frassle


Josh and I have shut down Frassle, a blogging system we built in 2003 and 2004. Now at frassle.net there is a static mirror of all blogs having 7 or more posts. (A new frassle blog came with 5 posts explaining the system; if you made two additional posts, you qualified for inclusion.) We also set up some redirects so that URLs registered in search engines or linked from other sites should still work reasonably.

I’ve imported my posts into this new blog, and will continue blogging here. Welcome!

A few months ago I gave up working on Frassle, the experimental blogging platform that hosts my blog and a few others. Frassle was a fun and rewarding project: it put me in touch with the very vibrant world of bloggers and social software development, it gave me a reason to present at OSCOM in Switzerland, and it even earned a few passionate users. But I ultimately decided to cease working on frassle. A couple of people have recently expressed interest in picking up where I left off, and that's given me reason to reflect on what I've learned and where it might lead next.

The main reason I stopped working on frassle is that I started putting my time into other projects like voo2do (an easy-to-use online task management application, much more popular than frassle ever was) and my day job. Frassle also has some performance problems: the database structure has too many triggers and a seriously slow full-text search system. The frassle studio—which I think is a good idea that still hasn't been done well—turned out to be perform incredibly badly when implemented on top of a relational database, but could perform wonderfully on a custom sort of publish-subscribe DB. These issues left me in a spot where I felt I'd need to do a lot of rebuilding before I could add nifty, user-visible features.

Yet overall, the core problem with frassle is that it tries to do too many things. It makes conceptual sense to integrate blog publishing, aggregators, republishing, and semantic correlation. But it doesn't make practical sense. In trying to tackle all of these issues at once, I was never able to be the best at any of them. That weakness almost completely prevented users who tried frassle from ever coming back, because when a user is trying a web app, they're not looking for long-term conceptual potential. They're looking for tools that solve a specific problem or make life noticeably better in a matter of minutes. If an app doesn't walk a user through a pleasant experience in the first 5 minutes, that user will not come back. And if you can complete the experience in less than 5 minutes, you will roughly double user retention for each minute saved. I didn't fully appreciate this adage until voo2do, which took a lot less novel thinking and implementation time than frassle, got more users in a week than frassle had in two years.

So what would I do differently if I could do it again? Probably one of the following three mutually exclusive goals:

1. Focus on the inter-blog category mapping feature set only. Create a form where you can paste a blog URL and get content from other blogs that is relevant to the given blog, or specifically relevant to categories within that blog. Use the algorithms from
http://frassle.net/help/welcome and a huge database of RSS feeds with a custom aggregator/analysis layer; a relational database would even work OK.

2. Build a better Frassle studio. Everyone produces RSS now; sites like Pageflakes and Netvibes and Google Customized Homepage are a dime a dozen; but none of these sites let you weave content from multiple sources into a new community website. At some point the people making these tools are going to realize that they're awfully close to fulfilling a non-solipsistic need, and Google Customized Community Website will be born (or bought). Just mix together the tiles-of-content model with the ability to create custom message boards, and you'll have a community website contruction system that offers more power than the average blog, but isn't much harder to user.

3. Social intranet in a box. Now let me partially retract my earlier advice. The one market that *would* be well served by an integrated suite of blogging/sharing tools, even if they weren't all best-in-class apps, is the intranet market. There are tons of LAN-connected collaborative organizations whose members don't want to communicate on the public internet. If you can give these people a bootable CD that they can pop into a spare PC, turn on, and instantly start using as a collaborative intranet server, they would line up around the block to worship you. Nobody gives much thought to usability in intranet applications because the sales cycle is slow, expensive, and managed by IT departments who never use the software and thus don't care if it's excruciating. But if you made bootable CDs that tech-savvy non-IT folks could pop into a spare PC, you could seed a revolution in intranet apps that don't suck.

Sometimes I feel like frassle was my big chance. It had some of the ideas of tagging and social bookmarking even before del.icio.us, and if I'd thought to focus on those parts, maybe I'd have a top 500 site, a yacht from Yahoo!, and 15 million blog groupies. But if frassle fell short because my practical skill didn't match my creative vision, I can only hope that I've learned enough to be get things done without sacrificing much of that vision. I'll just have to work and see.

Sorry for the extended (and extended, and extended) downtime.

Frassle is back, and voo2do is on a different server now so Frassle's overly slow design won't impact that (much more popular) application.

Now to make with the blogging…

I've cleaned up some data, and frassle is back online. Sorry it took longer than expected, but I think my gardening is enough to allow me to keep running the service. Welcome back!

Geez. You'd think that with 1488 registered users, nearly two years of service, dozens of del.icio.us references, and all the hype about weblogs that any decent weblogging service would inspire more than 264 people to post more than once. Clearly, it's time for me to get back to work.

link

Yesterday I received my sample copy of Esther Dyson's Release 1.0 Newsletter. This issue is about tagging and folksonomies, and was written by David Weinberger; he interviewed me and produced a few paragraphs about frassle in the context of a 20-page survey of organizational systems through time, from trees through tags.

David has kindly shared some of the text on his website. If you're made of money you can buy the issue or a (gulp) subscription, but who am I kidding: why don't you just ask me or Josh if you can borrow our complimentary issue.

An almost-user of frassle sent us this email:

It seems that Frassle's weblog doesn't support Asian characters. When I post a note with Chinese charactors in the body, it becomes something unreadable. An error occurs if the title or the category contains non-English text! So I'm not going to try Frassle until
you've added Asian language support. I wish it realize soon. And
thanks for the great work!

Sadly, this is one area where we don't know what we're doing:

Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, we're not experts in
software internationalization. We'd like to make frassle more useful to
people who write in non-latin languages, but aren't sure how. If you know
anyone who'd like to help an open source software project get international,
please point them my way. Especially if they have Perl or PostgreSQL
experience.

Shimon Rura

I thought I'd repeat that call for help here. Anyone?

link

For those who don't know: when you comment on frassle it's the same as a blog post on your own blog, along with a link that references the item you're responding to. To make commenting easy for people who aren't registered with frassle, we offer a "comment without registering" option where a user can enter a name, website, and email address along with her comment, much like other blog systems.

The difference is that when she submits her comment and personal information, frassle automatically creates a blog in her name. When she comments later on, frassle will notice a cookie in her browser — a little note we've pinned to your computer that says I'm the person in charge of comment blog #312. Using this cookie, we automatically load her next post into the same automatic blog, so that you can see a history of someone's comments even if they're not a registered frassle user. Provided they are using the same browser and that browser supports cookies, all the user's comments will become part of their (automatic) blog.

Later on, if the same user decides to register for real, frassle will seamlessly "upgrade" their comment blog. In other words, their comments will still be there, but now the user will be able to edit them, make new posts that are not comments, change the title of her weblog, etc. This works because the new user registration also looks for the "I'm in charge of comment blog #312" cookie and upgrades that blog rather than creating a new one.

I rather like this design and wonder why other online community systems don't have something similar.

I vanished from Boston this blizzardy weekend, and went to Lincoln, NH to learn how to ski at Loon Mountain. I really enjoyed skiing, and although I fell a lot I think I ended up a pretty good skier for two days total experience.

Then we got home and shovelled two feet of snow out of the driveway. Which was nice, because it had been such a lazy, sedentary weekend.

Oh! I took my laptop with me in hope of finishing some of alpha 9's finishing touches, but I only got a little bit done. It's very close, but I think I need some clamoring users to help me overcome whatever bits of programmer's block remain…

Lisa Williams is at Berkman talking about blog policies. She says they're important and useful to have before they become necessary. So here's mine:

  1. I write about the Free software I write (frassle, this blogging system), various more and less nerdy things that interest me, and my life as a geek in Boston. Don't get all uppity about it, if that's even possible.
  2. Blogs (comments) that are spam will be deleted without notice.
  3. I do not speak for my employer (Kronos Incorporated).
  4. I make minor spelling, grammar, formatting, and link corrections to posts without notice. Changes that significantly affect the meaning of a post are either clearly separated from the original post as an addendum, or are their own post.
  5. I hope you'll correct me and share your insight after listening to what I say.
  6. I screw up.
  7. You're welcome to quote or otherwise make use of material I post here. It's probably best for you to link to me when you do that, but it's not required.
  8. I don't get paid; I'm a little guy. But if I were paid by anyone for writing anything here, it will be obvious.
  9. I try to do the right thing and if you're unhappy about my blog, or about other frassle content, you can always contact me and I will try honestly to resolve the situation to your and my satisfaction.

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