Microupdates and you (a.ka. 'twits in the museum')

I was trying to describe Twitter-esque applications for a presentation today, and I wasn't really happy with 'microblogging' so I described them as 'micro-updates'. Partly because I think of them as a bit like Facebook status updates for geeks, and partly because they're a lot more actively social than blog posts.

In case you haven't come across them, Twitter, Pownce, Jaiku, tumblr, etc, are services that let you broadcast short (140 characters) messages via a website or mobile device. I find them useful for finding like-minded people (or just those who also fancy a drink) at specific events (thanks to Brian Kelly for convincing me to try it).

You can promote a 'hash tag' for use at your event – yes, it's a tag with a # in front of it, low tech is cool. Ideally your tag should be short and snappy yet distinct, because it has to be typed in manually (mistakes happen easily, especially from a mobile device) and it's using up precious characters. You can use tools like Summize, hashtags, Quotably or Twemes to see if anyone else has used the same tag recently.

You can also ask people to use your event tag on blog posts, photos and videos to help bring together all the content about your event and create an ad hoc community of participants. Be aware that especially with Twitter-type services you may get fairly direct criticism as well as praise – incredibly useful, but it can seem harsh out of context (e.g. in a report to your boss).

More generally, you can use the same services above to search twitter conversations to find posts about your institution, events, venues or exhibitions. You can add in a search term and subscribe to an RSS feed to be notified when that term is used. For example, I tried http://summize.com/search?q="museum+of+london" and discovered a great review of the last 'Lates' event that described it as 'like a mini festival'. You should also search for common variations or misspellings, though they may return more false positives. When someone tweets (posts) using your search phrase it'll show up in your RSS reader and you can then reply to the poster or use the feedback to improve your projects.

This can be a powerful way to interact with your audience because you can respond directly and immediately to questions, complaints or praise. Of course you should also set up google alerts for blog posts and other websites but micro-update services allow for an incredible immediacy and directness of response.

As an example, yesterday I tweeted (or twitted, if you prefer):

me: does anyone know how to stop firefox 3 resizing pages? it makes images look crappy

I did some searching [1] and found a solution, and posted again:

me: aha, it's browser.zoom.full or "View → Zoom → Zoom Text Only" on windows, my firefox is sorted now

Then, to my surprise, I got a message from someone involved with Firefox [2]:

firefox_answers: Command/Control+0 (zero, not oh) will restore the default size for a page that's been zoomed. Also View->Zoom->Reset

me: Impressed with @firefox_answers providing the answer I needed. I'd been looking in the options/preferences tabs for ages

firefox_answers: Also, for quick zooming in & out use control plus or control minus. in Firefox 3, the zoom sticks per site until you change it.

Not only have I learnt some useful tips through that exchange, I feel much more confident about using Firefox 3 now that I know authoritative help is so close to hand, and in a weird way I have established a relationshp with them.

Finally, twitter et al have a social function – tonight I met someone who was at the same event I was last week who vaguely recognised me because of the profile pictures attached to Twitter profiles on tweets about the event. Incidentally, he's written a good explanation of twitter, so I needn't have written this!

[1] Folksonomies to the rescue! I'd been searching for variations on 'firefox shrink text', 'firefox fit screen', 'firefox screen resize' but since the article that eventually solved my problem called it 'zoom', it took me ages to find it. If the page was tagged with other terms that people might use to describe 'my page jumps, everything resizes and looks a bit crappy' in their own words, I'd have found the solution sooner.

[2] Anyone can create a username and post away, though I assume Downing Street is the real thing.

Notes from 'Everything RSS' at MW2008

These are my notes from the workshop Everything RSS with Jim Spadaccini from Ideum at Museums and the Web, Montreal, April 2008. Some of my notes will seem self-evident to various geeks or non-geeks but I've tried to include most of what was covered.

It's taken me a while to catch up on some of my notes, so especially at this distance – any mistakes are mine, any comments or corrections are welcome, and the comments in [square brackets] below are me. All the conference papers and notes I've blogged have been tagged with 'MW2008'.

The workshop will cover: context, technology, the museum sector, usability and design.

RSS/web feeds – it's easy to add or remove content sources, they can be rich media including audio, images, video, they are easily read or consumed via applications, websites, mobile devices.

The different flavours and definitions of RSS have hindered adoption.

Atom vs RSS – Atom might be better but not as widely adopted. Most mature RSS readers can handle both.

RSS users are more engaged – 2005, Nielsen NetRatings.

Marketers are seeing RSS as alternative to email as email is being overrun by spam and becoming a less efficient marketing tool.

The audience for RSS content is slowly building as it's built into browsers, email (Yahoo, Outlook, Mac), MySpace widget platform.

Feedburner. [I'm sure more was said about than this – probably 'Feedburner is good/useful' – but it was quite a while ago now.]

Extending RSS: GeoRSS – interoperable geo-coded data; MediaRSS, Creative Commons RSS Module.

Creating RSS feeds on the server-side [a slide of references I failed to get down in time].
You can use free or open source software to generate RSS feeds. MagpieRSS, Feed Editor (Windows, extralabs.net); or free Web Services to create or extend RSS feeds.

There was an activity where we broke into groups to review different RSS applications, including Runstream (create own RSS feed from static content) and xFruits (convert RSS into different platforms).

Others included rssfeedssubmit.com, aiderss.com, rssmixer.com (prototype by Ideum), rsscalendar.com and feedshow.com (OPML generator).

OPML – exchange lists of web feeds between aggregators. e.g. museumblogs site.

RSSmixer – good for widgets and stats, when live to public. [It looks like it's live now.]

RSS Micro – RSS feed search engine, you can also submit your feed there. Also feedcamp.

Ideas for using RSS:
Use meetup and upcoming for promoting events. Have links back to your events pages and listings.

Link to other museums – it helps everyone's technorati/page ranking.

There was discussion of RSSmixer's conceptual data model. Running on Amazon EC2. [with screenshot]. More recent articles are in front end database, older ones in backend database.

RSS is going to move more to a rich media platform, so interest in mixing and filtering down feeds will grow, create personalisation.

Final thoughts – RSS is still emergent. It won't have a definitive breakthrough but it will eventually become mainstream. It will be used along with email marketing as a tool to reach visitors/customers. RSS web services will continue to expand.

Regular RSS users, who have actively subscribed, are an important constituency. Feeds will be more frequently offered on websites, looking beyond blogs and podcasts.

RSS can help you reach new audiences and cement relationships with existing visitors. You can work with partners to create 'mixed' feeds to foster deeper connections with visitors.

Use RSS for multiple points of dissemination – not just RSS. [At this stage I really have no idea what I meant by this but I'm sure whatever Jim said made sense.]

[I had a question about tips for educating existing visitors about RSS. I'd written a blog post about RSS and how to subscribe, which helped, but that's still only reaching a tiny part of potential audience. Could do a widget to demonstrate it.

This was also one of the workshops or talks that made me realise we are so out of the loop with up-to-date programming models like deployment methods. I guess we're so busy all the time it's difficult to keep up with things, and we don't have the spare resources to test new things out as they come along.]