Earlier this morning I saw the following tweet by Alex Payne, one of the developers who works on Twitter

Game mechanics aren't going to fix your product and they aren't making people's lives better. Great essay: http://j.mp/aN66i8 

Alex’s description piqued my interest so I checked out the article by Peter Michaud titled Achievement Porn and not only agreed that it is a great essay but walked away from it with a fairly different conclusion from Alex. Below are two key excerpts from the article

The game article, and the meta discussion surrounding it is actually part of an even larger discussion that affects more than just video gamers. Games are just a minor symptom of a systematic disease:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Why work hard for achievements, when you could relax and achieve the same? That’s not pathological, that’s how exponential progress works.

But why achieve at all when you can plug into any number of “achievement games” and get the same personal satisfaction?

The good news is that these little “achievement games” are fairly easy to recognize once you realize what’s going on. The bad news is that more are cropping up at an alarming rate, sped largely by the intertubes.

Games fast becoming standard are the “followers” and “friends” games for example. Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, et al, all have their own ostensible raison d’etre, but the psychological underpinning they all share is this treadmill of achievement. This accumulation of points that’s correlated with whatever the intended benefit of the service is.

I find this discussion interesting because it matches the theme of my most recent posts the difference between adding features that are good for users versus good for the product. The physiological underpinnings that make achievement games work have been covered quite well in the Slate article Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous. The article argues that our brains are wired to derive more pleasure from chasing after something than actually getting it. However although we are hard wired to constantly chase after achievement it is our individual choice which achievements spur us. Thus it is the same underlying biology that explains the addictions of Tiger Woods and those of the World of Warcraft junkie.

Our lives are full of lots of little “achievement treadmills” it’s just that video games are the most obvious. A few months ago I started playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I play it for about 1-2 hours every day and according to the game have clocked in almost two weeks of playing time. The game has lots of mini-achievements and ways to keep you grinding from unlocking titles when you complete challenges like score 500 headshots with a particular weapon to encouraging you to de-power your character after you hit level 70 and start the grind all over again (I’m on my 3rd or 4th circuit). The interesting question is what have I lost by spending all this time playing MW2?

It turns out that the two activities that have suffered the most are my blogging and writing code for RSS Bandit. An insight from Peter Michaud’s post is that these were also achievement treadmills in their own way. On my blog all of my posts literally have a score which is the number of times other people have retweeted links to them, bookmarked them on delicious or shared them on Facebook. I also use FeedBurner and for a while used to obsess about my number of subscribers but eventually got over it since I don’t have the time or willingness to create the kind of content that generates a large following. As for RSS Bandit, the number of people who use it and the number of bugs I fixed have always been motivating factors. I can still remember the feeling I’d get when I’d see stats like 100,000 downloads a month or when I realized the application had been downloaded over a million times since it had started. Since I consider the glory days of Outlook-inspired desktop RSS readers to be in the past, I’m not as motivated as I once was to work on the project.

What it really boils down to is that I traded one set of “achievement treadmills” (i.e. blogging and contributing to an Open Source project) for another more explicit set (i.e. playing Modern Warfare 2). Now we can go back to Alex Payne’s tweet and find out where I disagree. From the perspective of Infinity Ward (creators of MW2) is it a bad thing for their business that they’ve created a game that has sucked me into almost 300 hours of play time? On the other hand, is it a good thing for me as a fully functioning member of society to have cut down my contributions to an Open Source project and the blogosphere to play a video game? Finally, is it better for me as a person to have traded achievement treadmills where I have little control over the achievements (i.e. number of blog subscribers, number of people who download a desktop RSS reader, etc) for one where I have complete control of the achievements as long as I dedicate the time?

I’ll leave the answers to those questions up to the reader. I will say game mechanics can more than “fix” a social software product, they can make it a massive success that it’s users are obsessed with. Just look at Farmville or FourSquare for explicit examples or sites like Twitter which have inspired hundreds of guides to increasing your number of Twitter followers for a more subtle example. Does it mean that these products aren’t making their users lives “better”? Well, it depends on how you define better.

Note Now Playing: DJ Khalid - All I Do Is Win (featuring Ludacris, Rick Ross, T-Pain & Snoop Doggy Doog) Note


Categories: Social Software

The term “The real-time web” has become popular as a way to describe burgeoning trends and technologies related to consuming web content as soon as it is created. However like popular buzz phrases such as “services oriented architecture” and “web 2.0” which came before it, there is often difficulty in understanding where the technical details end and where the hype begins. Given that this trend is a fundamental shift in how many users interact with the web, it is a good idea for developers to have a clear idea of the key concepts and implementations options available to them as they bring their applications into real-time web.

What Features and Functionality Make Up the Real-Time Web?

When people talk about the real-time web technologies, they are usually talking about one or more of the following features

  1. Refreshing a web page as new updates are available without reloading the page. A good example of this is seen when performing a search on Twitter and you’ll notice that a yellow bar with a constantly updated number of tweets since you started searching is displayed.

  2. Receiving notifications on content updates as soon as they happen instead of polling. This is primarily about moving away from RSS’s model of polling every couple of minutes or hours and instead having an end point that gets messages delivered as soon as they happen. An example of this is the fact that user status updates from Twitter appear within a second on FriendFeed when the user has hooked up both services. This is in contrast to how long it takes blog posts to show up in the typical RSS reader from when they are published.

  3. Some people consider the universe of status updates on sites like Facebook and Twitter to be the real-time web. For these people, the key interesting technology in this space is the ability to consume a neverending feed of content from these sites (aka a fire hose) and provide search functionality over this data.

We can now take a look at some of the underlying technologies that make some of these user experiences and scenarios possible.

Bringing Real-Time to AJAX: COMET, Long Polling and soon Web Sockets

Most web developers should be familiar with the concept of Asynchronous Javascript and XML (AJAX) which enables the creation of dynamic webpages that can be partially updated without having to reload the site. A traditional AJAX interaction involves the user interacting with part of the page and then the browser submitting the request to the server and then rebuilding that part of the page with the results from the request. However it turns out that there are many situations where an application may want to update parts of a page without waiting for user interaction such as displaying live stock tickers, instant messaging scenarios or showing feedback on an article as comments are posted. The set of approaches to solving this term are typically described using the name COMET.

COMET typically refers to keeping a permanent open connection between a browser and a server using a number of techniques. One approach is the hidden iframe technique. With this technique you create an inline frame (i.e. an iframe) that is hidden from the user and then have the frame slowly filled with content as events occur on the server. This takes advantage of the fact that a browser will keep an open connection to the server as long as a page has not fully loaded. There’s a great example of what generating one of these invisible iframes looks like on the server side in the article How to implement COMET with PHP

  header("Cache-Control: no-cache, must-revalidate");
  header("Expires: Mon, 26 Jul 1997 05:00:00 GMT");

  ?><!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.1//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml11/DTD/xhtml11.dtd">
  <html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">
    <title>Comet php backend</title>

    <meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=utf-8" />
  <script type="text/javascript">

    // KHTML browser don't share javascripts between iframes
    var is_khtml = navigator.appName.match("Konqueror") || navigator.appVersion.match("KHTML");
    if (is_khtml)
      var prototypejs = document.createElement('script');
      var head = document.getElementsByTagName('head');
    // load the comet object
    var comet = window.parent.comet;
  while(1) {

    echo '<script type="text/javascript">';
    echo 'comet.printServerTime('.time().');';
    echo '</script>';
    flush(); // used to send the echoed data to the client

    sleep(1); // a little break to unload the server CPU

As you can see from this example, the page will never finish rendering which means the browser always has an open connection to the server. It should also be noted that the payload of each new event is the Javascript function that you want the browser to execute to update the relevant part of the page. This technique works in most common browsers since it uses established technologies like iframes and Javascript. The main problems are that since it is somewhat of a hack, it is somewhat opaque to for web applications to determine the current state of the communication between the browser and the server (e.g. error handling).

Another common technique is long polling. With this approach the browser application makes an asynchronous request for data from the server either using XMLHttpRequest or a script tag. Once data is returned, another request of the same type is made. The essentially permanently keeps an open connection between the browser and the server. This approach is often favored by developers because it reuses common AJAX techniques and doesn’t require any special client-side techniques. The main challenge with long polling and other COMET techniques is choosing a server-side framework that can solve the C10K problem. Specifically, traditional web servers are designed to handle short-lived connections between browsers and the server due to the request/response nature of HTTP. With COMET, we can have thousands to tens of thousands of browsers keeping an open connection to a server. To address this problem there are now a number of dedicated COMET application servers with some of the more notable implementations ones being FriendFeed's Tornado and Jetty.

The W3C’s HTML 5 working group is working on making COMET part of the next generation of HTML with the creation of the WebSockets specification. This formalizes the notion of an XMLHttpRequest-style object that can create a permanent bi-directional connection to the server without the hacks of long polling (i.e. re-establishing a connection whenever data is sent) and is also resistant to some of the issues long polling faces when going through HTTP intermediaries such as firewalls and proxy servers.

Notifications at the Speed of Light: Go Beyond Polling with PubSubHubbub

Content syndication using XML syndication technologies such as RSS and Atom is a key part of how many websites and web users consume content today. However XML syndication is traditionally not a real-time experience because feed readers work by polling a feed at specific intervals which could be anything from minutes to hours apart. Since polling is an inefficient way to get content updates it isn’t feasible to get updates within seconds from when they happen without overloading the service that is being polled. This calls for new communications patterns where clients are notified of changes as they happen instead of having to poll for them with the time lag that this entails.

To solve this problem, a couple of Google employees have proposed the PubSubHubbub protocol (commonly abbreviated as PuSH) as a way to bring real-time notifications to content syndication on the Web. The workflow for a PuSH system is as follows

  1. A feed producer declares its Hub server(s) in its Atom or RSS XML file, via <link rel="hub" ...>. The hub(s) can be run by the publisher of the feed, or can be a community hub that anybody can use.
  2. A feed reader or subscriber initially polls the feed as usual. .
  3. On seeing that the feed supports PuSH, the subscriber declares it’s interest in getting real-time notifications from the hub when the feed is updated. This is done by registering a callback URL so it can receive the newly updated content whenever the feed is updated.
  4. When the feed producer next updates the feed, the publisher also pings the Hub(s) indicating there is an update.
  5. The hub then retrieves the feed and publishes the changes to all interested subscribers by POSTing an Atom or RSS item to their specified callback URLs

PubSubHubbub provides a more complete solution that other approaches such as Twitter’s firehose. With explicit subscription, services can use PuSH to get notified about updates that are either private or require authentication. With a firehose approach, all public content generated on the site is shared with all subscribers while private content is not provided since it isn’t really feasible to cherry pick which authenticated content should go to which consumer of the firehose.

There are already a number of sites consuming and producing PubSubHubbub including MySpace, LiveJournal, Google Reader, Tumblr and FriendFeed.

Creating and Consuming Fire Hoses: The Lynchpin of Real-Time Search

To many social media observers the real-time web refers to the ecosystem that has sprung up around status updates on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Being able to analyze status updates as they occur to determine people’s sentiments on a news event as it occurs or detect breaking news is a rapidly growing space with lots of players including Microsoft’s Bing, Tweetmeme and Sysomos among others. These services typically work by consuming a never ending stream of updates from the target services and then processing the updates as they are received. Twitter calls this never ending stream of updates a “firehose” and I’ll use this term to describe similar offerings from other services.

A firehose works similar to the COMET servers described earlier. A client connects to a server via HTTP and then starts to receive a stream of updates as they occur in some structured format. An early version of such a firehose is the SixApart Update Stream which is used to provide real-time feeds on changes to TypePad, Vox and [formerly] LiveJournal blogs to interested parties. From the SixApart developer documentation

Connecting to the Stream

To connect to the stream a simple HTTP GET request is issued to the following endpoint:

Once a connection is established, the Atom Server will then begin transmitting to the client any content that is injected into the stream. Additionally, the Atom Stream Server transmits timestamps every second both to keep the connection alive (in case it goes idle), and to provide you a marker so you know how far you've gotten so you can reconnect at a certain point in time if you restart your listener.

Example Stream
		GET /atom-stream.xml HTTP/1.0
Host: updates.sixapart.com

HTTP/1.0 200 OK
Content-Type: text/xml
Connection: close

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<sorryTooSlow youMissed="5" />

This is very similar to the Twitter Streaming API with the primary differences being supported data formats (Twitter supports both JSON and XML output), support for filter predicates such as being limited to a firehose of posts containing references to  “superbowl”  and the fact that Twitter also provides notifications of deleted status updates in the stream. 

Applications that consume such streams need to be carefully coded to handle falling behind and being able to restart from where they stopped if disconnected for any reason.

Learning More

If you find this topic interesting, I’ll be speaking about the real-time Web at two industry conferences next month with experts from noted Web companies.

MIX 10: Building Platforms and Applications for the Real-Time Web
From news feeds to search, the Web has become all about real-time access to news and other information as it happens. This panel will discuss what it takes to build the platforms and user experiences that power some of the most notable services on the real-time web. Come hear a lively discussion about the real-time web with moderator Dare Obasanjo (Microsoft) and panelists Ari Steinberg (Facebook), Brett Slatkin (Google), Chris Saad (JS-Kit Echo), Lili Cheng (Microsoft) and Ryan Sarver (Twitter).

SXSW: Can the Real-Time Web Be Realized?
The emergence of the real-time web enables an unprecedented level of user engagement and dynamic content online. However, the rapidly growing audience puts new, complex demands on the architecture of the web as we know it. This panel will discuss what is needed to make the real-time web achievable. Organizer: Brett Slatkin.

Note Now Playing: Young Money - Bedrock (featuring Lloyd) Note



February 15, 2010
@ 02:59 PM

From the Google Wave Federation architecture white paper 

Google Wave is a new communication and collaboration platform based on hosted documents (called waves) supporting concurrent modifications and low-latency updates. This platform enables people to communicate and work together in new, convenient and effective ways. We will offer these benefits to users of wave.google.com and we also want to share them with everyone else by making waves an open platform that everybody can share. We welcome others to run wave servers and become wave providers, for themselves or as services for their users, and to "federate" waves, that is, to share waves with each other and with wave.google.com. In this way users from different wave providers can communicate and collaborate using shared waves. We are introducing the Google Wave Federation Protocol for federating waves between wave providers on the Internet.

From a Buzz post by Dewitt Clinton, a Google employee

The best way to get a sense of where the Buzz API is heading is to take a look at http://code.google.com/apis/buzz/. You'll notice that the "coming soon" section mentions a ton of protocols—Activity Streams, Atom, AtomPub, MediaRSS, WebFinger, PubSubHubbub, Salmon, OAuth, XFN, etc.

What it doesn't talk much about is Google. That's because the goal isn't Google specific at all. The idea is that someday, any host on the web should be able to implement these open protocols and send messages back and forth in real time with users from any network, without any one company in the middle. The web contains the social graph, the protocols are standard web protocols, the messages can contain whatever crazy stuff people think to put in them. Google Buzz will be just another node (a very good node, I hope) among many peers. Users of any two systems should be able to send updates back and forth, federate comments, share photos, send @replies, etc., without needing Google in the middle and without using a Google-specific protocol or format.

From Mark Sigal’s post Google Buzz: Is it Project, Product or Platform?

I think that it's great that Google is iterating Gmail (read Tim O'Reilly's excellent write-up on it here), and actually improving an existing product, versus rolling out a knock-off of something that is already in the market.

Nonetheless. I am confused. I thought that Google Wave was destined to be the new Gmail, but after yesterday's announcement, I am left wondering if Gmail is, instead, the new Google Wave.

Since the saying goes that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I won’t make any comment besides sharing these links with you.

Note Now Playing: 50 Cent - Crime Wave Note


NOTE: For an official Microsoft statement on Google Buzz, go here. This post is a discussion of recent trends in social networking features in our industry and how they impact web users focusing on a feature of Google Buzz as a kick off point.  

One of the much lauded features of the recently released Google Buzz is autofollowing which is described as “No setup needed: Automatically follow the people you email and chat with a lot”. This feature solves the what if you build it and they don’t come problem that Google Buzz faced. What if when presented with a bunch of FriendFeed-like features in Gmail, people decided that they don’t want to build another social network when they’ve already done so on places like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter? Auto-following ensured that Gmail users already had a populated network of people they were receiving status updates from once Google Buzz was launched. So from the perspective of Google, it’s a great feature.

But is the feature in the best interests of users? Ignoring some of the privacy issues of the people you email with becoming a public friends list there is still the question of whether the feature is good for users in isolation. Here’s a story; my wife is divorced and has kids from her previous marriage. This means she exchanges a lot of email with her ex-husband and his new wife around kid visiting schedules, vacations, etc. Do you think my wife would consider it a great feature if one day she started getting status updates on how her ex-husband and his new wife spend their days due to introduction of social networking features in her email client?

Those of us building social networking products have a responsibility not only to ask if a feature is good for our product but also whether it is good for our users as well. Sometimes these goals align and sometimes they do not. What we do when they don’t is what defines us as an industry.

I want to also call out some of the thought leadership on this topic that has come from Marshall Kirkpatrick over on ReadWriteWeb with posts such as Why Facebook is Wrong: Privacy Is Still Important where he discusses Facebook’s privacy changes from last year. Personally, I think Facebook cleaned up their privacy model because they used to have privacy setting based on regional networks where user data was visible to people in a geographic region (e.g. everyone in New York city or everyone in Australia can see my profile information) which is actually kind of dumb. There have been legitimate privacy issues related to such loose settings such as Rudy Giulani's daughter being a Barrack Obama supporter being visible to everyone from New York city on Facebook. With the change people with such settings were asked if they wanted their profiles to be public since they effectively were in the old model. The question Marshall Kirkpatrick brings up is whether it is better for Facebook users in such situations to be asked do you want to go from everyone in New York can see my data –> public or only visible to my friends and networks? It is clear which is better for Facebook as a service but not so clear what is better for their users with regards to their personal notions of privacy and mental well being.

Social networking has transformed the way people communicate and relate to each other in many tangible ways. However they are built on real human relationships and connections. I hate the thought that people’s relationships and communications are becoming the ammunition in a war between web companies to dominate a particular online space. We can be better than that. We must be better than that.

Note Now Playing: Bun B - You're Everything (featuring Rick Ross, David Banner, Eightball & MJG) Note



PPK over at the QuirksMode blog recently wrote a rant titled The iPhone Obsession where he berates developers for focusing on the building mobile sites that are targeted towards well on the iPhone. To make his point, he uses the following statistics


Let’s illustrate that last remark with some smartphone sales stats:

  1. Nokia: 39%
  2. RIM: 20% (BlackBerry)
  3. Apple: 15% (this 15% is obviously far more important than the previous 59%)
  4. HTC: 5%
  5. Other: 21% (Samsung is expected to make a major jump this year)

Source: Morgan Stanley Mobile Internet Report (48Meg PDF) p. 160

And here are the smartphone OS stats, also from Tomi Ahonen (whose blog I highly recommend, by the way):

  1. Symbian: 45% (all of Nokia plus a bit of SonyEricsson and Samsung)
  2. BlackBerry: 20%
  3. iPhone: 15% (this 15% is obviously far more important than the previous 65%)
  4. Windows Mobile: 6% (HTC, Samsung, SonyEricsson)
  5. Android: 4% (HTC, Samsung, SonyEricsson, Motorola, Google)
  6. Other: 10% (Various Linux builds, Palm, as well as really obscure stuff. Will be reinforced by Samsung Bada during this year.)

Despite the platform having only 15% sales market share we all want our mobile websites to look exactly like an iPhone app and we only want to use iPhone features.

Although these statistics seem persuasive they are actually totally useless when it comes to arguing the point of which browsers mobile developers should target. Ownership of a mobile phone doesn’t directly equate to using it for browsing the web. The important metric is the smartphone OS breakdown among people who actually use the mobile web on their phones.

You can get these stats easily from AdMob's mobile metrics report which is based on measuring ad impressions across various mobile sites across various smartphone OSes. These metrics paint a very different picture from the sales data as shown below

OS share

According to these stats, the iPhone OS is actually the major source of traffic for the mobile web in most continents except for Africa and Asia. What this tells you is that developers aren’t being stupid when they try to ensure their sites work well on the iPhone.

That said, I agree that it is a bad idea for developers to specifically target features of a particular browser versus using web standards. However that is different from making sure your site works well in the most popular platform used for browsing mobile websites in your particular market.