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Is Techmeme myopic?

I’m a big fan of TechMeme, a web aggregation service that provides, at a glance, a few of what’s being discussed in the technology-focused part of the blogosphere. It has allowed me to unsubscribe from a large number of RSS feeds that were providing me with redundant information and I’ve long hoped for a version of TechMeme that would provide me with a customized view that providing a similar user interface for my own personal feeds.

Recently, though, TechMeme has gotten me thinking about the tech blogosphere conversations as a whole and their longer term relevance. To the small “web 2.0” community, TechMeme serves as a bit of a paper of record; The subhead even claims that it represents the “Tech Web, page A1”, claiming to bring us the important stories. But how do those stories fare over time? Is today’s hot topic a step in understanding a longer term trend or is it just a temporary distraction that will be forgotten a month/3 months/6 months/a year from now.

Fortunately, Gabe Rivera, the founder of TechMeme must have anticipated such a question and provided a way to look at TechMeme as it was a particular point in its short history. Using the simple interface, it’s easy to see the page as it existed at a precise point in time. So I decided to start looking at the site at the same time in single month spaces. The middle of the night and middle of the day position ought to be good time stamps so I decided to look at the site at 12am and 12pm on the selected date. I also had to discount the fact that April 1st is April fool’s day so I could not use the first of the month as this fact could skew the data. Here are the dates and times I ended up with:

  • Today: June 2nd 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • A week ago: May 26, 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • Two weeks ago: May 19, 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • One month ago: May 2, 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • Two months ago: April 2, 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • Three months ago: March 2, 2008 at 12am and 12pm
  • Six months ago: December 2, 2007 at 12am and 12pm
  • Nine months ago: September 2, 2007 at 12am and 12pm
  • One Year ago: June 2 2007 at 12am and 12pm
  • Two years ago: June 2, 2006 at 12am and 12pm

With 20 data points, here’s what I discovered.

Today

Based on today’s news at noon, it looks like the important subjects at noon in the blogosphere are Adobe’s latest move, combining Flash and Acrobat with their entry in the already crowded (Google, Microsoft, Zoho, etc..) web-based office suite market. At midnight, things were a little less exciting, with discussion around the privacy issues Google Maps is raising with their StreetView offering.

Of course, it’s still too early to tell whether those stories will have a long term impact so let’s roll the tape back a little.

One Week Ago: May 26, 2008

At noon, a week ago, the top story was about a new type of SSD, developed by Samsung. Since it’s hardware, I assume that the impact of this news can’t be felt initially but there could be longer term repercussions. Also of note on that page is a small item lower on the page about Paypal outages. An interesting trend in my research on this is that this story is slowly developing over a period of weeks and months and the noise level appears to be increasing on it.

At midnight, the discussion was around Google’s power and the needed for another organization to work as a counter balance to that powerful force in the search engine space. Coupled with the discussions last night about privacy issues relating to Google maps, it seems we are seeing an emerging pattern here.

Two Weeks Ago: May 19, 2008

Two weeks ago, at noontime, the claim that Microsoft would eventually buy Facebook and keep it close was dominating TechMeme. At this point, no announcement has been made so this is largely conjecture and, while an interesting opinion, it’s not really news. This editorial was largely in response to the news item that dominated the previous 12 hour cycle about Microsoft’s statements regarding pursuing a possible deals other than a full acquisition with Yahoo!

One Month Ago: May 2, 2008

On May 2, 2008 at noon, the big news was… that the Google RSS reader is now available for the iphone. I’m sure many people consider this event as a major turning point when… well, hmm… a big big deal. Amusingly, Adobe was also in the news that day, with news that its flash plugin would escape computers and appear in set top boxes and mobile phones.

Another big subject was Steve Ballmer’s mention that Microsoft could go it alone without Yahoo, a discussion that dominated the midnight page on that day. The Yahoo/Microsoft chat has been kind of the soap opera of our industry and this latest installment was remembered as a turning point (or not) by many.

A possibly interesting trend piece, around midnight, was also intriguing: Will Grand Theft Auto IV hurt Iron Man opening weekend sales. I haven’t seen a follow up on that piece yet, which could tell us whether video games are displacing movies as the primary form of entertainment but my guess is that the answer is no.

Two Months Ago: April 2, 2008

On April 2, 2008 at noon, the top story on techmeme was about Intel’s plan for chips that would power up more mobile devices. Interestingly, this story was largely driven by mainstream media as the lead was taken by john Markoff of the New York Times, followed by comments from Forbes magazine, and Infoworld. The other related story was the press release itself, which can be seen as bloggers pointing straight to the source of the news. I suspect that this story will probably have more legs moving forward. A cursory glance provides glances at developing stories ranging from the rumor stage (that all important Google/Skype partnership or acquisition… which didn’t happen) to the focus on process (like the approval of Office Open XML as an ISO standard).

The departure of Google’s CIO dominated the prior night’s news cycle and word of Apple’s 3G iphone started to filter through.

Three Months Ago: March 2, 2008

March 2, 2008 at noon provides us perspective on today’s news, thanks to Microsoft’s announcement of ITS entry into the web-based office suite market. When put side by side with today’s announcement by Adobe, it seems to start pointing to more of a trend. Beyond that, little news that seems to be of note from a memorable standpoint.

The interesting thing here is that the same subject was leading the previous night’s news cycle. This seems to establish a first rule for techmeme: subjects that survive on the front page more than 12 hours may be worth paying attention to.

Six Month Ago: December 2, 2007

There’s an all saying in journalism that 3 items make for a trend. In the case of this study, it looks like Web-based office suite are definitely the hottest trend around, as the top news on December 2, 2007 at noon was information about the future of Google’s offering in that space (either that or there is an unwritten rule in the technology field that information about web-based office suites MUST be introduced on the second day of the month or wait until the following month).

The subject was starting to climb the chart 12 hours earlier, even thought the discussion at the time was dominated by a Facebook misstep (remember Facebook Beacons? Well, that was around that time). From an interface standpoint, it also brings up something that I’d like to recommend to Gabe: could you add and up or down arrow to highlight if a subject is getting more play or not. On something like this, it would be nice to get an idea of the stickiness of a topic. It appears many topic appear low on the page and move up over time, the quicker and faster they move up seems to indicate the importance of the story and it would be a nice addition to have that info on the screen.

Nine Month Ago: September 2, 2007

September 2, 2007 was a quiet news day. I guess everyone was mourning the death of the newspaper, which was forced by Google on that day, according to the noon-time headlines. There doesn’t seem to have been any other major news around midnight either. This, however, could be an artifact in the data as September 2, 2007 was a Sunday, which is generally a pretty quiet news day as most people don’t work on Sunday.

Interestingly, a story that is just now starting to get more notice is the continuing brushfires around Paypal’s outages. Not that sexy a subject but one that started to be raised around that time. At the time, discussion of Google’s entry in the mobile market centered around the idea they would deliver a device instead of a platform.

Last Year and Two Years Ago

A year ago, at noon, the Techmeme conversation was around porn. During the night, though, the conversation was centering around the acquisition of Feedburner by Google. This is probably remembered by people in the industry as an important milestone and here, techmeme shines at organizing a package with the appropriate conversations.

Things do not improve much if you go further back: 2 years ago, at noon, and midnight, gives us little to mull over.

Conclusion

The data seems to point that the front page of TechMeme largely represents what’s hot right now but does not necessarily highlight stories which have a longer term type of impact. In that sense, it may also be highlighting that discussions in the tech blogosphere are largely centered on insider-type minutia while failing to put things in a larger context. This appears to present a myopic view of the tech world that leaves us with lots of data but preciously little information. So while TechMeme provides a useful tool in terms of getting an idea of the pulse of the conversation “right now,” it does little in providing data that would allow someone to understand the larger trends that are affecting our world as a result of the internet (and web 2.0 revolution).

I would argue that the answer to the question I posed in the title for that post is a resounding yes. Because it deals largely with the trivial and assess little value to longer type impact, TechMeme creates a self-imposed myopia on its readers and participants. A possible exception is when a story manages to survives through multiple 12-hour instances, providing many angles to the same events. But those events are few and far between.

Whether the lack of headlines with a major impact is a phenomenon that is unique to TechMeme or to the tech world in general is a question I’d like to leave to readers and I’d appreciate comments as to your thinking around this.

But all this comes down to a simple fact: if you’ve missed what happened on TechMeme in the last XX hours, days or weeks, you may not necessarily have missed much. so kick back, relax, step away from the computer and, if you need to catch up, you can always pick up a mainstream publication that may cover a distilled version of what happened if it’s of any particular significance.

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14 Comments. Leave new

hyperorg.comThe wider question (and one for which I don’t know how to get the data) is actually whether the blogopshere is myopic. I used techmeme as a proxy here because Gabe is nice enough to provide us with historical snapshots. I could probably do the same against memeorandum and find that the conversation in the political blogosphere is no better.

What I’m trying to highlight is that many of the people in the Web 2.0 crowd are driving themselves crazy (think Om Malik, Marc Orchant) with constant updates and amounts of work that are just unsustainable in the long run. And the question is… for what? Are we covering the big trends or just obsessing about navel gazing? Sadly, it looks like it may be the latter.

I was recently reading an amazing article on JOHO and I suspect that it subconciously tugged me to do the research for the piece above 🙂

Fascinating stuff, Tristan! Personally, I view Techmeme as something of tech bloggers’ watercooler, where all types gather around to kibitz about this or that in the tech world. Now, what goes on in the tech world *may* end up impacting the–for lack of a better term–non-tech world, such as privacy issues re Google’s StreetView, but some of it ends up being nothing more than geek-related concerns. Still, stories may not make it out of Techmeme because even the tech world doesn’t see them as big issues (such as privacy concerns re Google’s StreetView.)

I was chasing Techmeme for awhile, and enjoyed the traffic boost when I ended up in the “related links.” May even have got a few new readers out of it. But after awhile it got to be rather boring and tiring. I like tech news, but I also like marketing news and stuff about journalism. Oh, yeah, and life 🙂

it is not that it deals with the trivial, but with the transitory

same data if you did an analysis of cloud patterns at the same dates … things change, that is called the river of life … what is important, is the river itself

about myopia hmm, big picture, everything is one, small picture, every individual is totally myopic, in comparison to the whole

First observation: I think in the past people have said the same about news in general, and Techmeme, while special and novel in a number of ways, is still a news site.

Anyway, the core problem here is that people can’t predict that future. Even so, if you consider the most important events over the past couple of years, you’ll see headlines related to those events scattered across Techmeme before they happen. So for the forward-looking, the value may not be in the typical headline, but it’s still there.

I dunno how typical I was, but on September 10, 2001, thanks to “news”, I was already fairly up to speed on issues surrounding al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Afghanistan, etc. Any newspaper edition prior to 9/11 viewed in isolation would appear to be a poor background for the events to come. And yet taken as a whole, the coverage from preceding years did at least lay out the issues.

the passing cloud analogy is a good point. You are looking at a data stream with an enormous amount of noise, and hoping that a handful of samplings will give you meaningful data. I doubt it. You need a mechanism to sample far more frequently and search for patterns. Your little exercise is anecdotal at best, misleading at worst.

Gabe: you may be highlighting an interesting phenomenon in terms of the news business that has has less to do with predicting the future that providing context. A lot of what concerns me, in the data I’m seeing (and granted, it was only a cursory look) is that there is a lot of noise but precious little signal. One would assume that, since techmeme is based on what people are discussing, the level of signal would be higher. I’m not sure whether it is a techmeme issue or a blogosphere issue: are we preoccupying ourselves with useless minutiae instead of trying to provide context/background/understanding to what is currently being covered. I’m not sure what the answer is, to be honest but my gut tells me that this dataset points to something deeper than what I’ve managed to get to.

Paul (and gregory): I love the cloud analogy. It makes a lot of sense. I’m actually thankful for Gabe proving the historical data BECAUSE it allows to take a quick glance. I guess I should get cracking on some code that would pull headlines for every day over a year to get more perspective. If any reader is interested in getting me the data set, I’ll slog through it and will try to analyze it.

Tristan: well, I think uncertainty and the difficulty of future prediction is central. Many headlines you view as noise or minutiae today may prove to herald or at least contextualize an important future outcome.

Like it or not, arriving at signal will always involve swimming in noise.

Great stuff. I’m also a fan of Techmeme and its news flow. But your results only confirmed what I earlier only have felt. The flow is many times as a lot of curls on the surface. All information combined though, it probably contribute to the bigger picture of things.

Kyle Mathews
June 3, 2008 3:20 pm

Re: “I’ve long hoped for a version of TechMeme that would provide me with a customized view that providing a similar user interface for my own personal feeds.”

This is coming. I’m a Google Summer of Code student building an open-source memetracker. Follow the progress here:

And read my original proposal here:
http://kyle.mathews2000.com/blog/2008/04/04/drupal-memetracker-module-my-google-summer-of-code-application

One other thought. I for one would love a slower moving techmeme that provided perhaps a 3-4 day view of tech news and that trimmed out the less important discussion/related posts. The larger timeslot from which news is drawn would ensure the memes covered are less “myopic” and provide a useful view to those visit techmeme less obsessively than some of us.

David Dalka
June 3, 2008 4:48 pm

Say what you will about some things like certain voices are a bit louder than others (and might be due for a haircut) or there isn’t enough thought leader posts – Techmeme is still the one place I can go and in less than 60 seconds get a view of Tech news of the day if I’ve been under a rock or in a hard place.

I appreciate the service greatly. Keep up the good work Gabe!

BTW, everyone, there’s more conversation relating to this on FriendFeed (shame I can’t find a way to integrate all of them)

Gabe: True, the question is the level of noise. I’d love to see suggestions for how we could help improve relevancy. I fully appreciate the value of the volume but I think TechMeme really shines when there’s a major event and it organizes the whole conversation around that event as a package. I dont’ know but there may be a need for higher thresholds for stuff to make it there so we can get a full understanding of an event (for example, I can think of the day Microsoft announced its intent to acquire Yahoo, no other news site provided as complete a package of news and analysis as techmeme did). I’d just love to have the page work that way ALL the time…

gabe, if you read this … i have been noticing i never look at your advertiser news storys, the one’e highlighted in gray, because of the highlight, which seems like a disservice to them …. i imagine you don’t want to confuse ad with editorial, but maybe a different color?

Tristan: from the community and site related work I’m doing with Placeblogger.com, I’d have to say that it is only sectors of the blogsophere–not the blogosphere as a whole–that is myopic. Tech bloggers, similar to political bloggers, are a particularly obsessive bunch. But, then again, their obsessiveness creates attention which then creates community, which may be cause for part of the obsessiveness (not the content.) Other theories for the obsessiveness of some tech bloggers might be psychological fallout from the dot com era; or, as for Om, etc, obsessiveness could have something to do with the difficulty in reaching that critical mass of click throughs that translates into decent income. Outside of Techmeme, or other specialty blogging groups, I think you may be hard pressed to find the same level of extended obsessiveness over minutia.

Tish: an interesting observation. What do you think make that obsessiveness unique to the tech community? I’d venture that it also exist in politics and would exist in most other areas but I don’t have the data to prove it either way…

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