Monday, April 16, 2007

Coolhunt #1: April 16, 2007

Coolhunt Log
Monday, April 16, 2007

On Stage:
Peter Gloor, MIT research affiliate with the Sloan School of Management, co-author of
Scott Cooper, MIT research affiliate with the Sloan School of Management, co-author of
Steve O'Keefe, moderator

Leading the Coolhunt today is Peter Gloor.

PETER: I start my day with the New York Times online to sniff the latest trends.


PETER: On the right side of the home page, scroll down until you see a box entitled "Most Popular." Today's most emailed article is "The Power of Green" by Thomas L. Friedman.

[Note: You must register at the New York Times Online to access some articles. Registration is free and fairly simple. Recent articles can often be viewed without registration--as was the case with the Friedman article on our coolhunt."

PETER: The article is about a cool trend: green technology.

Quote from Article: ". . . projecting America in a green way can be the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century."

PETER: We know this is a cool subject because so many people are interested in it. The New York Times has a large pool of readers. The box on the home page gives us a variety of information about what this swarm of readers considers important. "MOST E-MAILED" shows how people vote with their feet--the stories that were most important to them. "Most blogged about" tracks a more activist response to stories--people who cared enough to comment on the story. "Most searched" shows what people are looking for most at the New York Times.

SCOTT: And "sex" is at the top of the list. That's not surprising.

PETER: But "global warming" is at number five, so sex is not all they're interested in.

SCOTT: The power of tracking these trends cannot be overestimated. Online "chatter"--what the bloggers are saying, what people are searching for--is a very strong indicator of future trends. For example, the chatter online suggested that Barack Obama would be a major factor in the U.S. presidential campaign before the big name pundits caught on to it.

PETER: Exactly. We were approached by Fox Searchlight Pictures to do an analysis of what the chatter had to say about the Oscar-winning chances of two of their films, "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Little Miss Sunshine." They thought "The Devil Wears Prada" would have stronger buzz but, in fact, "Little Miss Sunshine" was getting more chatter online.

MODERATOR: Why doesn't the front page of The New York Times Online reformat automatically to give the most prominent space to the top stories?

PETER: Good question. Let's apply for a patent.

SCOTT: Media companies are still confused by the new technology and are running for cover. Their business is changing radically. News gathering is becoming the work of swarms: Wikinews, independent media, bloggers. Online journalists often have a stake in the stories they cover--they're not trying to be objective and they can be more passionate than the mainstream media.

SCOTT: In oldschool coolhunting, librarians used to report on the most asked questions or popular searches in The Reader's Guide to Periodicals. That's how we knew what people were interested in. Now, The New York Times emails a list of readers' top picks to me on a weekly basis. It's probably only a matter of time until the front page you see is the front page you want to see.

MODERATOR: I'm making a note to email someone at The New York Times and let them know we coolhunted them today and what we said about the popularity box.

PETER: I want to talk about popularity rankings like this and which works better: human-generated lists or machine-generated lists.

SCOTT: Technorati is the entryway to the blogosphere and reflects a huge volume of searches. Media outlets are now watching how the public reacts to the news, then modifying their coverage accordingly. It's an instant feedback loop that never existed before.


PETER: On the right side of the screen, you see top searches, and the list is similar to the New York Times list. In the center of the page, you may look at the most popular items in six categories: Videos, Music, Movies, Games, DVDs, and News. If you click on the News tab, you will see "The Power of Green" article is in the top 10 of most popular, with 68 links to the article. That's how Technorati determines the popularity of news stories--by the number of sites linking to the story. That's the same way Google News does it.

MODERATOR: Technorati top 10 was obviously updated within the last few hours, the New York Times top 10 was from yesterday. Speed is important in registering rank. Peter suggested that ranking algorithms most likely give weight to current stories over older ones. For example, coolhunters might be more interested in knowing what film topped the box office last week rather than what is the highest grossing film of all time or the highest grossing film in the last 45 minutes--either of which could be "most popular."

PETER: On the left side of the screen, you see something called "Top Tags." People tag content online with keywords, and Technorati searches for these tags to determine the subjects that come up most often. You can tag your own blog entries, or you can tag other content you come across, such as news stories.

PETER: The words under the heading "Top Tags" are called a "tag cloud." The relative size of the words indicates the popularity of the terms. Relative size also weights how current the posts are. Misspellings can result in tag errors, such as spelling "Barack Obama" without the "c."

SCOTT: Tagging is still in its primitive stages. Someone will soon come up with pattern recognition software that will make tagging look primitive.

PETER: We conducted a study to find out which was a more accurate method for determining the popularity of terms: human-generated or machine-generated. We compared the results at Slashdot, which relies on human tagging, and Digg, which uses machine analysis. The human-generated search worked better. Humans are still better filters than machines and the wisdom of crowds is still the best predictor of cool.

SCOTT: The machine can't tell if you're searching for Virginia Tech because of a shooting there or because you want the latest sports scores.

PETER: But the stories people link to get around that. One of the problems with machine search is synonyms and misspellings. Google uses synonym dictionaries to correct for misspellings and other problems.

SCOTT: People who don't search well could be missing things that people who don't post well put up. For example, if you're looking for the best peanut butter sandwich, you might miss a great post by someone who waxes poetic about Jif and Skippy but never uses the phrase "peanut butter" in his or her post.

PETER: It is a problem at times. The wisdom of crowds is superior to algorithms. People looking for financial advice have something in common besides the need for financial advice. You can build communities around commonalities in search.

MODERATOR: At this point, we used Google Blogsearch <> to find blogs talking about Thomas Friedman's article, "The Power of Green." The top match was to a blog called "Treehugger," <> where the Friedman story topped the "Business + Politics" tab.

PETER: You see the typical blog process at work here, with long quotes from the article interspersed with remarks by the blogger [Lloyd Alter of Toronto]. Six comments follow.

SCOTT: Look what's happening here. Let's say you have an article about global warming. And someone comments that "we should do something about this." And someone sees that and responds, "I think we should do such and such." And someone else come on and says, "Here's how to do that." And then someone else comes on and says, "Hey, I'm already doing that, and here's how I did it." It's a way for people from all over the world to find each other and find solutions to common problems.

PETER: The wisdom of crowds.

SCOTT: Swarm creativity.

MODERATOR: We are out of time. Thank you very much. Listeners, please post your comments to the blog--whether they're about any connection problems you're experiencing or commentary on the subject of today's coolhunt.

MODERATOR: Join us Tuesday for the next installment of our live, online coolhunt with Peter Gloor and Scott Cooper.

Thank you.

Copyright Notice: Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this log as long as the contents are not altered and this notice is intact.

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