A few weeks ago a well-respected developer wrote a blog post about something he called the “social graph.” A graph, to most people, is a diagram like the one on the right, which plots the value of a stock over time. For 99.99 percent of the people this is what a graph is. For a very small group of people, a graph is also something like this:
This is the kind of thing you study in a branch of mathematics called Graph Theory. I know a bit about this because when I was an undergraduate, getting a degree in math, I studied this stuff. I proved theorums about how many edges you’d have to traverse to get from one point to another. There are many types of Graph Theory graphs, directed and undirected, for example. Some that you’d need two colors to paint, or three, but none need more than four (a theory that has been proven since I left school, thanks to computers).
Graphs are useful for modeling stuff that goes on in computers. They are also part of a field of math called combinatorics that’s related to statistics, and also related to a highly theoretical area of math called topology.
Now if you showed that diagram to most educated people, they probably would call it a network, and before we talked about social graphs we called them social networks, and you know what — they’re exactly the same thing, and social network is a much less confusing term, so why don’t we just stick with it? (Answer: we should, imho.) So if you don’t want to sound like an idiot, call a social graph a social network and stand up for your right to understand technology, and make the techies actually do some useful stuff instead of making simple stuff sound complicated.
PS: This Google search illustrates. Most of the definitions of “graph” are what you’d expect if you weren’t a math major.
PPS: Copy editors, just change “social graph” to “social network.”
In the coming weeks and months you’ll probably see me writing about issues of podcatchers here, because I’m working on one. It’s the third one I’ve written, so this time maybe I’ll get it right.
A lot of things have changed since I wrote my first podcatcher back in 2001.
1. Back then there were no podcasts, so it was a proof of concept, a chicken without an egg (or an egg with no chicken), a step in a bootstrap. Today there are lots of podcasts. An embarassment of riches.
2. Back then implementing a podcatcher was simple, there was exactly one format to support, RSS 2.0 with enclosures. Today, luckily, it’s still fairly simple, as far as the format goes. The only variability is the iTunes namespace, which complicates things, just a little.
3. Today there are enough users to make it possible to support lists of podcasts published by fans, and instead of just subscribing to the podcast feeds, you can subscribe to lists of feeds. I will publish one of these lists, in OPML 2.0 format, as a proof of concept.
4. The first version of this new podcatcher will run in the OPML Editor because that’s where all my software runs at first. But the goal is to port it to run in other environments, some with millions of users. I want to provide a popular alternative to the one that Apple publishes which currently dominates the market. (Note: I’m generally pleased with the way Apple dominates, they’ve been very fair about allowing users to export their subscription lists. But if we want to create the opportunity for others to innovate in the area of podcast players, there has to be choice at the podcatcher level. That’s my main motive for revisiting this area.)
There probably are some other changes, and I’ll write about them as the project moves forward.
To people who say that Apple has the market sewn up, I say Bah!
I think iPods are great, but they’re designed to play music, not podcasts.
Every bit of music is something you want to keep forever, a podcast loses almost all its value after you’ve listened to it once.
You have to pay for music (in theory at least) but podcasts are free.
Podcasts beg to have a player that can download them without synching with a desktop computer. Okay that’s something podcasts have in common with music.
I buy Apple products all the time. I’ve gone from resenting Apple so much that I wouldn’t buy their products, as recently as 2005, to today when not only do I only use Macs, but I’m constantly telling people why they’d be better off using Macs. I can’t help but evangelize the products, I think they’re that much better than Windows PCs.
But as much as I love Apple (can’t believe I actually said that) I still don’t trust them with a whole medium. We need them to have competition. The rest of the tech industry seems to think they’re immune to it, that creates a huge opportunity with someone with enough chutzpah to think they can do it.
PS: Here’s my first bit, on the subscription problem, and how it could go away.
Okay I’ve been writing about OPML reading lists here for years. I’m now on my second implementation, so maybe this time I’ll get it right.
But there’s something cool that happens when (hypothetically) the entire installed base of podcatchers supports OPML reading lists. All of a sudden the subscription problem goes poof!
Ask anyone who’s worked on a RSS reader, for that matter, ask anyone who’s used one, what a PITA it is to subscribe to a feed. All those little buttons, or copying and pasting, and looking at urls, and trying to figure out whether you want this format or that format. It’s a miracle anyone actually subscribes to feeds it’s so damned complicated.
Before you blame anyone, it’s not actually anyone’s fault. It’s a result of the market not being a monopoly. The only way to solve the problem is if everyone uses the same web app to manage subscriptions. And we know that’s not going to happen any time soon. Or, if every reader supports OPML reading lists. Now that might actually happen, even though it’s not very likely.
But podcasting, that’s a whole other story. According to many people there’s only one podcatcher, iTunes. So that’s simplified the problem. For example, look at this page of NY Times podcasts, and how they handle it.
See the Subscribe button? Nice. Except for one thing. It really should say “Subscribe in iTunes” because that’s what it does. And it works, because in many people’s minds, iTunes is the only way to subscribe to a podcast.
And it could stay that simple if Apple would do one thing, offer the option of publishing the OPML automatically to a publicly accessible web address, so the user could continue to use Apple’s server to handle subscriptions, even if they’re using a different podcatcher (for example one that runs on a Nokia N800). It would be the mark of a truly great company if they did that. Maybe they are that great.
Otheriwse at some point we’re going to ask the NY TImes to change their page. And they may not be too happy about that. Wouldn’t blame them if they were.
Moral of the story: If we can centralize the subscription process, and move it out of one reader or another, and get the readers to all support subscription to reading lists, the awful ugly issue will go away for users. It’s one of the oldest tradeoffs in the tech business, to make it simple for users, the vendors have to give up some power.