Category Archives: Non-Technical-Read

Does Facebook leak what profiles you click on?

Check out Preview My Profile on Facebook:

Account (top right) > Privacy Settings >

Customize Settings > Preview My Profile

Now say you have a friend named Bob. Type ‘Bob’ in the box at the top of Preview My Profile to see how your profile will be seen by him. Take a look at the Mutual Friends section (bottom left in the screenshot above) of your profile (from Bob’s view – so still in Preview My Profile). Notice how these mutual friends seem to bias towards those who are closest to Bob (and perhaps to you as well). This by itself is pretty interesting. I can see who my friends are closer to relative to our other mutual friends. This pattern seems to hold up well in my trials over my friends who I know well (I saw that their closest friends were popping up more often than not in the mutual friends section).

This got me curious about how Facebook determines “closeness” between two people. In particular, does Facebook leverage your clicks on a friend’s profile in determining how close you are to that friend? To experiment, I frequently clicked on my friend’s (say her name is Alice) profile and newsfeed updates over two weeks. She’s someone I rarely communicate with. I then normally browsed profiles of mutual friends I share with Alice and noticed that in the mutual friends section of those profiles Alice frequently showed up (even when the total number of mutual friends was greater than 80 – keep in mind that the mutual friends section only shows 3 friends). Now, there’s definitely randomness at times and I believe multiple ranking features are probably being used here (like perhaps number of exchanged messages) but I have a feeling clicks might be in play here as well based on this result.

If Preview My Profile gives you the same view over mutual friends as what you see normally when you click on a friend’s profile, and if mutual friends uses private information like clicks / messages as features in the ranking, then it may be possible to infer who your friends are communicating with or clicking on more – or at the very least, find who they are closer to relative to your other mutual friends. If I view my profile from Bob’s eyes and frequently see Alice appear in the Mutual Friends section over multiple runs it may imply a strong relationship from Bob to Alice. Also, when the number of mutual friends is high relative to the number of total friends your friend has, then this result may be even more accurate.

This isn’t scientific by any means – I really don’t know how the ranking is done and may be completely wrong – so take it with a grain of salt. Just thought it was an interesting feature and pattern worth sharing …

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Filed under Blog Stuff, Facebook, Non-Technical-Read, Social

Delicious.com Gets Fresh

Today we have officially released an experimental Fresh tab on the delicious.com page. Learn more about it here on the delicious blog.

I won’t rehash too much of the delicious blog post as that describes the motivation and idea in detail, but the basic idea was to advance and apply the TweetNews model to the latest stream of delicious bookmarks. The result is what we feel to be a pretty relevant and fresh (updates every minute or so) homepage. Please check it out and bookmark it (no pun intended). Just a simple start to hopefully better surfacing of content on delicious – expect more updates soon.

delicious also greatly advanced its search experience and sharing options in this release. You can learn more about it from the release posts here and soon here.

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Filed under Boss, delicious, Non-Technical-Read, Open, Research, Social, Twitter, Uncategorized, Yahoo

TweetNews (Real-Time Search) Is Back

Update: Twitter’s Search API seems to timeout quite a bit so many search results don’t get any tweets linked. Try again later or refer to the screenshots below. Also, delicious.com is now testing an early version of this model for its homepage ranking.

Here it is  tweetnews.appspot.com

And an example query  yahoo

About six months ago I released a simple 100 line search application called TweetNews, which basically links tweets to the freshest Yahoo! News articles. The more related tweets an article has, the higher its rank. The tweet count and messages are presented underneath each result so that a user can read the social commentary inline with the article listing. It was developed more to demonstrate the openness and power of Yahoo! BOSS (you can read more about it in my previous posts here and here). Remarkably, many users found the service useful despite its slow performance, barebones UI, lack of homepage, domain, (you name it), etc.

Interestingly, the TweetNews concept has been popping up in my recent discussions around real-time search, so I felt it was about time to polish up TweetNews to serve as a better proof of concept.

Here are some of the new features:

  • Sweet UI (kudos to Kara McCain & Aaron Wheeler for the awesome design and template)
  • Continually Updated, Fresh Homepage (aggregates & ranks feeds like Techmeme, Delicious, Digg)
  • Faster Performance
  • Improved Algorithm
  • Local Views (re-rank & link tweets from a select region)

.

Here’s a screenshot of the homepage:

TweetNews Homepage

.

And here’s an example of Local Views:

London’s View of ‘iphone’

TweetNews IPhone (London Ranking)

Los Angeles’ View of ‘iphone’

TweetNews IPhone (Los Angeles Ranking)

Striking difference between Americans (actually just SoCal) and the British right there 🙂

I think the Local Views concept is pretty promising, although there’s plenty of room for improvement (use BOSS region filters, access Twitter’s Firehose Feed for more granularity, etc.).

Which is why, like I did with the last version, plan to open source all the code powering this application (just need a little more time to get it reviewed).

Interestingly, the homepage system in this package is very general. Just pass it any list of RSS feeds and it’ll do the clustering, tweet linking, ranking, and page generation automatically every X minutes for you. Anyone want a fresh, personalized Techmeme? Let me know if that sounds interesting.

Please keep in mind that this is still a simple, early prototype to show how one can use BOSS to experiment with very interesting data sources like Twitter to tackle big problems like real-time search.

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Filed under Blog Stuff, Boss, Code, Information Retrieval, Non-Technical-Read, Open, Research, Search, Social, Techmeme, Twitter, UI, Yahoo

Twitter + BOSS = Real Time Search

Try ityahoo

Update: (6/25) This application has been updated. Go here to learn more. The description below though still applies.

Update: (6/11) In case you’re bored, here’s a discussion we had with Google and Twitter about Open & Real-time Search.

Update: (1/19) If you have issues try again in 5-10 minutes. You can also check out the screenshots below. (1/15) App Engine limits were reached (and fast). Appreciate the love and my apologies for not fully anticipating that. Google was nice enough though to temporarily raise the quota for this application. Anyways, this was more to show a cool BOSS developer example using code libraries I released earlier, but there might be more here. Stay tuned.

Here’s a screenshot as well (which should hopefully be stale by the time you read this).

Basically this service boosts Yahoo’s freshest news search results (which typically don’t have much relevance since they are ordered by timestamp and that’s it) based on how similar they are to the emerging topics found on Twitter for the same query (hence using Twitter to determine authority for content that don’t yet have links because they are so fresh). It also overlays related tweets via an AJAX expando button (big thanks to Greg Walloch at Yahoo! for the design) under results if they exist. A nice added feature to the overlay functionality is near-duplicate removal to ensure message threads on any given result provide as much comment diversity as possible.

Freshness (especially in the context of search) is a challenging problem. Traditional PageRank style algorithms don’t really work here as it takes time for a fresh URL to garner enough links to beat an older high ranking URL. One approach is to use cluster sizes as a feature for measuring the popularity of a story (i.e. Google News). Although quite effective IMO this may not be fast enough all the time. For the cluster size to grow requires other sources to write about the same story. Traditional media can be slow however, especially on local topics. I remember when I saw breaking Twitter messages describing the California Wildfires. When I searched Google/Yahoo/Microsoft right at that moment I barely got anything (< 5 results spanning 3 search results pages). I had a similar episode when I searched on the Mumbai attacks. Specifically, the Twitter messages were providing incredible focus on the important subtopics that had yet to become popular in the traditional media and news search worlds. What I found most interesting in both of these cases was that news articles did exist on these topics, but just weren’t valued highly enough yet or not focusing on the right stories (as the majority of tweets were). So why not just do that? Order these fresh news articles (which mostly provide authority and in-depth coverage) based on the number of related fresh tweets as well as show the tweets under each. That’s this service.

To illustrate the need, here’s a quick before and after shot. I searched for ‘nba’ using Yahoo’s news search ordered by latest results (first image). Very fresh (within a minute) but subpar quality. The first result talks about teams that are in a different league of basketball than the NBA. However, search for ‘nba’ on TweetNews (second image) and you get the Kings/Warriors triple OT game highlight which was buzzing more in Twitter at that minute.

'NBA' on Y! News latest

'NBA' on Y! News latest

'NBA' on Y! News latest enhanced by Twitter

'NBA' on TweetNews

There’s something very interesting here … Twitter as a ranking signal for search freshness may prove to be very useful if constructed properly. Definitely deserves more exploration – hence this service, which took < 100 lines of code to represent all the search logic thanks to Yahoo! BOSS, Twitter’s API, and the BOSS Mashup Framework.

To sum up, the contributions of this service are: (1) Real-time search + freshness (2) Stitching social commentary to authoritative sources of information (3) Another (hopefully cool) BOSS example.

The code is packaged for general open consumption and has been ported to run on App Engine (which powers this service actually). You can download all the source here.

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Filed under Blog Stuff, Boss, Code, CS, Data Mining, Google, Information Retrieval, Non-Technical-Read, Open, Research, Search, Social, Twitter, Yahoo

Yahoo! Boss – An Insider View

Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.

Boss stands for Build your Own Search Service. The goal of Boss is to open up search to enable third parties to build incredibly useful and powerful search-based applications. Several months ago I pitched this idea to the executives on how Yahoo! can specifically open up its search assets to fragment the market. It’s remarkable to finally see some of the vision (with the help of many talented people) reach the public today.

Web search is a tough business to get into. $300+ Million capex, amazing talent, infrastructure, a prayer, etc. just to get close to basic parity. Only 3 companies have really pulled it off. However, I strongly believe we need to find innovative, incremental ways to spread the search love in order to encourage fragmentation and help promising companies get to basic parity instantly so that they can leverage their unique assets (new algorithm, user data, talent) to push their search solution beyond the current baseline.

Search is all about understanding the user’s intent. If we can nail the intent, then search is pretty much a solved problem. However, the current model of a single search box for everything loses an intent focus as it aims to cater to all people and queries. Albeit, a single search box definitely makes our lives easier, but I have a hard time believing this is the *right* approach.

In my online experience, I typically visit a variety of sites: Techmeme, Digg, Techcrunch, eBay, Amazon, del.icio.us, etc. While on these pages, something almost always catches my eye, and so I proceed to the search box in my browser to find out more on the web. Why do we have this disconnected experience? I think it’s because these sites do not provide web-level comprehensiveness. It’s unfortunate, because the page that I’m on may have additional information about my intent (maybe I’m logged in so it has my user info, or it’s a techy shopping site).

The biggest goal of Boss is to help bootstrap sites like these to get comprehensiveness and basic ranking for free, as well as offer tools to re-rank, blend, and overlay the results in a way that revolutionizes the search experience.

When I’m on del.icio.us, why can’t I search in their box, get relevant del.icio.us results at the top, and also have web results backfill below? I think users should be confident that if they searched in a search box on any page in the whole wide web that they’ll get results that are just as good as Yahoo/Google and only better.

The first milestone of Boss is a simple one: Make available a clean search API that turns off the traditional restrictions so that developers can totally control presentation, re-rank results, run an unlimited number of queries, and blend in external content all without having to include any Yahoo! attribution in the resulting product(s). Want to build the example above or put news search results on a map – go for it!

Here’s a link to the API:

http://developer.yahoo.com/search/boss/

Also, check out the Boss Mashup Framework:

http://developer.yahoo.com/search/boss/mashup.html

The Boss Mashup Framework in my opinion makes the Boss Search API really useful. It lets developers use SQL like syntax for operating on heterogeneous web data sources. The idea came up as I was working on examples to showcase Boss, and realized the operations I was developing imperatively followed closely to declarative SQL like constructs. Since it’s a recent idea and implementation, there may be some bugs or weird designs lurking in there, but I strongly recommend playing around with it and viewing the examples included in the package. I’m biased of course but do think it’s a fun framework for remixing online data. One can rank web results by digg and youtube favorite counts, remove duplicates, and publish the results using a provided search results page template in less than 30 lines of code and without having to specify any parsing logic of the data sources/API’s as the framework can infer the structure and unify the data formats automatically in most cases.

The next couple of milestones for Boss I think are even more interesting and disruptive – server side services, monetization, blending ranking models, more features exposure, query classifiers, open source … so stay tuned.

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Filed under Blog Stuff, Data Mining, Information Retrieval, Non-Technical-Read, Open, Search, Techmeme

Is the Facebook Application Platform Fair?

Take a look at this stats deck from O’Reilly’s Graphing Social Patterns conference:

http://en.oreilly.com/gspeast2008/public/asset/attachment/2950

Fairly in-depth and recent [6/01/2008] analysis of the application usage in Facebook and MySpace.

As expected, lots of power law behavior.

I found the slides describing churn to be pretty interesting. Since October 2007, nine of the top fifteen most popular applications are new. However, only three of those new applications debuted after March 2008. I expect the amount of churn in the top spots to continue to drop based on the recent declining active usage trends and Facebook’s efforts to curb application spam (new UI that puts applications in a separate profile tab, app module minimizing, viral friend messaging limits, security compliance, etc).

What I would find even more interesting is a study of the number of applications users install, and how those moving averages have changed over time. Like say the number of applications a typical user installs is 4. Once the user reaches that threshold, what’s the churn like then? Specifically, what are the chances that a user will add a new app? Or maybe an even better metric: how long does it take, and how does this length of time compare to when the user had 1 app and increased to 2, or 2 apps and increased to 3, etc.? Basically, what’s the adoption rate/times based on current application counts?

I believe it becomes harder to influence a user to add or replace for a new app if the number of current apps the user has is high. I think most users, without even knowing it, have a threshold of how many total apps they are willing display on their profile – and that this threshold is based on an ongoing evaluation of the utility and efficiency of the page. Each app takes up real estate on the profile page, and a “rational” user will only show so many until page load times degrade and/or core modules (wall, general information, albums, networks) get drowned in clutter and thus become difficult for users to locate. Of course, social networks like MySpace which have very minimal profile page design constraints prove that most users are irrational 😉 – but it’s this design control that greatly helped Facebook dominate the market IMO.

If this is true, then it means that first movers really, really win in the Facebook apps world. Companies like Slide and Rockyou manage many of the top applications, and given the power law market share phenomena, they control a majority stake of application usage and installs. Many of these companies had the early bird advantage, and once winners, always winners – acquisitions of emerging applications, leveraging branding and existing audiences (a.k.a monopoly) to cross promote potentially copy-cat applications faster and wider than the competition, etc. Monopolies inside Facebook have unsettling ramifications, as they block newcomers from capturing profile space. If they fail to innovate (as most monopolies) then next-gen application development may never get through.

Now, if users do have an application count threshold, and it becomes successively more difficult to replace/add a new app as this count increases, then any apps developed now have a substantially rarer chance of gaining market share. If winner’s win, first movers reap, and churn becomes improbable over time, then the early top apps have already most likely filled up users’ allocated app slots.

I find thinking of the profile page as a resource allocation problem rather fascinating. Essentially, there are finite resources on a page and we expect rational users to perform some optimization to allocate resources to maximize utility for themselves and for others (potential game theory link). Once users fill up these resources, human laziness kicks in. Another warrant for improbable churn is that users who want to add new applications after filling up their resource limit will need to remove an existing app to make space. The standards for change are higher now, as the user must compare the new app to an existing preferred app (which probably is a popular early-bird app that friends use), and so the decision will incur a trade-off.

One could also argue that with more apps available now (second slide shows that despite sluggish usage the # of app’s being developed is still growing insanely) users are burdened with more choices. Or, one could argue because most users have reached their app limit, and thus, churn has become improbable, the discoverability of new apps among friends (a critical channel for adoption) also becomes improbable.

Under this theory, especially in context of Facebook’s current efforts and app stats, the growth of new app adoption in social networks will continue to slow down.

So what can be done here?

The platform needs to encourage more churn by building a fairer market that matches users to high quality apps that satisfy their expressed intents. At the end of the day, these applications are really just web pages, but unlike the web, they do not leverage important primitives like linking and meta tags. Search engines like Google and Yahoo use these features extensively to calculate authority and relevance. In the long run, as the number of sources increases, advanced ranking algorithms and marketplaces are necessary to scale and ensure fairness to worthy tail publishers. Maybe social networks should inherit these system properties to bolster their tail applications.

Also, Facebook needs to encourage users to variate or add more applications to their profile page. Facebook’s move to put applications in its own profile tab may very well achieve this goal, but at a consequence of lowering their visibility.

Anyways, just some random thoughts about the current state of Facebook apps. It’ll be very interesting to see how their platform progresses and how it will be perceived by end users and developers in the future.

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Filed under Economics, Facebook, Non-Technical-Read, Social, Statistics, Trends

Surviving a Lunch Interview

I always found lunch interviews to be the most frustrating experiences ever. There you are, given an opportunity to pig out in a grand cafeteria on corporate expense – so naturally, you stock up the tray to get your chow down. You sit down at the table across from your interviewer, and right as you’re about to take that first scrumptious bite, your interviewer asks you a question. You of course answer it completely, but before returning to the meal you’re asked a follow-up question, and then another one, and before you know it rapid fire Q/A begins. You do your best to answer each one … as your food gets cold … as your stomach growls … and as you watch the interviewer nodding to your comments with his/her mouth filled with that savory steak and potatoes you’re dying to devour. Why can’t the interviewer just go to the bathroom or receive a cell call already?!

This isn’t the interviewer’s fault by any means. After all, it is an interview, and their role compels constant question asking (silence is awkward). Additionally, this whole food tease leading to short-term starvation isn’t the worst consequence. You can get food stuck in your teeth, pass gas, get bad breath, spill your food and drink all over your interviewer, etc. It’s probably the most dangerous, error-prone part of the interview process (actually probably not … since you typically don’t get asked technically involved questions over food).

So here’s some advice to those who find themselves in similar situations. Sadly, it took me nearly three years of lunch interviews to discover these pointers:

  1. Eat a big breakfast. Lunch should be a snack.
  2. When you do eat lunch, order the soup with bread. Warms your body and soothes your throat. Simple to eat. Nothing gets stuck to your teeth. No need to wash the hands, so hands don’t get dirty for that final handshake. It’s not greasy (like pizza) so doesn’t reflect bad diet habits to your interviewer. Also, the bread soaks in the soup to make the meal filling plus give you additional energy for the rest of the day.
  3. Eat slowly, since your interviewer probably got more food than you. You don’t want to finish earlier than him/her. It tends to rush the other person. Your goal is to make the lunch round long and fun. Keep the conversation going but don’t over do it to the point where the interviewer starts to daze off. Ask questions when the interviewer runs out of questions (also gives you more time to eat!). Make the most of lunch to learn as much as you can about the group. Their insight will be super useful in the upcoming rounds. Just think of lunch as a break before the more technical rounds.
  4. Drink water. It really is the best drink ever. No chance of an upset stomach during or after the round. If you’re starving and know the soup + bread won’t fill you up (eating slowly helps fill you up though), get an Odwalla. It’s seriously a second meal.
  5. Don’t take notes. That’s too much IMHO. Keep it informal, unless the interviewer specifies otherwise.

That’s all I got. Nothing crazy.

Anyways, hope these pointers come in handy.

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Filed under Job Stuff, Non-Technical-Read