The Follower Slot Syndrome

The social messaging service Twitter, which has been called the Swiss Army Knife of online communications, has seen a few changes under the hood since the inception of the service. Among these are the hardcoded follow rule which was introduced on Twitter in late 2008. Those most hit by this rule are users who are unaware of the limits and are very generous with their follows. When I myself bumped into that limit, it gave rise to thoughts about how I use this service, what kind of value it has and how I need to follow and unfollow others.

Important stuff? No, not really. But then again it touches on some pretty important things, like our ability to speak and be heard via the online architectures we use. And that warrants some lengthy attention IMHO. I hope some influencers and “high profile” Twitter users will take note, reconsider their stand and build up their capacity to deal with larger information intakes.

The follow rule

Chances are you won’t have bumped into this limit if you’re new to Twitter, but if you follow many people, and specifically if you follow more users than follow you back (typically celebrities or other high-profile influencers), you’ll likely bump into it when you hit 2000 follows.

Before Twitter introduced this rule, following was free game. Everyone could have as many or as few followers and follows as they liked. Everything was open and one could be generous with one’s attention without fearing that one would “run out” of slots. This changed dramatically with this rule.

The basic rule is this : you can follow only +10% in excess of your number of followers after you hit 2000 follows.

Basically, if you’re followed by 2000 users, you can follow 2200 yourself. If you’re followed by 10.000 you can follow 11.000 yourself. This rule, while good-intended, has some bizarre effects when you take a closer look at it. Among other things, it raises significantly the value of the commodity on Twitter known as a follow (i.e. attention), and even more that of a mutual follow (mutual attention), i.e. someone who follows you where you follow that someone back too.

Background : “bait-following”

This rule was introduced to combat “bait-following”. This is also sometimes referred to as Twitter “spam”, but I don’t acknowledge there is such a thing as “spam” on a service like Twitter. Many users have experienced this particular obnoxious phenomenon. Some users, either by themselves or using tools which utilize the Twitter API will track you down depending on your profile description or keywords in your tweet track record and follow you. What makes them different from users who genuinely want to connect with you, is that they do this en masse, following thousands of users, in the hope that some percentage will follow back. Hence the baiting. Those who do follow back can then be exposed to the advertising or other spam-like messages such as affiliate links to products you’re really not interested in or links to services which “help” you get “more followers”.

In Twitter’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon to browse around and follow other users somewhat randomly and sometimes stumble over interesting profiles and make new genuine connections. But automated tools made it considerably easier to “exploit” the fact that most Twitter users were generally willing to follow back others who were interested in connecting with them (and maybe still are, to a large degree).

These tools and the users who employ them (I’ve experimented with some myself at one time) use Twitter as a broadcast platform. It is the same logic applied to the online medium as is daily applied to television. It doesn’t matter if you waste 99% of your audience’s time, if you can sell something to the remaining 1%. That may be enough to make it worth it. Trouble is, the 99% still think it is a waste of their time, and therefore using methods like these to “increase following” is doomed to dry out sooner or later, as most will quickly see through the scams and unfollow such scammy attempts at gaining some attention.

After the hardcoded follow rules, scammers must now unfollow all those users who don’t follow back (but this is comparatively easy with automated tools), but then they are free to repeat the stunt. In other words, this particular type of use of Twitter persists. It’s still very common, and there’s very little the hardcoded rules can do to prevent it, because basically Twitter is a very open platform which grants access to it’s data to a wide host of third-party tools (which, among other things, make it great).

Twitter misconceptions

I wouldn’t care about follow or follower numbers so much as I do here, but because I feel Twitter nurtures some misconceptions about their own tool, which will make it less valuable, to me and other users – and ultimately to Twitter too.

First, as I stated, it is hard for me to accept that the crude misuse of Twitter described above is spam. For anyone to deliver a message to someone on Twitter that someone has to follow that anyone first. So messages on Twitter are always solicited. That you have been tricked into soliciting the messages doesn’t make such messages unsolicited.

In my humble opinion, Twitter should have kept their service pure. They should have butted out. They shouldn’t have started becoming involved with determining what kind of interactions took place using their service. Twitter would have survived fine, in spite of the crude attempts to undermine it’s usefulness. They should have worked to ensure it stayed a strong platform, which could make it as reliable as a phone line, but way more powerful. Twitter is a strong versatile platform and people used it very creatively on their own, blocking users they didn’t like and following those they did like. It was brilliant.

But they did. Twitter as a company couldn’t just look quiet at the many paths it was conceived scammers went to undermine their service. Fear started to kick in, and demands came from some users that Twitter needed to regulate and filter conversations and connections. They started abolishing user accounts whose following behaviour patterns made them suspicious. And they introduced hard coded rules, with the aim to stifle that particular kind of baiting spam as described above.

Twitter has a perception of it’s own service as a stream of information, which has to be managed. Noone can manage an intake of more than 2000 followers. At least not without losing out on many messages. So the argument for such hardcoded rules goes. However, this perception is wrongheaded as an attempt to figure out how Twitter data is used. The truth is Twitter has no idea whatsoever about what creative ways users may take in the data in their streams. One user taking in a lot of information may analyze it with a piece of software Twitter knows nothing about. Another may write a tool which filters the incoming stream according to criteria Twitter wouldn’t ever understand. Fundamentally Twitter is optimized for filtering at the receiving end, as the information intake will almost always be much much larger than the outgoing information stream. What we need in other words, is not better ways to restrict access, i.e. hardcoded limits on the posting end of the information loop – but better filters at the receiving end.

Filtering the information intake

I’ve often had Facebook friends complain about the massive stream of messages from me coming their way, when I send my tweets via Ping.fm in that direction. True, some nerdy stuff in there which they could care less about, but I want to include them, not exclude them from my information circuits, that’s why I send it their way. If I know the precise recipient of a message, I will usually send a direct message or email to that person. But more often than not, there’s no direct recipient but the aim to strike a chord or strike up conversation and input, like when I write a blog post. Social messaging is sometimes referred to as microblogging, and that is perhaps a very accurate description of the way I use Twitter. I send it their way, because I hope some of it may create new connections, from where the conversation may rise. I may discover new things about my friends doing this, because I never quite know who possesses the information I seek or share my interests and concerns.

Increasingly, as recipients of large information flows, their job then is to learn how to filter what they take in (if they do not choose to block me or unfriend me because I am “too loud”). We all need to do this. We all need to learn how to filter out incoming streams, i.e. prioritize what is more important than something else. What we need to read before something else. What emails to reply to first. Etc. Increasingly, we also need to learn to code and use aggregation tools on our own as well as free licensing, if we want to be independent of the filters offered us by proprietary service providers.

A large information intake or large information stream may be overwhelming, but it has nothing to do with spam. Spam is unsolicited messages sent to a lot of people in the hope that a small percentage responds and buys something. Information streams can be managed, filtered, analyzed, put from one form into another form.

The hard-coded follow rule imposes a limit in the wrong end. To get the best possible dataset, you don’t limit the intake, you take steps to make it easier to process the intake, to make it easier to get the desired data out. Twitter has no real idea if their users have need for a small or large intake of information for their data needs. But this is not the only place where Twitter don’t _get_ Twitter. I’ve often come back to how Twitter displays a huge failure to understand the value of their own data, when they don’t allow access to the full archives of tweets. You can go back only to what corresponds to three months worth of tweets. This means that all this data cannot be retrieved, filtered, analyzed and brought to use by clever people who want to know something about social behaviour patterns, particular brands, viral effects and all other things thinkable and mentionable. Twitter has a pre-conceived notion of what Twitter is, and if users don’t use Twitter that way, they are wrong and must be corrected with hard-coded rules to use Twitter as Twitter was intended. But the truth is the versatility of Twitter has made it much larger than itself – it has outgrown it’s initial purposes by milelengths. If Twitter doesn’t get that (and the true value they can offer as a business), they risk running their service into the ground, because they don’t make it profitable.

Following back

Now, I recently provoked some debate and diagreement among some of my followers when I provocatively asked why they didn’t follow me back. Actually, the message was not really aimed at those who do follow me, but at those who don’t. By those I mean the wide host of celebrities and influencers which are known to have a large following on Twitter, but only follow a small host of people themselves. I follow a wide host of them, but hitting the 2000-follow limit forced me to re-consider a lot of them. In fact, I unfollowed at least 800 users who didn’t follow me back, in order to allow me to follow others, who do follow me.

When someone follows me and I feel they are real people who are interested in what I have to say, I usually want to follow them back. Not only as a token of courtesy and respect, but because I feel strange when talking to someone and I have no idea what they are like. I want that influx of ideas from others and I honestly don’t care so much if I manage to read _everything_ but it’s there and I can take that data, do a search, create a filtered feed and other things if I want to, when I want to. You can too, if you want to, and if you want to learn how to do it.

What stopped me from following others back? The 2000-limit and the many many users that I followed, who didn’t care to follow back. It says I can only have 200 “non-follower” users I follow, if I want to follow everyone back who follows me (and I usually do). So what provoked me is that while high profile Twitter users such as Barack Obama, Scobleizer and Guy Kawasaki follows me back, why can’t others? If they can, why can’t you?

To me not following someone back is a message saying “I don’t care what you have to say” or “You’re less important than me”. Less worthy of attention. I’m worthy enough to be in your stream, but you can’t be in mine. That is the wrong message to send out, no matter what you want to communicate using Twitter, it’s a bad way to start a conversation with anyone. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being very selective about who you follow, but if you overdo it, you also risk coming off as arrogant and disrespectful, because you do not take part in the exchanges on an equal footing.

I don’t care if Obama, Guy Kawasaki or Scobles actually reads what I have to say. I care about the gesture. I care about them saying with that gesture that if you give me attention, I will give you mine back. Even if it is not true. They will not occupy one of the most valuable rare 200 slots I can allocate to only information intake. These may be reserved for others, typically high-profile users whose opinion and information is so important to me, that I don’t care if they listen to what I have to say. As a company or as most people using Twitter, you don’t want to bet on yourself being in that category. You should follow back. Why reach out (have a Twitter account) and then don’t want to listen to what people have to say? Indeed, what those few who’s already decided they want to give you their attention, have to say (if anything).

I don’t consider myself an atypical Twitter user. There are many bloggers, companies, organizations and other users who use Twitter because they have a message they want out. We want to reach other people, make connections with others who are interested in what we have to say and offer. But I just unfollowed a lot of startups and internet professionals, who didn’t take the time, were too disinterested or too lazy to follow me back. They lost what tiny piece of my attention they had. They didn’t need to. With a small gesture, they’d still be in. Would it matter? I don’t know. Nobody knows. But they’d have given a small but important gesture, which doesn’t cost them much but may – just may – give them something of value back some day.

If attention matters to you, i.e. it matters that you reach someone out there with whom your message resonates, you can’t afford to throw away the tiny bits of attention you’re afforded when you’re afforded them.

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When The Garden Walls Come Crumbling Down

Or what would happen if Facebook went GPL

In thesis no. 93 The Cluetrain Manifesto claims :

We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down.

I agree. I experience these annoyances on a daily basis. Sometimes I have to really constrain myself not to let go of my temper, because I feel that our insights in many ways far precede our abilities to apply these to practical use. For instance, I cannot understand that while I do 95% of my banking via the internet, most banks do not put 95% of their ressources to work to give me as a customer the best possible online banking experience. Even less would probably do. If they just put 80% behind it, that would probably suffice. But they don’t. I am also annoyed when I have to communicate with my daughter’s doctor via an online form which permits only a limited amount of characters, largely because they do not trust email as a means of communication. In fact, I am always annoyed when people who presumably wants to communicate with me, don’t let me communicate back on equal terms. I find that arrogant. As far as possible I resist their attempts to control the way in which I should communicate with them.

The rooms in which we speak

Architectures are important. They are the ways we construct the rooms in which we speak. The “conversations” of The Cluetrain Manifesto take place within the framework of such architectures. They have names such as Facebook, Twitter and Google. Other such architectures are called things like WordPress, Joomla, MediaWiki, Firefox, RSS and GNU/Linux. They have a tremendous impact on the ways we communicate online, on the ways in which we filter our incoming information streams, and on the ways we enable new connections and enable new ideas to reach others, and enable their ideas to reach us. As important as architecture is, so more important is ownership : that we claim ownership to the tools we use. That we claim ownership to the channels and the walls that decide who will learn to know us, who will receive our message, and who will be filtered out, who will not. We decide what walls are torn down and what are built. With the web and simple tools we can, and we do.

Many of the software architectures that we employ, from the webserver and webscripting functionality of Apache and PHP to the popular self-publishing power of tools such as WordPress, are free software. I.e. built and easily adaptable by anyone who wants to adapt them for particular purposes.

Walled gardens

Other architectures are walled gardens, maintained by organizations and companies, who are not concerned about the choice of their customers. While companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google offer greatly useful applications to their customers, their services impose limits on their use. In short, they choose to remain in control. They choose not to release the source code. Not to let their users adapt the tools they’re offering to their particular purpose.

If a company such as Facebook or Twitter goes bankrupt, users will lose their data – no compensation, no anything. There’s no obvious way to retrieve data from these services, and since the code is not free, one can’t write tools to retrieve those data by oneself. While most of these services offer useful and advanced interfaces so that programmers can access their data from the outside, the service stays in control. You can’t obtain access to data they don’t want you to obtain access to. Facebook ultimately decides who they like to write applications for “their” platform. Twitter abolishes user accounts at their whim, because ultimately Twitter decides. Ultimately, Google decides to pull the plug on a GMail or YouTube account, on grounds they choose, not their customers.

These walls of proprietary ownership are the Berlin walls of today. We meet them everywhere, when we are annoyed we can’t do certain things with the tools we use. When we communicate within the confines of architectures that we do not own and do not feel comfortable with, because they disallow us to be ourselves. In the worst case, we hit them head on when we find that our account on some service has been abolished unfairly, with nothing we can say to get our data back. When a service ceases to be in business, a product ceases to be supported, or a new company policy is enforced in spite of what we feel about it.

So how are these walls going to come crumbling down?

Free software

As I do here and have often argued, the only way we can operate freely in our online environments is if and when we ourselves are able to create, adapt, control and empower the architectures that we employ. We need our software and online services to be as easily adaptable as any article on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is enabled by the clever use of a particular architecture in combination with a copyright in reverse known as “copyleft”. The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) license ensures that every contribution to Wikipedia’s articles can be freely adapted and re-distributed by others.

Until now, free software have also relied on copyright. Similar to Wikipedia’s license, the General Public License (GPL) which is commonly used for most free software projects ensures that the code stays open and can be manipulated by anyone, no matter who distributes or sells it.

But free software need not depend on copyright. The greatest barrier to the spread of free software is that so many do not understand why it is important. Too many business executives cannot see, that it is as beneficial to them as to their customers, that they facilitate their customers’ ability to change and adapt the code. Too many organizations do not understand that releasing their source code opens up new, decentralized, flexible and less costly ways to organize their activities. And too many internet users (myself included) are too convenient with their habitual uses of proprietary online tools to question deeply and realize what’s at stake. We also find time to be a scarce good, since we also have to work to pay our bills – often inside companies led by execs who don’t “get it”.

How things look from the inside

The free software movement is “working on the outside” to bring down these walls. But on the inside, every Facebook, Google and Twitter employee is also an internet user and customer. They are people who talk using these same tools, they have other lives, they quit and start their own businesses, in short they engage in conversations where they go (or are allowed to go, by their companies). What limitations in ownership are put in place by their companies also limit their ability to deliver the best possible product, the best possible service and the best way to help solve their customer’s problems. They are equally annoyed by the corporate walls put in place beyond their control.

There are two great problems which faces the walled corporations, now and in the future :

1. They will increasingly encounter free architectures and services, which may yet perform poorly, but have much greater potential to outgrow and outperform their proprietary competitors.

2. As clever candidates everywhere discover their own ability to build and employ free architectures of their own choosing and flavour and adapt them to suit their own particular purposes, companies will find it increasingly harder to find qualified candidates to fill positions. What’s attractive in working under the command of a boss, if you can work for yourself? What’s the attraction in working for a company, whose business model is not adaptable to the open environments spreading on the web?

What if Facebook went GPL?

In closing, let me speculate aloud to show an example of the business landscape I believe will replace the walled gardens of today’s corporate environment. Among many online applications, Facebook is probably the service with which I have the most problematic relationship. There’s no doubt in my mind that Facebook does something very well : it helps facilitate connections and conversations. It helps me get in touch and stay in touch with family, friends and business contacts who wouldn’t otherwise read my blog or relate to me via other online tools. It works really great for friends you don’t see a lot on a daily basis, but still want to stay in touch with. But for all it’s merits, I hate the fact that I can’t easily search and access data in Facebook. I dislike that I can’t extract the information I need with RSS from my Facebook archives, and that I cannot play even further with the category layers, to adapt the service even further to suit my needs.

Let’s imagine that Facebook decides to go open source. Facebook releases it’s source code and invites developers to join in and contribute to the code. They still are leading the development of the core Facebook application, but also offer anyone a downloadable package, which can be freely modified and redistributed. Anyone is free to fork Facebook and set up a rival site.

What would happen then?

First, we’d fix everything that is wrong with it. We’d add RSS feeds to all the places where we’d like RSS feeds. We’d work to make what’s going on transparent, so that we could learn from it. And we’d make those changes publically available to anyone, who’d like to take a look and use them for their own purposes.

But what I think makes Facebook really brilliant as a free software package is the way it can adopt external applications within itself. Facebook as a general purpose communications platform is great and extremely adaptable. This makes it well suited as a platform for almost any corporate website. Most companies need to enable conversations across the organization, with suppliers, customers, investors, and everyone else slightly related to the company. The fact that most companies’ employees already spend a good deal of time using Facebook during work hours shouldn’t lead to abolishing and blocking Facebook from office computers, but should rather be seen as an encouragement to take this brilliant tool and give it a form of their own choosing. If Facebook was released under GPL, that would indeed be a viable option.

Adopting Facebook as a corporate platform would not only allow employees and customers to communicate on equal footing, it would also allow them to create applications for the platform, which would help adapt the package in very particular, employee- and customer-centric ways to suit the company’s purposes. That the package already has proven so scalable on a global level is a testament to it’s robustness in even the most trying of corporate environments.

But even if Facebook is not released under GPL, we’re already well on our way to build, use and sustain software like this, and many businesses do build their own social networking architectures. In fact, many CMS packages which are free software already implement features which mirror the successful features of Facebook and other social networking services. For WordPress, we already have BuddyPress, a prebundled collection of plugins which convert a WordPress installation to a fullblown social networking site.

But businesses and developers will continue to get it wrong, if they do not offer their employees, members and customers the same freedoms by releasing their source code, as they had when they chose to base their solution on free software.

In the long term, the question is, if Facebook and other proprietary businesses will still have a business model, if they do not give up control and release their code? If they do not enable the free adaptability of their software, chances are, with time, we’ll just build our own.

This post is part of the Cluetrain Manifesto 10-year Anniversary Blogging Event organized by Keith McArthur, in which 95 bloggers all write today about one of the 95 theses put forth by The Cluetrain Manifesto 10 years ago.

EDIT : The link to the CluetrainPlus10 PBwiki page works again. Here’s Keith’s latest post about the project.

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Twitter fatigue, social networks fatigue

Laura Hale has a great post on the Fan History blog (via Kaplak Stream), which deals with Twitter fatigue. Among other things, she writes :

I really wish that as Twitter exists now, that I felt like I was getting more out of my relationships that use Twitter to facilitate them. They don’t. I’m tired of trying to make the effort while feeling like I should be getting something out of it. I’m tired of people following me for no apparent reason who never communicate with me. I’m tired of the idea that I should be getting more connected with people as I feel even less connected.

I’m tired of the hype. (…) CNN talks about Twitter. FaceBook changed to look more like Twitter. News people talk about how Twitter will change how news is reported. Newspapers print Tweets. Twitter will change the world! Celebrities tweet from everywhere. Entertainment Tonight covers people who are tweeting while they are being interviewed. I get it. This is like MySpace about 2 years ago. (And we know where MySpace is going.) I kind of just want to be left alone in a world where I can use it with out everyone and their neighbor going on about how great it is. If we could get back to reporting the news instead of reporting on how people are sharing their news, I might be less tired.

In my particular case what Laura describes goes a long way to describe the love/hate relationship I have with most proprietary social networks (if in doubt, see this piece on why we don’t really like social networks). It would best be called social networks fatigue in general.

On Twitter in particular, I tire excessively of the countless outright attempts to game the system, of which this is only the latest I’ve bumped into. I like experiments and new ways to approach the Twitter API – but I dislike manipulation and being treated like a fool.

I would maintain that it is possible to use these tools to create and sustain meaningful relations, although like Laura it is probably no more than a handfull or at most a few handfulls which have come out of my personal use of Twitter. I haven’t calculated it rationally in terms of how many hours I’ve put into it, and if I did the numbers probably would not look encouraging.

But I don’t look at it in those terms. I see it more like a big learning experiment which helps me dress myself and others up for whats coming – and what will be _more_ the real thing. More peer-to-peer driven, more sharing, more caring and much more powerful (as in the Wikipedia meaning of the word). More so than say Twitter, Facebook, even Google, which are all young wild proprietary experiments trapped in the “old” economy.

I never forget the wonder of encountering Wikipedia in those early years, in 2003 and 2004. I and a few others worked on the Max Stirner article in the wiki and we built what we thought was a pretty decent encyclopedic article on Stirner. Since then, our work has been completely destroyed, mashed-up and remixed into an obscurity of an enormous and unstructured piece of writing. Great, because our work was not so sacred it couldn’t be demolished, and the lively activity on the article suggests that a lot of people find Stirner’s thinking interesting – which is great. Great, because the friendly environment and cooperative spirit which nurtured and built Wikipedia in those years laid the foundation for a global phenomenon we have yet to fully understand and appreciate. Great, because Wikipedia shocked me. It woke me up! In the Lessig meaning of those words. Sure there are problems. Lots of them. One of these minor quibbles may be, that the article which at present introduces Max Stirner to the uninitiated is not as good as the one we once wrote. But when all comes to all, it is a minor quibble. What shocked me and appeared to me as truly revolutionizing, was the power of people coming together, from different parts of the world, working together towards a meaningful goal, if just an encyclopedic article, we wanted it to be the best article it could be. And this stays with me. A lot of people these days use services such as Facebook and Twitter and marvel at the opportunities of connecting with other people. Most coming in via these online services have not learnt how to connect. They are easy targets for the “make a quick buck”-promoters who will sell their old grandma for +10.000 additional followers on Twitter.

There’s a big job in educating ourselves on how to communicate. The real power of tools like Twitter is not in the meaningless “what are you doing right now”-nonsense (except these may sometimes be good conversation-starters) but in the ability to reach someone beyond far distances, who shares your concern, your problem, your interests. Who may be able to help you. Whom you may be able to help. Not in the “shouting” and “selling your products in the face” way of “helping”. Forget the products. Help because you care. Because you share passionate common interests.

I like when I can see the person behind the connection. “It is the real you I want to see, behind the imagery”, I once described it somewhere. In that context, I spoke about the importance of crafting films with authentic messages and stories which resonate with oneself and one’s audience. But it is no less true when connecting with others using internet tools. To have something important to say, something meaningful to communicate. Something to ask. Something to think about, to be concerned about. A piece of information which makes my life richer, in the deeper sense and not the monetary sense.

We don’t always know what that is, and if we can’t write and post a message without thinking deeply about the deeper meaning of it, we would write and post a lot less. Which may be a good thing, some might say. Something which I repeatedly find very embarrassing myself, is how despite all precautions, you can’t easily hide the less flattering sides of yourself when engaging in online conversations. Some of it doesn’t look very pretty. Misspellings, impatience, frustrations, childish blabbering, pride, just plain rudeness. I’m a big fan of civil online behaviour as I am in civil offline behaviour, but still sometimes things slip out, which are less than flattering, sound a little too blunt than it was meant etc. And it doesn’t all have to be flattering. I’m also a great fan of filtering tools and I hope those who read what I have to say take note and learn how to use these to their great effect. As we’re still only learning how to handle and filter our in/out information streams, the noise levels of our online communication are inevitably rising as we try and deal with the problems of communicating with people in different contexts, on different platforms, and using different kinds of filtering tools.

Those of us who learnt how to communicate and work together building the early articles of Wikipedia, and did it the hard way, by connecting with others and discussing page up and down with complete strangers how best to do it, we’ve got a long way helping the many others coming into this world of online connectedness much less well prepared. And most importantly, whether we use crude (but working) wiki talk pages or sophisticated tools like social messaging or multi-platform microblogging, we need to make our passions shown. To help deliver the shock.

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Twitter Mosaic

Now here’s an inventive business model and value proposition. Create a mosaic of your friends or followers on Twitter and get it printed on your coffee cup, mousepad, T-shirt and living room carpet (this has to be next!). Here’s what Kaplak’s mosaic looks like.

Had some trouble putting it into the post directly, as the original embed code seems to collect all the images for the mosaic live on this site, and the load time apparently makes WordPress not display the post at all. Would be more clever to combine the icons into one big image, and then “image map” all the links to the Twitter profiles. So I created the above image myself – I did not however imagemap links to the Twitter profiles. Instead the above image links to the embed in a separate file.

Also there seem to be some hardcoded limits in place, which prevents me from creating a mosaic which includes _all_ Kaplak’s “friends” on Twitter.

Thanks to Silicon Republic for this tip.

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When Words Are Not Enough



The web is awash with shocking images – terrible, shocking images of dead children. Of what is happening in Gaza, right now. I don’t care about the political mumbo-jumbo, it doesn’t interest me. But I do care about what other people are doing to each other. What crimes can be committed when people sign off their responsibilities towards their fellow men and replace it with loyalty and servitude to false concepts, institutions and leaders, which cowardly hide behind the rhetorics of concepts and words.

A friend sent me these pictures on Facebook – similar pictures can be found all over the web. Here, here or here. Here. Or simply here.

There were a few which spoke to me deeply. A father (I assume) carrying his dead child away. A kid with his head just above the ground. Corpses of burned children. I am a father myself. It doesn’t take much empathy to understand what kind of unspeakable atrocity is committed here. I have little to say in words except it makes me sad – and furious at the same time. I blip’ed about it here, and that’s just one insufficient way to express how I feel. Words are insufficient.

I try to avoid watching the news. I don’t really like to be spun into the web of politics and juggling of concepts which is what’s going on in television-made reality. I like the internet, where I can obtain the information I need when and where I like. A friend can always share news with me, in many different ways, if he or she deems it important for me to know. Or I can stumble upon things, I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I can be reached.

Today, these images made me think about how images like these can now reach us in a way they couldn’t a mere 10-15 years ago. They’d never make it past the editorial room of the television news, never make it into prime time tv (for good reasons). But they tell the unmasked truth of whats going on. Killed children, dead babies, smashed families… what goes on in every war, no matter how pretty or political it looks on tv. And what needs to reach us and anyone else with influence and just the slightest sense of responsibility. This can’t go on in the 21st century.

I can’t help the feeling that all my work and interests are shallow, when faced with these atrocities. This goes for my work in Kaplak, as well as my hobbies, such as playing strategy games and developing computer game scenarios.

That’s until I remind myself, that the reason I do what I do, is to facilitate this kind of exchange of information. I am reminded of Clay Shirky’s ideas, of what creates a group, and what makes group action possible : shared information, and a platform for interaction. That we develop technological architectures, which enable the decentralized access to and distribution of information, which may operate fast, can easily be used and adapted, and which enable mutual connections between otherwise disconnected entities. Now we have wikis, the blogosphere and we have Twitter. But we need even better tools to facilitate these exchanges of information, and in order to coordinate advanced and complex operations between peers. This is what we do. This is what we’re taking our first few digs into.

I recently blip’ed about the German patriotic song Die Wacht am Rhein, a song which has roots in the Prussian expansion wars of Bismarck 1864-1871, which was also immensely popular in Germany during the two world wars. I want to create a Civilization II scenario on Bismarck’s wars and this forging of the German national state. As a way to explore this our in many ways most recent history, on the birth of the modern European national state – on the iron, technology and blood spilt in this process. The kind of history taking place right now in Gaza is not new. These kinds of atrocities are not new. But gone are the days of romanticizing war and dressing it up as patriotism. Gone are the days when images such as these could be kept away from the public eye. And come are the days, when atrocities in one distant corner of the globe can reach the rest of the globe with the speed of fiery lightning. And hopefully, it will make an act such as this much harder to enact without the world acting against it. If we don’t, it could be our children, there, dead in the ruins. In a way it is.

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Barack Obama : Technology Empowers People

We believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change. —Barack Obama, speech at Google, Nov. 14th 2007.

What’s at stake in this election

I believe this US presidential election is a matter of grave importance, not just to the US but perhaps even more so to the rest of the world. First, the American leadership sets an example for the world. The damages caused by the one set by the administration headed by George W. Bush is best scrutinized in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. We need new leadership, a new vision and new examples to be set. We need a US president who can deliver this.

Second, the American economy influences the world’s economy. When a global economic power sinks into the bottomless financial pit of a brutal war of aggression, it not only sets a bad example for other nations, including Russia and all kinds of dictatorships, it also cannot help but bode ill for the world’s economy. We need a strong US economy, or at least a US economy which is capable of dealing with the challenges facing the United States internally, in order to lift the more serious challenges we face, such as world poverty and hunger and threats to our environment posed by our lifestyle and consumption patterns.

Third, and this is where we need real leadership, and real change, is to straighten out global priorities in the way the internet is, can and will be used. In particular, the US leadership is important in what is sometimes called ‘intellectual property law’. We need to stilt the draconian IP laws enacted in the US (I’m talking about the DMCA and similar legislation, if anyone should be in doubt). We need to stop these laws from becoming even more draconian, and we need to ultimately push them back. What’s at stake is hinted at in Lawrence Lessig’s marvelous book Free Culture, but isn’t limited to the remixing of music videos and animations – it’s our problem-solving capabilities which are at stake. Our ability to make good decisions based on trustworthy information, processed and exchanged freely using the internet, on a global scale, is at stake. If the US technology sector cannot lead the way because of the draconian American IP legislation, it will be a poorer world, and the struggle to get there will be harder and fraught with greater difficulties.

Barack Obama is now following you on Twitter!

As I am not American, unfortunately I can’t vote in the US presidential election taking place tomorrow. If I could I’d have no doubts. I’d vote for Obama. Not because he necessarily stand for and will enact all the things that I hope for the world, but because I think he will enact the kind of leadership, which sets an example and will facilitate the changes we need.

I have not been following the course of Barack Obama very closely, but even from a long distance he’s been able to make an impression. All thanks to the wonderful powers of the internet, which he’s utilized in his campaign with such intelligence and vitality. It made an impression when he followed me back on Twitter. Him or his campaign staff, either way, it’s an attention to detail which impresses. Coming from someone I respected and consider of high integrity, it also made a great impression on me reading Marc Andreessen’s personal account of a meeting with Obama. What impressed me in Andreessens account is the way Obama listened rather than talked, a characteristic which I felt showed his genuine interest in the problems presented to him. And lastly, he gained great respect in my book for appearing so genuinely as himself on the Daily Show and being able to stand up to the jokes of Jon Stewart in such as relaxed manner.

Lately I’ve been reading up on Obama’s tech policies, and the one thing I note with the greatest clarity is his emphasis on what can be done in America, in order to lift not only America, but also the challenges we face globally.

Seizing the moment : Obama’s speech at Google

Obama spoke last year (November 14th 2007) at Google’s HQ in Mountain View about his technology and innovation program. Watching this video of his speech I found I learned a great deal about Obama – and not just about his views on technology. If you haven’t had a chance to see this before, please join me here :

I took some time out to transcribe Obama’s entire speech below. It’s one of those speeches which apparently is not included in any of the official lists. Most blogs quote his technology policy press release, but I find it illuminating to read the words he actually used speaking at Google, and I learned a great deal about him in the process of transcribing his words. It’s a great speech, and one that resonates greatly with me.

Full transcript of Obama’s speech

When you start to think about it, there is something improbable about this gathering. Afterall it wasn’t much more than a decade ago that Larry and Sergei got together in a dormroom as graduate students with a big idea to organize all of the world’s information into an accessible form. And at the time I was a [novice? Illinois?] state senator, doing my best to help people get a better shot at their dreams.

What we shared is a belief in changing the world from the bottom up, not the top down. That a bunch of.. that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. We shared that, and we also shared a bunch of student loans that still needed to be paid off. (laughter) And you would have found it hard to predict that Larry and Sergei would now be the co-founders of one of the most successful companies in recent history. And that I would be standing on this stage today as a candidate for president of the United States.

But this is where improbable journeys have led. This is where the moment finds us. And I’d like to say a few words about what I believe we have to do together, to seize this moment with a sense of purpose and a sense of urgency.

We know how the first chapters of the Google story have turned out. Afterall, all of you have good jobs. But we also know that the Google story is more than just being about the bottom line. It’s about seeing what we can accomplish when we believe in things that are unseen. When we take the measure of our changing times and we take action to shape them. And that’s why we’re here today. That’s why many of you decided to work here instead of somewhere else.

Technology and innovation have reshaped our economy and our lives at breathtaking speed. America’s been fighting to figure out how to tap this awesome new ressource we have. And Google’s helped to show us the way. But the story is far from over. Google’s story is far from over. The story about how we shape our changing times is far from over. What comes next depends on the choices that we make right now, at this moment, in this election.

We could see the spirit of innovation that started this company be stifled. We could see the internet divided up to the highest bidders. We could see a government that uses technology to shut people out, instead of letting them in. Tax breaks shuffled to special interests, while the next startup, the next Google can’t get a fair shot. Challenges like health care and energy that hold our country back while competition from other nations picks up. That’s one alternative.

Another alternative is for us to unlock a new future of opportunity. Together we could open up the government and invite all citizens in, while connecting all of America to 21st century broadband. We could use technology to help achieve universal health care. To reach for a clean energy future. And to ensure that young Americans can compete and win in the global economy.

If America recommits itself to science and innovation then we can lead the world to a new future of productivity and prosperity.

That’s what we can do if we seize this moment. That’s the choice we face.

As president, I intend to work with you to write the next chapter in the story of American innovation. That’s part of the reason why I’m running for president of the United States.

To seize this moment we have to ensure free and full exchange of information. And that starts with an open internet. (applause) I will take a backseat to noone in my commitment to network neutrality. Because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. The internet is perhaps the most open network in history and we have to keep it that way.

To seize this moment, we have to connect all of America to 21st century infrastructure. As president, I will set a goal of ensuring that every American has broadband access, no matter where you live, no matter how much money you have or don’t have. We will raise the standards for broadband speed. We will connect schools and libraries and hospitals. We will take on the special interests so that we can finally unleash the power of wireless spectrum for our safety, our security and our connectivity.

To seize this moment, we have to use technology to open up our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the most secretive administrations in our history has favored special interests and pursued policies that could not stand up to the sunlight. As president, I’m gonna change that. We will put government data online in universally accessible formats. (applause) I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts, earmarks and lobbying contracts. I’ll let you participate in government forums, ask questions, in realtime, offer suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are made. And let you comment on legislation before it is signed. And to ensure that every government agency is meeting 21st century standards, I will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer to coordinate and make certain that we are always at the forefront of technology and that we are incorporating it into every decision that we make. (applause)

And if you wanna know how I’ll govern, just look at our campaign. We received over 370.000 donations online, half of which have been under 25 dollars. Nearly 300.000 Americans have their own accounts on Barackobama.com. They’ve created thousands of grassroots groups. They’ve offered up over 15.000 policy ideas. Because we believe that real change can only come from the bottom up. And technology empowers people to come together to make that change.

Because at this moment I think we have to do more than get our house in order. The opportunity in front of us is bigger than that. Seizing this opportunity is gonna depend on more than what the government does or even what the technology sector does. It’s gonna depend on how together we harness technology to confront the biggest challenges that America faces.

Just imagine what we could do. If we commit ourselves to electronic medical records, then we can lift up the quality of health care and reduce error at dramatically lower costs. (applause) If we take on special interests and make aggressive investments in clean and renewable energy, like Google’s done with solar here in Mountain View, then we can end our addiction to oil, create millions of jobs, and save the planet in the bargain.

If we make technological literacy a fundamental part of education, then we can give our children the skills they need to compete and ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers as being educated right here in America.

We can do this, but we can’t wait. Because Silicon Valley is not the only corner of innovation in the world. If America doesn’t seize this moment, then we will face only more competition from Dubai and Dublin, from Shanghai and Mumbai. So instead of George Bush’s policy of undermining science, I intend to double federal funding for basic research and make the RND tax credit permanent. (applause) To keep the door open for the next generation of startups, I will enforce tough antitrust laws. And to ensure that America continues to attract the worlds’ best and brightest, we need comprehensive immigration reform, that strengthens permanent residence VISA’s like the H1B program.

We need to make sure that the next success story, the next Google, happens here, in America. The Google story is about what can be achieved when we cultivate new ideas and keep the playing field level for new businesses. But it’s also about not settling for what we’ve already achieved. It’s about constantly raising the barr, so that we’re more competitive, and so that we use technology to reach ever expanding horizons.

You know, the first time I was back here, in 2004, Larry showed me the image that tracks all the internet searches taking place in the world. I wrote about this in my book. I saw the Earth rotating on a flat panel monitor with the different lights for different languages marking all of the traffic on this wondrous network, a network, that didn’t even exist when almost all of us here were born. (laughter) Almost.

But what struck me wasn’t the light on that globe. It was the darkness. Most of Africa, chunks of Asia, even parts of the United States. The disconnected corners of our interconnected world. Where the promise of the 21st century is being eclipsed by peril. You and I must not settle for anything less than an America that replaces that darkness with a new light.

Because the promise and prosperity of a new economy must not be the property of the few.

It must be a force that lifts up our entire country and ultimately lifts up the entire world. (applause) We have the privilege to live in a transformational moment. A moment when an idea can change the world. A moment when technology empowers us to come together as never before, while letting each of us reach for our own individual dreams. A moment when we can finally progress and move beyond the huge challenges that have stood in the way of progress for far too long.

We can not and we must not look back and regret that we settled for anything less. And that’s why I’m asking you to join me in seizing this moment. I’m asking you to join me in changing the world. Thank you very much everybody. Thank you. (drowning in standing ovations)

Interview : Break the fever of fear

Obama’s speech is followed in the video with an insightful, relaxed and entertaining on stage interview hosted by Google CEO Eric Schmidt. In this interview Obama talks very open-heartedly about why he’s running for president in the first place, and why he’s running now. He’s also asked how he will actually end the war in Iraq, if he presumably takes office. As most will know, Obama opposed the war in Iraq. This speech from 2002 against the war in Iraq is well worth another read.

Obama sums up his foreign policy with the French president Sarkozy’s words, to “be more liked”. Meaning, that if the US is more respected and recognized for it’s diplomatic efforts, it will be easier to build up trust which enables problem-solving and diplomatic solutions and harder to create mistrust against Americans. Obama will “break the fever of fear” which has been exploited by the Bush administration to instill fear and distrust :

We’re told to be afraid of terrorists, of immigrants.. and each other … Our values are distorted .. not being certain if simulated drownings are really torture… That’s not who we are, as Americans. Sometimes I’m accused of being this progressive, far-out… – I’m conservative, in the sense that I want us to get back to those values that were essential to building America.

I sincerely hope he succeeds.

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Kaplak and The Wiki Way

This video is a few words about our online method and work ethos, which is greatly inspired by what has been coined “the wiki way”, by our friends at About Us, among others (and yet others).

I’ve previously written about Kaplak’s multi-platform strategy and compared our business aspirations to the world of grafitti painting in our local neighbourhood. We want to create a company, which is capable of inviting “tags” and “shouts”, i.e. inputs from outside our company, so that we may, in the process and with time, learn how to do a great “piece”, so to speak. Inviting outside input is more difficult, than one would imagine, as everything in the business world as is, is built around keeping closed circles closed and creating stiff hierarchies, which are detrimental to the very kind of open, global process, we mean to help kick off and participate in. By all means, we want to steer clear of the corporate thickness, which quickly creeps into a company and prevents it from doing bold things.

Thus, we mean the “wiki way” in broader terms, than for just the work of building a wiki. We consider it a way of doing business and a mindset, which we need, in order to maintain a broad online presence over a number of different platforms and web architectures, without being overencumbered by the sheer vastness of what we’re doing – “making the world’s ends meet”, as we say, i.e. making financially viable connections between niche products and global niche markets.

Building and writing a blog sometimes can be like working against the clock. Posts are time-stamped and articles read and digested in the order they are published.

Not so with wikis. They evolve slowly over time, as additions to the wiki accumulate, from vastly different and otherwise territorially and contextually dispersed contributors. A wiki is built from time to time, when there’s something to add. A page can be an inactive dead end for months or even years, and it can see a sudden outburst of activity from one moment to the other, when it finds it’s use in a new context.

We understand and implement our online strategy much in this way. We use web tools and services, when they are useful to us, and we try to add bits and pieces to our network, when we need to. We don’t write blog posts every day, just for the sake of it or just to draw in traffic. However, we do work systematically to find explicit ways to add information or new contacts to our network. Precisely where the activity occurs – whether it happens on Twitter or Friendfeed, or somewhere else – is less important, as long as our pieces and nitbits are closely interlinked, and as long as we can feed stuff from one platform to another. The last thing is a high priority, which is why RSS and widgets are important. But what is even more important, is that in most contexts, not just in our wiki, we invite replies, comments, reactions, input, if just for the rare case, when someone in some unexpected context stumbles upon one of the bits and pieces, which help he or she activate that page and connect with us.

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Contextualized Search

I’ve previously written about the merits of attributing value to the context of finding information, rather than on any particular piece of information. This makes sense in an environment which literally explodes with new information, and shows no signs it’s gonna stop in any foreseeable future.

Google seems to think so too. After all, this is what Google do, and do really well. But it’s true no less of a somewhat overlooked product of Google’s. I’m talking about Google’s Custom Search. This service allows anyone to composit their own search engine, and place it on their own website. More accurately, your custom search engine filters Google’s index of webpages. Say you want a search engine on your site about your niche subject only to return results which relates to your site. It’s simple : type in your site name, and allow Google to show results from your site as well as all the sites your site links to. Or you can be even more specific, or list a range of sites you want results to be taken from. Or you’d like Google to still show results from the web, but emphasize results from your own site – this is also easily doable.

The only problem so far with Google’s Custom Search has been on the one hand that Google’s crawlers don’t seem to index every website too tightly and too frequently, and on the other, that results are still based on PageRank. Say you want your users to find a great piece on your blog about a particular subject, when they search for that subject, but that piece isn’t greatly linked to by other sites or articles. Chances are, that Custom Search will show a largely irrelevant, but greatly linked to article from another site, or simply not show that post at all, if it hasn’t been properly indexed. Your built-in blog search, such as WordPress’ search, will find that article very fast, because it searches your database directly. For smaller sites, local search as we know it, is still much more effective.

However, as sites grow and we as internet users and bloggers spread our activities over many sites and platforms, platform-specific search is too limited. We begin to look for more tailormade solutions. Google’s Custom Search is one, but there are others who want a piece of the action.

New kid on the block

Lijit is an internet startup based in Boulder, Colorado, which offers a promising version of “local” or “contextualized search”, which searches one’s blog, “content” (on sites such as YouTube, Flickr and many others) and the network of sites and “friends” your online activities connect you to. We’ve already created a Kaplak search engine powered by Lijit, and the Lijit widget is featured in the outer right column on this blog. I think Lijit could potentially be a very useful addition to the Kaplak toolbox. I plan to expand this search engine with further feeds and sites as our network and activities grow.

When I first tried Lijit, I wasn’t satisfied with the search results. I searched for a direct title in one of our blog posts, and it didn’t come up. As the impatient web customer I am, not hesitant to make a fuss about my problems with a free online service – on another free online service, I posted my quibbles on Twitter. It turns out, Lijit is on Twitter too, and so is Micah Baldwin, who works for Lijit and took time out to answer my quibbles.

It turned out Lijit based their first version on Google’s Custom Search, while developing their own web crawler. Switching Kaplak’s search to Lijit’s own crawler was a huge improvement from Google’s occasional crawl, and made me look much more enthusiastically at what this small team of extremely talented people are doing. I take my hat off for a company which acts so swiftly in response to “customer” sentiments, and make it a priority to help their users along with such friendliness. There are a lot of companies who could learn so much from Lijit. Micah and Lijit gives the expression “listening to the groundswell” a whole new meaning.

I like the freshness of Lijit and I like the results after being switched to their own crawler. I have only a few quibbles with it now. It’s got what I’d call some weaknesses in the versatility department, because I can’t control and finetune texts, messages and included sites/webpages as much as I’d like to and was quickly getting accustomed to in my short period of experience using Google’s Custom Search. For instance, I found all of my del.icio.us network automatically included in the search engine, where I’d like the opportunity to handpick whose links got to be included. Lijit’s search engine also wants to categorize results very neatly into “my blog” (even though the Kaplak Blog is not precisely “mine” – it’s the company blog and maintained by me, but not “mine”), “my content” and “my network”. What if we (which we’re probably going to) put the widget on our wiki? – that’s not exactly “mine” either. Our Kaplak universe is not so neatly organized, and while I do like the “Lijit picks” category, I prefer being able to scrap all categorization schemes altogether, get our own adsense stuff on the search results and just get on with finetuning and putting in more sites and feeds to give our visitors the best possible experience.

Lijit can potentially be a great key to tying together the many different platforms we operate on in Kaplak – and one we’d even pay for, if they included premium options we needed. As a company, we still do need search, and if Lijit could potentially even crawl user and product profile pages on our later-upcoming Kaplak Marketplace, we’d have something here, which we’d probably like to pay good human money for.

Conversational search

You can find most of my conversation with Micah via Summize, an online service which has built a search engine on top of Twitter, searching conversations on Twitter in realtime.

Imagine a service which have taken upon itself the daunting task of searching all things on Twitter instantly and is capable of threading and translating posts to and from numerous languages – globally. Then you have Summize.

Using Twitter a lot these last few months, I’ve found Summize indispensible to keep track of tweets, users and subjects. I’ve also used it for market research, i.e. “listening” to what other users are twittering. I find this stuff utterly incredible. There’s a lot of things happening in the search business these days.

I’m sure this is only the beginning.

[EDIT : Twitter's acquisition of Summize has broken the above link to the Summize search with my conversation with Micah. Here's a similar search on the new http://search.twitter.com which supposedly replaces Summize...]

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Scaling YouTube

Among my too many interests at the present is scalability and problems of scaling webservices, in particular. Of course, this is an obvious concern for Kaplak, as it is and will be for any startup which wants to address a global user base. How do you grow from your cellar setup to a system capable of meeting a much stronger, extraordinary demand?

Alex Conner sent a few tips my way via Twitter, among these this interesting video with Cuong Do Cuong from YouTube. Do Cuong was part of the engineering team that scaled the YouTube software and hardware infrastructure from its infancy to its current scale. In this video he discusses hardware, software and database scaling challenges :

Thanks for the tip, Alex :-)

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Kaplak’s Online Strategy

If you’re reading this, you belong to a select group of people who have managed to find their way along intricate paths into this new home for the Kaplak Blog. Kaplak’s first site was since it’s inception last summer born as a temporary website for Kaplak. It’s primary purpose was to host the blog and the mailing list until we had developed our first online strategy. Now, we’re in the process of implementing this strategy for our online presence. This mindmap roughly illustrates what this entails :

Kaplak is not just one website – we’re building a presence on a number of different platforms, from Twitter and del.icio.us to YouTube and Facebook, and on countless others. Many of these platforms are tied together by RSS, which makes it (which is the goal) comparatively easy or convenient to travel (i.e. follow links) between these different platforms and communities.

One important step in the process has been to move the blog to it’s own domain, with new powerful software (WordPress) and plugins, so that we could ‘free up’ the main domain for a complete revamp. The purpose of Kaplak.com changes to become a key entry point on the web for the “signup and upload” process for new customers. This will be closely connected to the Kaplak Marketplace, which will be Kaplak’s main original contribution to the web. We have some clever ideas in Kaplak about how to avoid what we have termed the mainstream problem and look very much forward to showing this part of our activities off to the world.

The next step in the implementation of our strategy will be setting up a decent skin for and opening up our public Kaplak Wiki.

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