SXSWi 2010: Social-network aggregation with Nsyght

Take the drudgery out of your social-networking tasks

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: Geoffrey McCaleb, Nsyght's Mad Scientist, talks about beginning with a desire to solve a problem of search relevancy and ending up with a new brand and approach to social-network aggregation.

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Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), developerWorks Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



22 March 2010

developerWorks: Scott Laningham, again at South by Southeast Interactive 2010, here with Todd Watson again. And our guest, a friends of Todd's, Geoffrey McCaleb, who is ...

Watson: We interviewed Geoff's brother a few weeks ago, remember, before the Super Bowl?

Listen to this podcast.

Follow the Mad Scientist at the Nsyght blog.

The game you hear in the background noise with the mallet, vertical pole with measurements, and bell at the top is called the "high striker" or "strength tester" or "strongman game". (This game is probably not the origin of the title of Anita Ward's disco hit.)

developerWorks: Exactly.

Watson: He was pretty funny, Geoff, we have to say. You got a lot to live up to.

developerWorks: The bar has been set high for the McCalebs.

McCaleb: Well, I'm going to do my best to limbo underneath that bar because I'm nowhere near as funny as my brother Jimmy.

developerWorks: Oh, I'm sure you'll be great. Now, we're here to chat with you about a number of things, but just so we ID you, you're the CEO of Nsyght. What is Nsyght?

McCaleb: Nsyght is a real-time social aggregator in search service so the way to sort of present it is it aggregates your social life into one simple dashboard.

But what's different is it not only aggregates the information that you post to a social network it also aggregates the information from your existing friends and communities.

So think about Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and a number of other services. Instead of having to go to each of these services separately, you can come to one simple social dashboard.

developerWorks: And also you don't have to flee from one to the next new one every time, right?

McCaleb: Exactly. So we bring effectively all of your existing friends from all of the services you use into one place. So we build what people call your own real-time fire hose of information.

Watson: So let me just play the skeptic here for a moment because I've been come to be called the curmudgeon lately, so I'm told. I'm about socialed out; so it sounds to me like this could actually be a way of helping me because I don't necessarily have to be hopscotching from one place to another to either contribute or, more importantly, to monitor some of the streams; is that right?

McCaleb: Yes, that's absolutely right. I mean, we want to fight the whole malaise around having to login to multiple services multiple times a day in a week. And it gets really tiresome. I mean, one of the things that we do really well is that we aggregate all of this information together, but that's only one step in the process.

The next after that is actually, how do you find something? You want to find interesting discussions that people are taking a part of. You want to see viral videos before they go viral. You want to see photographs that people are posting from South by Southwest. There's a number of different ways that we give users the ability to sort of mine their own social data, if you will, to actually find stuff.

But then above and beyond that, I mean, you see a lot of people talking about sharing. Sharing is a real big buzzword for the last year or two. But if you think of each service as being a silo, when they ... people talking about sharing, they talk about sharing within that silo.

What we do that's really cool is that if you see something really interesting on one service, say, like Flickr for example, you can easily share it across silos to your friends at Twitter or Facebook. It's really, really quite easy.

And then the doors really open up, because Facebook is a massive product and it's very, very popular. But Flickr is still a great place for pictures, Last.fm's a great place for music. And it keeps, the list keeps going on and on. Suddenly all those silos become really blurred out.

developerWorks: What do you know about the fatigue factor people are experiencing when it comes to there are too many and you may just come to a point where I'm almost like, I don't want to use any of this stuff at all? I need to use it, but I just can't navigate all this?

McCaleb: Well, I think again that might be part of the reason why you've seen such a massive spike in the usage of Facebook, that Facebook more or less has a lot of these different pieces together. They have a lot of photographs. Maybe not as targeted as Flickr. But because it's all in one place, people have a one-stop shop kind of attitude. So it draws a tremendous amount of traffic.

But you do see a lot of these other services are still strong, are still growing, but not growing quite as rapidly. And part of that has to do ... well, think of it like, not to get corny on you, but having a social-network profile is a lot like having a garden. You have to spend time on it or it's going to die. But by aggregating all this information together, you never have to effectively login to some of these secondary services that you might not use as much.

Watson: So Geoffrey, I've been thinking about the context in which you're here in Austin and it requires I think an understanding of the State Department and ambassadorships to really appreciate. So Geoff is here as an American on behalf of the United Kingdom's digital mission. His company is actually located, headquartered outside of London.

What's going on in the United Kingdom in the larger scope around this digital mission, for one, and also, just the activities that are occurring there? Because obviously London being a huge financial center in the world and drawing an enormous wealth of talent from around the globe, this seems to be a pretty vibrant community just from what we're seeing here in the booth. And I'm interested in hearing, as somebody who travels the globe what's going on specifically in the digital realm that we don't know about?

McCaleb: Well, I think it's a pretty obvious statement that every country in the world is trying to mimic the Silicon Valley kind of atmosphere. I mean, they've got Silicon Valley knock-offs in Dublin and London and Berlin and gosh, as far as you can see.

What's different with London, though, is over the last few years, the community has really coalesced and really sort of gotten together. And there are actually a lot of success stories coming out of London. Last.fm is a great example, got acquired by CBS. Tweetdeck is a fantastic story. TweetMeme is another story, out of Redding.

So there really is and awful lot of community getting focused, getting together, networking together. The investment side is definitely getting better. But you effectively have a microcosm capable of sort of supporting a startup community.

One of the reasons why the digital mission is important is that the U.K. government is very savvy; they recognize that you've got all the building blocks in London right now. What we need to do is get U.K. companies and get them connected with U.S. companies for marketing relationships, business development relationships, investment relationships. And there's a lot of things that you can't really replicate in just one community alone.

But London, I have to tip my hat to the English. They really are quite smart and savvy. They recognize that this is something they have to do. No one's going to replace Silicon Valley, but they can certainly try to give people the right opportunities, I guess.

developerWorks: What is the back end? What is this all built on? Our audience would certainly be interested in that. Open source involved?

McCaleb: Yes, we're a big fan of open source technology. My founding engineers are all members of the Apache Software Foundation. So they're committers to projects like Hadoop, Nutch, and HBase. So we want to get back to the community and we want to leverage the great tools that are already out there.

I mean, effectively we've got a mini-Google at our disposal thanks to the members of the Apache Software Foundation and others. We also use Django and Ajax and a number of other technologies, but would I say that Nutch and Hadoop and HBase are really the core of what we're about.

developerWorks: I hope they heard what you just said. Somebody's going to town on that thing over there. What is it?

McCaleb: It's one of those carnival strongmen things when you have to hit the mallet and had hit the bell. But the really sad thing is nobody's hit the bell yet. It's all these people flagging away with a big mallet.

developerWorks: And they know this room is full of people trying to do new media for the Web. Let me ask you about, you know, who you're competing against in this space and how are you different from them.

McCaleb: Well there's sort of like a triangle of different types of products. I mean, there's lots of buzzwords around there. But you've got live streaming and you've got social aggregation and you've got real-time search. So we like to think that we sit somewhere in the middle.

But I mean our primary competition is folks like friendfeed.com that just got bought by Facebook and ClickSet. And then a number of others in the real-time space like Thread Z and Scoopler. All of these are great products, but I think we are trying to answer a different problem. We're trying to solve a problem about making sense of your real-time information and fire ... you know, your real-time fire hose.

developerWorks: Right. And pulling the friends thing in, I mean, you were talking a little bit offline about how that scales. I mean, what this many users on your service represents in terms of how many people you track.

McCaleb: Yes. It's one of the biggest problems we wanted to solve. And I bootstrapped the company for about a year on my own dime. And I kept thinking in the back of my head that at some point somebody's going to do this, so we just have to do it better and make sure our product is better. But we've launched and no one does this.

So you go to a service like a FriendFeed — and I'm not picking on anyone in particular — but you go to these services, you put in your information and your Twitter profile and what have you and they effectively ask you to "okay, now go and find some new friends."

And that's the part that's always puzzled me because I've been on Twitter for a few years, I've been on Facebook for a few years ... you'd think of the amount of time I've done through finding people, friending them, sending them friend requests, it's a massive investment of my time. So why would I want to join a service when I have to sort of do that all over again? I mean, maybe it's just me, I'm fundamentally lazy ...

developerWorks: That sounds like the hardest part. That's like the thing you need the most help with.

McCaleb: Yes. Because I mean, friends are people that you generally stick with. I mean, sure I call some people here and there, but generally my friends list on Twitter is a representation of me. So why go somewhere else when I suddenly have to start over?

Watson: So maybe just taking us to the finish line, you know, you sit at a very interesting nexus both geographically but more important technologically. I'm interested in your thoughts on what are some of the challenges and opportunities that you see, maybe problems yet either unsolved or solved or problems yet unrevealed or starting to rear their ugly heads in terms of this intersection of this nexus of streaming, sharing, etc. I'd be interested in your thoughts on that.

McCaleb: Well, I think one of the opportunities we have in the social space in a whole is that if you think of the whole concept of a phone book ... back in the day, you know, you went to the Yellow Pages when you didn't know what you were looking for but you went to the white pages when you knew what you were looking for.

I think search as a whole is sort of going into that segmentation where people are going to Google when ... at the moment, they're going to Google for both use cases. But I think social data gives people the ability to really pinpoint data in a far more structured manner than they have in the past because why? Because social search knows all about you.

And I think that's the real opportunity in social search as a whole because the more information you know about someone, not only do you understand the relevance and context of what they're looking for, but you can also deliver more targeted responses based off of

  • A ... where that person is.
  • B ... who that person knows, what groups that person belongs to.

It's very, very personalized kind of approach that I think we're definitely seeing a lot of companies coming out of the woodwork. OneRiot is one, Scoopler is another, Collecta. A lot of companies really understand that the Google way of searching is rapidly becoming part of the history of the Internet, but not something that's going to be continually relevant going forward.

developerWorks: Anything that you want to say about, you know, developer opportunities either directly with you guys or in this broader space that we're talking about? Because we've got a lot of developers in our audience. And I just thought I had to ask that.

McCaleb: Yes. I mean, one of the strengths of our company is that we've got a really, really exceptionally strong engineering team. But at the end of the day, we are a small shop.

So we've had a lot of our users say "hey, where's the Android app, where's the iPhone at, where is the Adobe AIR desktop application?" And my answer to that is running a small business I'd rather do five things really, really well. And that's what we're executing now. But we definitely want to liaise and talk to people who want to get our data on to other devices.

One of the things we've done, we will be doing in the next week is releasing an application for the Boxee platform. So we actually push your personalized video stream onto Boxee. Boxee is an application allows you to watch Internet video on your television set. It's quite popular.

developerWorks: Right.

McCaleb: But that's the kind of opportunities we're looking for. We've got great data. We have the ability of mashing up that data in a lot really interesting ways. But we don't necessarily have the engineering muscle to do 20 different things. So if there are people out there who are in this space, we'd love to talk to them.

Watson: Thank you very much for taking time to speak with us. This is a very interesting space and it's also really exciting to see the [United Kingdom] putting some muscle behind sending a big crowd like this to Austin, so bonne chance.

developerWorks: Yes. Geoffrey McCaleb. And again, it's Nsyght. How do you spell that? What's the URL?

McCaleb: It's N-S-Y-G-H-T.com. And I do apologize for not being anywhere as funny as my brother and you know. I was the older brother, you know, I was always the butt of the jokes but I never made a joke. [LAUGHTER]

developerWorks: We enjoyed it. Thank you, Geoffrey.

Scott Laningham with Todd Watson, South By Southwest Interactive 2010. More to come.

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