The Internet’s secret sauce: surfacing coincidence

What is it that makes my favorite online services so compelling? I’m talking about the whole family of services that includes Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and among others.

I find it interesting that people don’t generally refer to any of these as “web sites”. They are “services”.

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Dopplr’s Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones last week while in London where they described the architecture of what they’ve built in terms of connected data keys. The job of Dopplr, Mr. Jones said, was to “surface coincidence”.

I think that term slipped out accidentally, but I love it. What does it mean to “surface coincidence”?

It starts by enabling people to manufacture the circumstances by which coincidence becomes at least meaningful if not actually useful. Or, as Jon Udell put it years ago now when comparing Internet data signals to cellular biology:

“It looks like serendipity, and in a way it is, but it’s manufactured serendipity.”

All these services allow me to manage fragments of my life without requiring burdensome tasks. They all let me take my data wherever I want. They all enhance my data by connecting it to more data. They all make my data relevant in the context of a larger community.

When my life fragments are managed by an intelligent service, then that service can make observations about my data on my behalf.

Dopplr can show me when a distant friend will be near and vice versa. Twitter can show me what my friends are doing right now. Wesabe can show me what others have learned about saving money at the places where I spend my money. Among many other things Flickr can show me how to look differently at the things I see when I take photos. And can show me things that my friends are reading every day.

There are many many behaviors both implicit and explicit that could be managed using this formula or what is starting to look like a successful formula, anyhow. Someone could capture, manage and enhance the things that I find funny, the things I hate, the things at home I’m trying to get rid of, the things I accomplished at work today, the political issues I support, etc.

But just collecting, managing and enhancing my life fragments isn’t enough. And I think what Matt Jones said is a really important part of how you make data come to life.

You can make information accessible and even fun. You can make the vast pool feel manageable and usable. You can make people feel connected.

And when you can create meaning in people’s lives, you create deep loyalty. That loyalty can be the foundation of larger businesses powered by advertising or subscriptions or affiliate networks or whatever.

The result of surfacing coincidence is a meaningful action. And those actions are where business value is created.

Wikipedia defines coincidence as follows:

“Coincidence is the noteworthy alignment of two or more events or circumstances without obvious causal connection.”

This is, of course, similar and related to the definition of serendipity:

“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”

You might say that this is a criteria against which any new online service should be measured. Though it’s probably so core to getting things right that every other consideration in building a new online service needs to support it.

It’s probably THE criteria.

Testing ways to splice my feeds

I started playing around with Pipes a bit more the other day and then found this handy tip via Lifehacker for nicer looking ways to link splice in your blog feed.

You can already splice and flickr directly into any Feedburner feed, but Pipes allows you to do things like isolating the saved bookmarks from tags and groups of tags. You can also prepend each item in your feed with things like “link”, “blog post”, and “photo”. You could also splice in other feeds that Feedburner doesn’t support like your tracks, for example. I thought I would try offering foreign language versions of all this, too.

I apologize if my feed here gets squirrely on you as I work this out. Coincidentally, I saw this post yesterday that pointed out the number 1 reason people unsubscribe from a particular feed is information overload. I’m definitely becoming an overload offender here. Sorry.

If you want to be sure you’re only subscribed to my blog posts, then here is the blog-only feed.

UPDATE: As I suspected, it was a snap to create foreign language versions of my feeds. I’ve added several translations using the BabelFish operator. I can’t vouch for the accuracy or quality of the translations, but there are now Spanish, French, German, and Japanese language versions of my feed. More on the way.

A community site without a community

Taking a little time at home last week gave me a chance to play around with one of my experiments that was nearly at its end. FlipBait is a simple Pligg/MediaWiki site that pokes fun at the dotcom golddiggers out there.

It’s mostly a sandbox for me both technically and journalistically. But it’s not really helping to inform or build community the way I hoped.

First, after a month I still have no participants. There have been several passersby, but a group publishing site needs to have a core team looking after its well being.

Second, it’s just too much work in its current form for me to keep posting to it.

I sort of expected this to happen, but I’m a big fan of experimentation. So, I thought I might analyze the issues for a few blog posts and close it down…

…but then Pligg 9 was released.

The new version of this Digg-like CMS added a key feature that may alter the dynamics of the site completely: Feed Importing.

I give it a few RSS feeds. It then imports the headlines from those feeds automatically.

Now, I have a bunch of feeds all pouring headlines into FlipBait throughout the day. I’m aggregating the usual suspects like TechCrunch and GigaOM and VentureBeat, but I also found a few sources from various searches that effectively round out the breadth of the coverage

I can find new dotcom golddiggers without fail every day.

This is very cool. Though you can see back in the Pligg forum archives that there was some debate about whether this feature would destroy the whole dynamic of voting-based publishing. That may be true, but it’s just too useful not to have.

Now, this might be the most interesting part…

I’m also importing stories from using a new tag: “flipbait“. That means that if you tag an article with “flipbait”, Pligg will automatically import that article and make it available to the FlipBait community. That’s how I’m entering my own favorite posts for the site as opposed to using the ‘submit’ function directly at

You don’t ever have to visit the domain, actually, because you can pull articles to read from the RSS feed and submit articles to the site just by tagging as you already do.

Hmmm…what does that mean? Interesting question. Can a meaningful community form around a word that represents an idea?

Preview of the publisher api

I just posted a short screencast on the YDN blog of the cool new publisher api coming from soon. I’ve also embedded the video below. Lots of interesting possibilities with this new service, for sure.

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