Archive for category Reviews

Broadcastr, the storytelling startup [REVIEW]

Broadcastr logoFirst off, I am a huge advocate for spoken word audio.  I often joke that in my car, I don’t have a radio, but rather an “NPR Box” with an on/off switch, because the station never changes.  When I’m not listening to talk radio, I’m listening to talk podcasts.  In college, I actually managed to turn my podcast addiction into a senior thesis, exploring the “anthropology of podcasts.”  I’m constantly lamenting the relative lack of attention that spoken word receives in our culture, so when I read an article about a new website offering crowdsourced storytelling, I was excited.

Broadcastr is currently in an invite-only beta release.  Apparently they are actually being restrictive with invites, as I requested one almost a month ago and just received one this week.  But now, after a week of fooling around and exploring the beta site, I’m able to offer my two cents.

Here is the basic premise of the site: Users can record stories directly from the website, or upload existing stories.  Stories can then be pinned to a map, based on where the story took place.  You can name your story and choose a picture to go with it, but other than that, it is a pretty bare-bones interface, and uploading is very simple.  As a listener, you can zoom into any location on a map and view stories posted in that area, or you can do a keyword search.  If you find a user that you particularly enjoy, you can subscribe to their future postings, and you can create personalized playlists.  It’s extremely simple, and the map makes it a lot of fun to explore areas that you might be familiar with.

Broadcastr Beta

My first impression upon entering the site was, “Wow!  How did they already get so much content?”  Obviously, a lot of the stories posted have been culled from existing archives.  (In my area in Milwaukee, there are a lot of great stories produced by the fantastic local radio station, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.)  I assumed that cultural epicenters like New York would already be populated with content, but I was pleasantly surprised to see stories in my neck of the woods too.  In the second story I listened to, I even heard the voice of someone I knew being interviewed for an 88Nine story.  Most of the stories are short (in the 2-5 minute range), which makes it less intimidating to listen to a story on a whim, knowing that you won’t be roped in for half an hour.  (Currently, however, you cannot see how long a story is before playing it.  That is something they will want to add in future updates.)

The site is remarkably fast and smooth, and very responsive.  I had some minor critiques (lack of keyboard shortcuts, and the ease of accidently starting a new story while you were in the middle of listening to one), but all-in-all the UI is top notch.  The site indicates that it is working on iPhone and Android mobile applications, which I feel will be essential to encouraging contributions, as it will enable users to upload stories as they happen on the go.

Obviously, the site is in limited release, and it will only continue to become more interesting as more people join and post content.  It remains to be seen whether users will primarily post formalized, more produced stories, or whether instead it will be used as a sort of audio Twitter, posting short snippets on the go.  This is a new territory for the social web, and I predict its future will be largely influenced by mobile applications.  I’m certainly excited to follow the site’s progress, and see what develops.  Request an invite here, but don’t expect a response right away.  If you’ve tried it out, leave a comment and let me know what you think.


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Qwiki, the new audio and visual search engine [REVIEW]

Qwiki logo
I should really begin by disclosing my current loyalty to the Google search engine.  The simplicity of the user experience combined with the elegance of the search algorithm could of course always be improved, but I question those who feel the system calls for revolutionizing.

Yet that is what is being attempted by Qwiki, the new search engine start-up.  According to CEO Doug Imbruce, he got the idea for Qwiki after getting tired of having to sift through the same list of blue links whenever he searched on Google.  He felt that it was unnecessary that he, the user, had to do so much filtering to find the content he wanted, and imagined a search engine that would do the work for him.  In addition, he wanted to move away from the static list of links and to create a rich multimedia experience.

Qwiki, which is now in invite-only alpha release, certainly achieves both goals.  Type in a search query, and you are essentially presented with a slideshow of related images, accompanied by a female robotic voice reading you information about the topic.  No searching through lists of links to find the relevant material, and the visual experience truly is aesthetically beautiful (except for the robotic quality of the voice).

Qwiki screenshot

That being said, I cannot imagine a time where I will ever opt for this form of search engine.  Imbruce wanted to build a program that would do all the aggregation work for the user, but in doing so, he has removed the user control that typifies Web 2.0.  The name “Qwiki” is a portmanteau for “quick wiki,” as it was originally designed so that users would be able to aggregate the content and design the individual entries like Wikipedia, but Imbruce ended up opting to let the program itself do the work, and, unfortunately, it shows.  The entries do not read like what you expect to find in a modern internet search.  Rather, they harken back to the days of Encarta: type in a simple search term (try much of anything beyond a simple or proper noun, and you will get no results at all), and the service responds with a predictable Who, What, When, Where, and Why.  Looking for anything a bit more in depth?  Currently, you are out of luck.

This type of service may be useful to an internet novice, but to anyone doing actual research it will prove little help at all.  In addition, I suppose that it is a novel idea to have someone reading the text to me and to save me the work of having to read it myself, but in what context would that be desirable?  Am I meant to be furiously taking notes while the mechanical voice is talking to me?  By the way, the voice is impossible to pay attention to.  It’s total lack of inflection causes me to zone out almost instantly.

Like I said, the service is currently in it’s alpha release, so I sincerely hope that it will soon be adapted to a much more utilitarian format.  Also, I give the designers full credit for legitimately reimagining search.  Qwiki is entirely unlike anything I’ve used or seen, and it really does have a futuristic feel to it.  As it stands now, however, I truly cannot imagine a scenario when this sort of search engine would be at all appealing for me.  Try it for yourself and see what you think.  Maybe I’m missing something.  Visit for invites.

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Initial thoughts on Jumo [REVIEW]

Jumo logoBoth the world of social media and the nonprofit sector have been buzzing this week about the long-awaited beta launch of Jumo, the new social media platform targeted at nonprofit organizations, charities, and their supporters.  The service was founded by Chris Hughes, the co-creator of Facebook who left to run Barack Obama’s social media organizing initiative during the 2008 presidential campaign.  In what seems to be a logical progression, he has now formed Jumo as his attempt to revolutionize the way in which nonprofit organizations and their supporters utilize social media.

Many nonprofit and charitable organizations have been quick to jump on board social media services such as Facebook and more recently Twitter.  To a large degree, organizations were so eager to participate in the social web because the felt that it offered them a way of reaching a new audience of potential donors.  The popular Facebook Causes application enabled organizations to make the same mistake with Facebook that they had already been making with their own websites: the “Donate Now” button.  Often, this button is the largest and most prominent feature on an organization’s website or social media profile, and for the most part, the “Donate Now” button has proven an ineffective means of acquiring funds.

Jumo, taken from a Yoruba word meaning “coming together in concert,” aims to take a different approach.  They acknowledge that the social web is not rife with would-be philanthropists desperately searching for a place to unload their wallets.  Rather, donors give to organizations and causes that they have relationships with.  Jumo seeks to build those relationships gradually over time.  Eventually, those relationships may lead into a financial contribution (and Jumo does indeed have a “Donate Now” button to accommodate this, although it is not nearly as prominent as in other platforms), but they may also result in a donation of time or skills, and Jumo helps to facilitate these exchanges as well.

So will it work?  That is the question that people have been fiercely debating this week.  The Social Philanthropy blog of wisely offered two articles, one arguing why Jumo will succeed, and the other explaining why it will surely fail (and countless other writers and analysts have offered their opinions as well).  Putting aside the fact that in its opening days Jumo faced seemingly countless technical glitches (the entire first day I was unable to stay connected long enough to complete the registration of my account), the service offers a lot to talk about.

Jumo does exactly what it advertises exceptionally well.  As a user, you can follow individual organizations, or more general causes, which will help you to discover organizations that you might be interested in.  You can also follow other supporters to see what causes your friends support.  There is a social component that looks (not surprisingly considering the creator) a lot like Facebook–you have a wall where you can post status updates, and where friends can post comments.  It does indeed seem like an ideal platform for growing a genuine community of support.

Additionally, the service makes it very easy for the organizations, who notoriously have precious little time to spend updating yet another social media profile.  Organizations can simply feed in previously existing services like Facebook, Twitter, and RSS blog feeds.  (As Beth Kanter points out, this will favor organizations already using social media.)

The only question is: Will people use it?  The problem is that while Jumo is closely integrated with Facebook (it requires a Facebook account to even register), it is still a separate activity from checking your Facebook or Twitter or whatever else is already on your regular schedule, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t need yet another profile to check (particularly when all of the users on Jumo are also already on Facebook).  Jumo does offer a wonderful way to keep tabs on different causes and organizations, and the interface is very well constructed.  I will certainly be using the site any time I want to find out what a particular organization is up to, but I don’t anticipate it becoming a daily habit for most users.  If they are smart, they will find a way to integrate completely with Facebook, completely replacing Facebook Causes, but until then I see them occupying a still very respectable secondary seat in its users’ social media arsenal.

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RockMelt, the new social web browser [REVIEW]

RockMeltI’ll be honest, I tend to get a bit skeptical when I hear about new web browsers that will supposedly alter the way in which I engage with the internet.  In general, these browsers tend to needlessly overcomplicate things, and both UI and functionality suffer.  Additionally, I am currently very loyal to Chrome.

Thus, when I first started using RockMelt, it was pleasantly familiar to me.  RockMelt is built using Chromium, the same open source browser project that powers Google Chrome.  In addition to immediately knowing my way around the browser, this also means that all of my favorite Chrome plugins still worked just fine.

But let’s get to what makes RockMelt different.  RockMelt was designed to seamlessly integrate the user’s social networks into their browsing experience.  The creators of RockMelt found that many of today’s internet users spend a majority of their time online navigating back and forth between a few webpages, checking for updated content.  The interface of RockMelt allows users to have those pages featured around the borders of their window.

When you first install RockMelt, you are immediately required to log in with your Facebook username and password, and indeed Facebook seems to have been the central priority of the designers.  Down the left side of my screen, I can see my Facebook friends, and I can quickly switch back and forth between a list of my favorite friends or my friends who are currently online.  Within just one or two clicks, I can easily see any recent status updates, post to their wall, or send them a message.

On the right side of my window, I have some of my favorite bookmarks, my Twitter feed, and some RSS feeds.  Clicking on these icons brings up a new window on top of the browser, so I can quickly check for updates, and then just as quickly get back to the page that I was browsing.

The program offers a smooth integration with Growl, and allows for alerts to let me know when new Facebook statuses or Twitter updates have been posted, if for some reason you want to be made aware of that every time it happens.

All in all, I have to admit that RockMelt retains a great degree of browser functionality while allowing seamless integration with your favorite social networking platforms and frequently visited blogs and websites.  If you’re like me and are easily distracted, this might not be the best program to install on your work computer, but might be ideal for the person who finds themselves constantly clicking back and forth between multiple tabs of Facebook, Twitter, and however many blogs they might be addicted to, not to mention what you’re actually meant to be doing at the time.

Currently, RockMelt is in an invite-only beta release, and naturally they are still working out some bugs.  But if you’re a person who needs to stay on top of the social web at all times and could use a little more order in their browsing experience, I would definitely recommend checking it out.  Visit RockMelt’s website for an invite, or check out their blog for more information about future release dates.

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