader with Buzz and a lot of people found that irksome and simply silenced others’ Reader shares from their Buzz feed, that the Reader format doesn’t go well with the stream format.

There’s so much quite obviously broken with the product that you wonder if the folks who design and code this up actually use it as extensively as you do. Dogfooding is super-important in products like Google’s where there are a wide variety of users and user surveys can’t capture every single aspect.

But given that doing this to Google Reader seems just like when they cancelled Arrested Development, you begin to think they are probably aware of everything, and just don’t care about you the user and your needs anymore.

PS: Can anyone help me get the Google Plus Python API up and running on Google App Engine? I want to play with it, see what it does, and am not able to get it up and running.

PPS: Does a Greasemonkey script to make G+ more presentable sound like a good idea?

PPPS: Check out the folks at HiveMined. They are building a replacement for Google Reader 🙂

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