Trackbacks, Tweetbacks and the Conversation Graph, Part I

Whenever you write a blog post that contains links to other posts, and is maybe in turn linked to from other blog posts, how can you keep track of where you blog post sits “in the wider scheme of things”?

In Trackforward – Following the Consequences with N’th Order Trackbacks, I showed a technique for tracking the posts that link to a particular URI, the posts that link to those posts and so on, suggesting a way of keeping track of any conversational threads that are started by a particular post. (This is also related to OUseful Info: Trackback Graphs and Blog Categories.)

In this post, I’ll try to generalise that thinking a little more to see if there’s anything we might learn by exploring that part of the “linkgraph” in the immediate vicinity of a particular URI. I’m not sure where this will go, so I’ve built in the possibility of spreading this thought over several posts.

So to begin with, imagine I write a post (POST) that contains links to three other posts (POST1, POST2, POST3). (Graphs are plotted using Ajax/Graphviz.)

In turn, two posts (POSTA, POSTB) might link back to my post:

So by looking at the links from my post to other posts, and looking at trackbacks to my post (or using the link: search limit applied to the URI of my post on a search engine) I can locate my post in its immediate “link neighbourhood”:

Now it might be that I want to track the posts that refer to posts that referred to my post (which is what the trackforward demo explored).

You might also be interested in seeing what else the posts that have referred to my original post have linked to:

Another possibility is tracking posts that refer to posts that I referred to:

It might be that one of those posts also refers to my post:

So what…. so I need to take a break now – more in a later post…

See also: Tweetbacks, a beta service that provides a trackback like service from tweets that reference a particular URL.

PS and also BackType and BackTweets

Change the Law to Fit the Business Model

I’ve just been watching the following video from the Open Rights Group (ORG) on copyright extension, and realised something…

[Via Ray]

…something that’s probably obvious to anyone who lobbies against this sort of thing (extending copyright of works to prevent them from entering the public domain), but came like a doodah out of the whatsit to me…

The companies that are lobbying for copyright extension built their business models around the idea that “our artists’ work is in copyright, so we can exploit it like this and this and that.”

But as these companies are now getting on a bit, that’s not true any more. They need a business model built around the idea that “we are purveyors of in and out-of-copyright material”.

[As prompted by a clarification request from @mweller: the industry’s business model is broken in other ways, of course, not least the changing costs of reproduction and distribution. My “insight” was limited to a realisation (that works for me;-) that lobbying for copyright extension is the industry’s attempt to protect a revenue stream built on an incorrect assumption – i.e. the existence of a never-ending revenue stream from an ever-growing in-copyright back catalogue, or maybe the assumption that growth in new release sales would make up for loss of copyright based revenues from older stock? That’s probably not right though, is it? It’s probably more a blend of complacency – living off the fat of Beatles and Cliff Richard early-recording revenues, not being able to develop the desired level of new artist revenues, and the dreadful realisation that large amounts of moneymaking product is about to go out-of-copyright, whereas you might once have expected the longterm sales value of that product to dwindle over time? Like it did with Shakespeare… Err…?]

[Cf. also software companies, where the value generating life of a piece of software only extends as far as the current, and maybe previous, version, rather than version 1.0a of a product that’s now at version 10? Though thinking through something Alma H said to me yesterday, in a slightly different content, I guess if the media companies followed the lead of the software industry, they’d just delete/remix/re-release the same old songs and keep refreshing the copyright with every new “release”!]

But that’s too hard to imagine – so it’s easier to lobby to changes in the law and keep the same business model ticking over.

Cf. also academia and library sectors, which were built around the idea that access to high quality information and knowledge was scarce. Oops…

So Google Loses Out When It Comes to Realtime Global Events?

There’s been quite a few posts around lately commenting on how Google is missing out on real time web traffic (e.g. Sorry Google, You Missed the Real-Time Web! and Why Google Must Worry About Twitter). Stats just out showing search’n’twitter activity during Obama’s inauguration yesterday show how…

First up, Google’s traffic slump:

And then Twitter’s traffic peak:

And how did I find out? Via this:

which led to the posts containing the traffic graphs shown above.

And I got a link to that tweet from Adam Gurri who was responding to a tweet I’d made about a the Google traffic post… (which in turn was a follow-up to a tweet I posted about whether anyone “turned on a TV to watch the US presidential inauguration yesterday?”)

Adam also pointed me to this nice observation:

And here’s how a few people responded to how they watched the event (I watched on the web):

So, web for video, broadcast radio for audio and Twitter for text. And TV for, err… time for change, maybe?

Non-Linear Uncourses – Time for Linked Ed?

Make of this what you will… the class is in session, so here’s your weekend reading:

Some ramblings about how blog posts (at least, the ones that get “reused” in an online, better-link-to-that sense) sit in some sort of link context or link neighbourhood, where the links are directed, either going from the post (links out to other resources) and links back in to the post (from tweets, trackbacks, bookmarks etc): Trackbacks, Tweetbacks and the Conversation Graph, Part I.

Some amplification by Patrick Murray-John, who’s not scared by databases and tending-to-big data in the way I am: Linkage Graphs in UMW Blogs. The demo shows the results of link-mining/trackback graphing between some of the UMW blogs. The ability of UMW blogs to republish content through syndication in different parts of the URI-space that UMW blogs covers leads to some interesting observations. Like this one:

[I]n chasing through what links to conversations, it throws in the idea that the same conversation could split into different directions from exactly the same content, but presented in different contexts. This would also show up in tracking retweets.

(UMW blogs, if you don’t know it, is, well, what can I say: tending to awesome? Pushing at the frontiers of blogs in higher-ed? Here are some of the ways users are encouraged to use UMW blogs – though of course they can make up their own ways too: Ten ways to use UMW Blogs. For some techie background, check out Syndicatin’ Welfare: UMW Blogs’ Syndication Framework on the Cheap.)

My own dabblings with the trackback graph in the Digital Worlds uncourse blog suggests that that multiple possible forward paths through blogged uncourse content are constructed by the process of linking back to earlier content from later produced content (got that?) as well as links back to the future from earlier posted content, e.g. by people linking to “future” posts from the comments on older posts (think about it…)

So what? So I have no idea… but building context and support through links to other content is one way of reusing that content (or at least, pulling it into a new context and making it (re)usable in that new context).

So when George Siemens notes:

I haven’t come across research to date that discusses how open educational resources are being used. Yes, we get information like “MIT’s OCW gets X number of million hits per month”.

and then goes on to ask: “I’m interested in whether or not universities are using open resources produced by other universities.” I guess my answer is – if I simply link to a relevant OER from an appropriate context, then I’ve provided the opportunity for that resource to be reused?

So links make for easy reuse, at least in a blogged uncourse sense… which means URIs (URLs, whatever…;-) are important… which brings the idea of Linked Data into play… Why? Here’s one example: Telling (non-linear) stories (which also appears here: Building coherence at

As to why you should go and read that post now? It’s illustrated by this:

BBC non-linear story telling

Now go do your homework and prepare to make some changes when you get back in to work next week…

The notion of linear courses has just left the building…

… again…

Time for a Widget Guide Learning Environment (a Wiggle?!)? aka the Obligatory (but very late) Skittles Blog Post

A few weeks ago now, the live web was all a chatter about a new marketing campaign for Skittles: it seemed they’d gone all 2.0 and were letting people say what they wanted on the domain, once they’d passed through an age verification check:

And here is the first page of their “interweb rainbow” proper:

So what do we notice? Eyes, folks, c’mon…. use your eyes…

Here’s what I noticed: firstly, we’re still on; secondly, we’re on Youtube (the real Youtube); thirdly, there’s a Skittles panel overlaid on top of the Youtube page.

So what we presumably have here is Skittles loading Youtube into an iframe on the Skittles main page.

Click on the Chatter link, and we get a Twitter search results page, again still on the Skittles domain:

“Friends” takes you to your Facebook page, “Media-Videos” to Youtube, “Media-Pics” to a flickr search results page for a search on “Skittles”, and so on:

So what’s going on? As Stephen Hale, Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy (i.e. the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) put it in his post on What can governments learn from Skittles?, simply this:

[I]n a nutshell, Skittles replaced their corporate website with a simple widget that directs readers to relevant user generated content on leading social media sites, including Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Flickr.

[T]he Skittles approach suggests that maybe we don’t need a web platform at all to deliver digital campaigns. And that we may not need to employ any of our own web editors. After all, content has always been king, and maybe the most engaging and accurate content is being provided by amateur authors, using whatever social media they find most convenient.

If our “editors” can use the combined content management systems of Wikipedia, YouTube and Delicious, then maybe we don’t need to invest in content management systems of our own.

One thing I think needs stressing, though, is that the Skittles navigation widget provides a set of curated navigational links related to Skittles: the Skittles Youtube page, the Twitter search page for “skittles”, and so on. And it also provides an overlaid context for the Twitter search page, the Facebook friends page, etc.

So – what are the consequences for education?

Some time ago, I put together a quick hack (that appears to have rotted/broken since then – ??Grazr not opening links in the target frame??) that combined a Grazr navigational widget with some toolbar application links pulled in from a particular delicious feed and “browser” window: StringLE – the “String’n’Glue Learning Environment (no one grokked it, except Martin (sort of…)).

The idea behind StringLE was something along the lines of this:

– call StringLE with three argument URLs: one to point to an OPML file, one to point to an RSS feed, one to point to a web page;
– load the OPML file into the Grazr widget on the left hand side. Clicking any of the links in the Grazr widget should open the appropriate web page in the main, central browsing area (this functionality appears to be broken at the moment???); the Grazr widget can also embed audio files passed into it as RSS feed media enclosures in an audio player, as shown above;
– load the links in the RSS feed into the top navigation bar; these are “tool applications” int he current StringLE configuration. Clicking on a top navgation bar link should open the corresponding web application in the browser window.
– load the HTML page as the first, “launch” page in the browser area.

Creating new StringLE configurations was easy – just create OPML and RSS feeds that could pipe the navigational content you wanted into StringLE. Roundtripping was possible too: for example, you could bookmark things in the browser and then pull links to them back into the Grazr widget.

So that was maybe two and a half years ago (I first posted about StringLE in October 2006, or so) and where are we now? Well, personally, I’m trying to finish off a new course that employs a very particular design pattern that looks sort of like this: the course runs over 10 weeks, and each week’s activity is split into to two parts – a practical activity, and a topic. In a traditional course, the topic would be covered by wordy stuff, such as printed learning materials. In a traditional online course, the topic would be delivered as HTML readings through the VLE, or similar. In the model I’m working on (and time will tell whether or not it’s a viable model), the topic is phrased as a set of questions to bear in mind when reading materials outside the VLE (some of which I have written and published in public, online, some of which I haven’t).

The topic questions will probably be presented as a simple list, followed by a set of links to readings that the students can use to start to explore the topic. One page will thus direct the learning around a particular topic. (Further guidance/scaffolding/self-checking will be provided through exemplar short essays addressing the questions set around a particular topic.)

So here’s what I’m thinking… could each topic be presented a bit like the Skittles widget? That is, could we define a set of topic widgets that would allow a student to explore a particular topic in the context of a set of guiding questions related to that topic? Each widget would thus: list the guiding questions; provide a set of links to relevant resources.

In the same way that I have argued* a lightbox might be used to frame videos that might otherwise be linked to from a set of learning materials within the context of those learning materials, the widget can be used to overlay third party content and provide a context for those materials to the student reading them.

* See also: Progressive Enhancement – Some Examples.

The approach is also reminiscent of my old Library Traveller script, which would overlay a panel on Amazon, or several other online bookstore, book webpages showing whether or not that book was available in the OU library (either as a physical book, or as an e-book, in either the same or a different edition, etc).

In effect, the widget is a “Course Traveler” widget, defining a “(web) portable learning environment” that can act so as to help a student navigate their way through a set of third party curated content pages.

For me, this is one of the sorts of approach we could – and I’d argue should – be experimenting with.

But it pains me to say that I fear most ed-tech ‘innovations’ around course delivery in the VLE context are, in many cases at least, and at best, striving to do the same old things in a ‘new’ environment. That’s not really innovation, it’s a way of trying to salvage old ways of doing things by shoving them into shiny new boxes. Or in the case of many VLEs, tatty new boxes…

PS David WIley also has something to say about the changes that are necessary…

PPS (March 2011) Here’s an OER toolkit, picking up on the stirngle approach: OER Glue

Education as a Service…

I’ve started ramping up my reading of game related blogs and industry news as we start the final push towards finishing off T151, our introductory, 10 point level 1 course on interactive media and game design. (The first presentation in May is going out as a pilot, although the normal Relevant Knowledge fee will still apply. Numbers are capped in the first presentation, but readers of and the Digital Worlds uncourse blog who mail me direct over the next 48 hours have a couple of days head start in getting a chance to register.)

Anyway, anyway, one of the things that appears to have been picked up in stories over the last month or so (although it’s an idea that has actually been around for several years) is of “gaming as a service”.

Speaking at the Dice Summit in Las Vegas, Valve Software Chief Executive Gabe Newell provided some pearls of wisdom that are as applicable to gaming as they are to pretty much any kind of software.

Newell says the future will be “providing ongoing value.” Once you start thinking from a service perspective, he continues, “It starts to help you understand the phenomenon that’s out there.” The core of Newell’s argument is that a service allows “content creators to have a better relationship with their customers.” [The changing face of ‘games-as-a-service’]

And there’s more:

Atari President Phil Harrison was also there, affirming Newell’s assertions. “His essential argument that the industry is going to morph from being product centric to service centric is absolutely right,” he said.

He added, “What that means to development, marketing – all aspects of the business are going to be dramatically, seismically, and permanently shifted as a result of moving from product centric to service centric model. I think that’s the mantra that everyone must pin to the wall of their office, and think deeply about what that means to their company.” [DICE: Valve’s Gabe Newell and Atari’s Phil Harrison on Games as a Service “]

So what changes are to be expected?

The secret to entertainment as a service is understanding what it is customers are looking for. They want to be able to play content anywhere, they want to continue there games without worrying about saves, and they don’t want to be bound by geographical location, and they want you to administer your own software, says Newell. [Valve’s Newell: Entertainment is a Service ]

And what has this to do with education? Well maybe we should stop thinking in terms of selling courses and degrees, and instead actually start seriously the idea of “lifelong learning”? Maybe we need to start thinking about becoming an “lifelong education partner” of the 21st century adult, particularly if they are expected to have several different careers throughout their working life?

Banks know the value of snaring a student – traditionally, people are loathe to change bank accounts, so loss leading with an undergraduate banking package makes sense if it means you going to retain the graduate customer for the rest of their life…

…but from what I can tell, higher education seems to more interested in knowing who its graduates are in the hope that as alumni they’ll make a donation or two to their alma mater, or maybe even a bequest when they pop their clogs, than maintaining an active relationship in an educational sense?

So notwithstanding the joy, fun, creativity that will be T151, maybe we need to rethink the business we’re in? Maybe we need to look at subscription models, new models of reputation, trust and ‘capability badging’? Maybe we need to look at new models of delivering episodic course related content, with production in presentation the first time round (Dickens’ novels were serialised when they were first published, right?). Maybe we need to rethink the idea of cohorts in terms of leveling up through communities? Maybe we need…change?

A Fair Use, or Not…? Visualising the THES UK Higher Education Pay Survey Data

Last week, Alan tweeted a challenge of sorts about me doing something to the academics’ pay data referred to in the THES article Pay packets of excellence. The data (Vice Chancellors pay in UK HEIs, and acadmics’ pay across UK HEIs) was published via two separate PDF documents, and “compiled and audited by Grant Thornton on behalf of Times Higher Education”.

The THES provided some analysis and interpretation of the data, and the survey was picked up by other media (e.g. here’s the Guardian’s take: Vice-chancellors’ salaries on a par with prime minister; the Telegraph said: Anger as university bosses claim £200,000 salaries; the Times: Campus fury at vice-chancellors’ windfalls; the Press Association: University chiefs pocket wage rise; and so on).

So partly to give Martin something concrete to think about in the context of Should universities break copyright law? and Universities as copyright warriors, is my republishing of the data contained in the two PDF documents on the THES website alongside the Pay packets of excellence article as a spreadsheet on Google spreadsheets a fair thing to do? (I didn’t notice any explicit license terms?)

(The data is here: UK HE VCs’ and Academics’ pay.)

Now why would I want to publish the data? Well, as it stands, the data as published in the PDF documents is all very well, but… what can you do with it? How useful is it to the reader? And what did the THES intend by publishing the data in the PDFs?

That readers could check the claims made in the article is one possibility; that other media channels could draw their own conclusions from the results and then cite the THES is another (“link bait”;-). But is there any implication or not that readers could take the data as data and manipulate, visualise it, and so on? If there is, is there any implication or expectation that journalists et al. might take the data into a private spreadsheet, maybe, manipulate it, understand it, and then publish their interpretation? Might there be a reasonable expectation that someone would republish the data as data so that people without the skills to take the data out of the PDF and put it into a spreadsheet could benefit from it being represented in that way?

As well as publishing the data via a Google spreadsheet, I also republished via two Many Eyes Wikified data pages: UK HE Vice Chancellors’ Salaries: Many Eyes wikified data page and UK HE Academic Salaries: Many Eyes wikified data page. So was this a fair thing to do, in any reasonable sense of the word?

And then of course, I did a few visualisations: UK HE Vice Chancellors’ Salaries: Many Eyes wikified visualisations page and UK HE Academic Salaries: Many Eyes wikified visualisations page.

So by making the data available, it means I can create visual interpretations of the data. Is this a fair thing to do with the data or not? If the data was published with the intention that other people publish their interpretations of it, does a visual interpretation count? And if so, what’s a fair way of creating that “data as data”? By publishing the data used to generate the visualisation in the spreadsheet, people can check the actual data that is feeding the visualisation, and then check that it’s the same as the THES data.

Finally, each Many Eyes visualisation is itself interactive. That is, a user can change the dimensions plotted in the chart and try to interpret (or make sense of) the data themselves in a visual way.

So is that a fair thing to do with data? Using it to underwrite the behaviour of a set of visualisations that a user can interact with and change themselves?

So here’s where we’re at: the THES published the data in a “closed” format – a PDF document. One of the features of the PDF is that the presentation of the document is locked down – it should always look the same.

By republishing the data as data in a public Google document, then other people can change how that data is presented. They can also use that data as the basis of a visualisation. Is there any difference between an IT literate journalist putting the data into a private spreadsheet and then publishing a visualisation of that data, and someone republishing the data so that anyone can visualise it?

Now let’s consider the Many Eyes visualisations. Suppose it is a fair use of the data to somehow use it to create a visuliastion, and then publish that visualisation as a static image. Presumably someone will have checked that the graphic is itself fair, and is not misrepresenting the data. That is, the data has not been misused or misapplied – it has been used in a responsible way and visualised appropriately.

But now suppose that Jo Public can start to play with the visualisation (because it is presented in an interactive way) and maybe configure the chart so that a nonsensical or misleading visulisation is produced, with the result that the person comes away from the data claiming something that is not true (for example, because they have misunderstood that the chart they have created does not show what they maybe intended it to show, or what they think it shows?). That person might now claim (incorrectly) that the THES data shows something that it does not – and they have a graphic to “prove” it.

This is where the educator thing comes in to play – I would probably want to argue that by republishing the data both as data and via interactive visualisations, I am providing an opportunity for people to engage with and interpret the data that the THES published.

If the THES published the data because they wanted people to be able to write about their own analysis of the data, I have just made that easier to do. I have “amplified” the intent of the THES. However, if the THES only published the data to back up the claims they made in their article, then what I have done may not be fair?

So, what do you think?

Autodiscoverable RSS Feeds From HEI Library Websites

Following up on 404 “Page Not Found” Error pages and Autodiscoverable Feeds for UK Government Departments and Back from Behind Enemy Lines, Without Being Autodiscovered(?!), I felt morally obliged to put together a page showing how the well the HEI Libraries are doing at getting autodiscoverable RSS feeds declared on their website homepages.

So here it is: Autodiscoverable RSS feeds from UK HEI Library homepages.

So far, about 10% of Library homepages have autodiscoverable feeds on their home pages, showing how libraries are leading their institutional web policies into the world of syndicated content…. err… maybe… (not)…

There are several reasons why this percentage may be so low:

  1. I’m not using the correct Library homepage URLs. (Do you know how hard it is to find such a list?)
  2. The Libraries don’t control their web page <head> – or the CMS just can’t cope with it – so they can’t add the autodiscovery code. (Some of the library pages do have links to RSS feeds, just not autodiscoverable ones).
  3. The computing services folks who probably do control the <head> are so ashamed about their own inability to get RSS feeds up and running (Autodiscoverable RSS feeds from UK HEI homepages) they don’t want anyone else to have feeds either…

See also: Nudge: Improving Decisions About RSS Usage – a post by Brian Kelly from July 2008 encouraging HEIs to get into the RSS game. Does nudging work? Has much progress has been made over the last year? Or have the computer services folks got it right and UK HEI RSS feeds are just a total waste of time? Or at least, autodiscoverable ones are…?

Living With Minified URLs

There seem to have a been a lot of posts recently about URL shorteners/minifiers, such as this or this, which linked back to On URL shorteners by delicious founder Joshua Schachter. I’m not sure if Brian Kelly has done a risk assessment post about it yet, though? ;-)

So what are we to do in the case of URL shorteners going down, or disappearing from the web?

How about this?

When you publish a page, do a lookup using the most popular URL shortener sites to grab the shortened URL for that page from those services, and hard code those URLs into the page as metadata:

<meta name=”shortURL” content=”; />
<meta name=”shortURL” content=”; />

Then if a particular URL shortener service goes down, there’s a fallback position available in the form of using the web search engines to track down your page, as long as they index the page metadata?

PS it also strikes me that if a URL service were to go down, it’d be in e.g. Google’s interests to buy up their databases in the closing down fire sale…

PPS annotating every page would potentially introduce overload the URL shortening services, I suspect, so I wonder this: maybe page publishers should inject the meta data into a page if they see incoming referrer traffic coming in to the page from a URL shortening service? So for example, if the server sees incoming traffic to a page from, it grabs the short URL for the page and adds it to the page metadata? This is not a million miles away from a short URL trackback service? (Cf. also e.g. things like Tweetback.)

PPPS via Downes: Short URL Auto-Discovery (looks like it’s being offered as an RFC).