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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