UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 13 June 2011

Reviewing Smartr

20110611-164658.jpgBack in February in a post entitled Who Needs Murdoch – I’ve Got Smartr, My Own Personalised Daily Newspaper I described the Smartr personalised Twitter-based personalised newspaper service for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.

This is an application which I now use on a daily basis to view the contents of the links posted by my Twitter community. It has also provided the motivation for me to make greater use of Twitter lists – the lists I have created recently include JISC Services, UKOLN colleagues, IWMW 2011 speakers and attendees at a forthcoming UKOLN workshop on Impact, Metrics and Social Web.

The accompanying image shows the content of links to resources which have been tweeted by accounts on my JISC Twitter list. As might be expected this provides content which reflects the interests of the particular service and is often content published by the service. It does occur to me that JISC Programme Managers who wish to keep informed of project developments may find it particularly useful to use Smartr in conjunction with a Twitter list of their project Twitter accounts.  However in addition to providing a simple means of getting relevant content to a iPhone/iPad environment I have to admit that my initial use of this application when I am  on the bus in the morning is to view the contents tweeted by all of the people I follow on Twitter, as this can provide serendipitous benefits which are not provided when following official accounts.

Smartr Developments

Recently I updated the app to Smartr 2.0 and started to notice that various people had started to follow me on Smartr, perhaps having read the blog post and a followup post published last month which described how Ariadne Is Getting Smartr.

When someone starts to follow you on Smartr, as with many other social apps, you get an email which provides brief information about how the person is using the service.

As can be seen from the accompanying screenshot of a recent email I received Dave has 182 followers, 134 sources and 5,208 stories. You can also see the stories which Dave has recent read which seem to indicate that he has an interest in road racing – this isn’t of particular interest to me so I decided not to follow Dave.

But the links to stories (which I prefer to refer to as articles) which Dave has recently read, as opposed to links he has recently posted, shows an aspect of Smartr which I hadn’t been aware of when I first started using the application – and whether this is because I was using version 1 or because I wasn’t following anyone within the Smartr app (as opposed to on Twitter) I don’t know.

Is seems that when someone follows you on Smartr they can see the articles you have recently read. What might be revealed in my case?

It seems that the articles I have recently read within Smartr include a post which described how World IPv6 Day went mostly smoothly, with a few surprises, another which asked What impact are your resources making and one on Posterous, From SaaS to PaaS Using an API.

So the 19 Smartr users who are following me can see note only the articles I have posted on Twitter but also the articles I have read (and the time I read them). Is this:

  • A great example of sharing resources across one’s community which exemplifies the benefits of adopting a culture of openness?
  • A privacy intrusion which should cause concerns?

What are your thoughts?

Discussion

If you visit the Smartr Web site you will see an image of Smartr running on an iPhone with a link to the iTunes store which enables you to download the app. There are links to articles about Smartr but no obvious FAQ. There is, however, a prominent Smartr byline: “See what your friends are reading on Twitter and Facebook” which perhaps suggests that you are making your reading habits publicly available.  But this aspect wasn’t mentioned in the Mashable article when Smartr was first released.  There is not just a lack of an FAQ on the Smartr Web site, there is also no information provided about release dates and the functionality of the two versions of the software which have been released to date.

Smart does have a user forum which is hosted on the Uservoice Web site.  I published a comment on the forum in which I suggested that there was a need for documentation on the functionality provided by the service and the associated privacy issues.  Temo Chalasani, the founder of the company behind Smartr, responded and asked me what documentation I feel is required. Here are my suggestions for an FAQ:

  • When was Smartr first released?
  • What subsequent versions of Smartr have been published and what additional functionality has been provided?
  • What are the privacy implications of using Smartr?
  • Can I read the contents of articles posted by my Twitter followers without others being able to see what I have read and when?
  • Can I block others from following me on Smartr as I can do on Twitter?

Will I Still Use Smartr?

Smartr does raise some interesting privacy issues – and since this is a dedicated app rather than a Web service  the use of cookies is not an issue, so recent EU legislation in which the requirement for users to opt-in to accepting cookies is irrelevant. Here are some scenarios which may concern some users:

  • The parent who follows their children on Smartr in order to see what links the child has been following.
  • The child who follows their parents on Smartr!
  • The manager who follows members of staff to see what inappropriate articles are being read during work time.
  • The journalist who follows politicians and celebrities in order to write articles about their reading habits.

It should be noted that although it is possible for the parents, children or mangers to view the links which may be being posted, Smartr provides something different – the ability to see links posted by others which are being read.

Despite such concerns, I intend to continue to make use of Smartr as I find it such a useful service even though  I am aware that I could follow a link to a Web site which I would normally be embarrassed to be seen reading. But for me the important thing is user education so that users are made aware of possible risks.  I would therefore encourage Smartr to highlight possible risks.  The question though is “Am I being smart or dumb in using this tool?”

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17 Responses to “Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber?”

  1. Sheila MacNeill said

    Hi Brian

    thanks for this – I might check out smartr now. Agree it could be useful for programmes etc and just as a good way to keep up with various “stuff”. Not sure about the privacy thing – I’m maybe too ambivalent and tbh don’t tweet links to things I wouldn’t want others to know I read anyway:-)

    Sheila

    • Hi Sheila
      Thanks for the comment. Note though that although experienced users of social media such as ourselves may be careful about the content we publish the point I was making was that Smartr is exposing what you are reading.

  2. Aaron Tay said

    Brian, I’m pretty relaxed about privacy issues, but I think this is pretty creepy. There are services like this which share what you read or visit automatically, but those are either opt-in or pretty upfront about this feature being their gimmick.

    I suppose In a way you can already do that in Twitter with the new feature where you can see how a Twitter user’s timeline looks like to him, but this is far more accurate..and intrusive.

    I thought this was advertised like a flipboard type reader pulling in links pages , suddenly it shares what you read? I remember you tweeting about it and when I first installed it, I don’t remember this being there the first time around either.

    I *think* there is a setting “Share Smartr Links” which turns it off but still a surprise.

    Moreover it makes very little sense I think to want to see everything someone has read (unless you want to snoop). The whole point of curation is that the person you follow reads a ton of stuff and shares only the good stuff so you can ride on his expertise. You *trust* his skill in picking up and sharing the gems basically because you don’t have the time or judgement.

    So for example I don’t have to read everything you have read, I trust you to share only the “good stuff” on UK side of things. I don’t want to read everything you have read :)

    • Thanks for the comment. You are correct – there is a Share Smartr Link option. I have switched this off. I have also just read some of the links you have published. Can you tell me if you can see if I have read them.

      If there is an option to switch off the ability for others to see what you have read then I think Smartr provides a valuable service. However since this option does not seem to be documented (as is enabled by default) I feel that Smartr is behaving in a similar disreputable fashion to Facebook, who have a track record of switching on new services by default without alerting users to the privacy implications.

      I will see if I can get a response from Temo Chalasani (@temc).

      • Aaron said

        Hmm. the last one i can see for you now is “minecraft creator gives update on all things minecraft” but i notice even with the option turned off, i still see my articles being updated..Though i dont know if others can see it. For example because i looked at yours, do you see “Minecraft creator…” appearing under me? I do.

      • I’ve just read a Cibernarium post which I hope you can’t see that I’ve read.

        I could see that you read a post on Schema.org and the Responsibility of Monopoly 21 minutes ago. However I have just refreshed the page and now just see what other followers read over 5 days ago.

  3. Hi Brian,

    I’m the other co-founder of Smartr — Temo (temc) is not around this week (he’s offline).

    First of all, I’m sorry about all the confusion. You are not alone: I think most of our 1.0 users did not expect Smartr to change like that. And even though the new users get the sharing aspect of the app, we were not straightforward enough with our existing user base when we released the upgrade. And there is still work to do! We will definitely add an FAQ to the site (including the questions you suggested, thanks!).

    So, yes, in Smartr, you share everything that you read since version 2.0. It is possible to disable the sharing by creating a private Smartr account. We will eventually add this option in the settings as well so you can privatize your account at any time (now it’s only possible when the account is created). We changed the website with an explicit tagline “See what your friends are reading” and added more information when the app is first opened. I think the majority of our users now understand what is going on, but it is a constant concern to us.

    You might ask, why did we do this? Is it even useful to share what you read? I will say definitely, yes! It’s only been 3 weeks and reading is up 25% in the app and reading in the Smartr stream is growing at a steady pace. Also, we were very careful before we decided to pivot Smartr to a reading network. We contacted around 15 of our most active users and asked them what they thought of the idea. To our surprise, 80% did not care at all to share what they read (and we see the same proportion of public/private accounts). Also, we did an internal simulation with selected users to see what the readstream would look like and we loved it. The quality of the articles was great, but most importantly the stream had a completely different “feel”. This is somewhat subjective, but I felt closer to the people I was following.

    We are still exploring this idea, but we believe it could be the future of curation. There are several reasons for this:

    * Not everyone shares, but a lot of people read really great stuff (and that’s the main reason why the Smartr stream works so well).
    * With Smartr, reading = sharing. Only one action is required to share, instead of two. It’s a much faster and easier way to share.
    * Interestingly, a lot of people that don’t seem to “get” Twitter or find it useful (they follow few people) are following a lot of people on Smartr.
    * Conversation. It’s one of the next big thing in Smartr. By knowing who read what, conversation will be made much easier.
    * Reading groups. We will eventually allow you to tag & group people into reading groups (we’re still validating this). For instance, you would be able to see what #entrepreneurs are reading. Or #physicists, #programmers, etc. Or something more personal, such as #my_company, or #my_hockey_team

    There are obvious problems we need to tackle with this approach as well, most notably the overwhelming amount of data. We might offer a “digest” mode of your Smartr stream, allowing you to see only the most important articles that were read by your friends (and maybe send you a daily, weekly or monthly email). This could work very well with the reading groups as well. You could basically get a summary of what was read by all #tech_journalists during the last 24 hours.

    What’s next?

    * We’re currenly finishing up the iPad and android app. We’re also working on RSS support in parallel.
    * We’re also working on bringing back the web version.
    * After that, we’ll work on conversation & reading groups.
    * We will eventually provide you with a bookmarklet, so you can share what you read on the web!
    .
    Don’t hesitate to write me directly at marc@factyle.com if you have any questions.

    Marc

  4. Hi Marc – many thanks for your reply and for the detailed explanation of Smartr’s design principles.

    I do think you made a mistake in the changes your introduced in version 2.0 and this could alienate your initial set of users. I think it is important that in areas which address issues of privacy the social media companies are open and transparent about the privacy implications and carefully address change control issues.

    However I do take your point that you are seeking to engage with people who don’t ‘get’ Twitter – your approach that reading = sharing is an interesting one and different from the perception that Twitter is about sharing what you had for breakfast.

    You should be aware, however, that there are different cultural and legal views on privacy around the world (e.g. the recent superinjunction in the UK which means you could potentially be arrested for contempt of court if you tweet details of Ryan Giggs’ affairs).

    Anyway that’s for the comments.

    Does anyone else have any comments on Marc’s response to my post?

  5. I have not tried Smartr yet, but it does sound interesting. I am not sure if i think the sharing or what you have read sounds “creepy” or not. I think the key problem is that the level of sharing for pre-existing users increased, with little notice.

    It is perhaps interesting to compare with Zotero and Mendeley, the bibliographic management tools that have a social element. With them again the idea is to provide a tool for users and in doing so to encourage sharing through the back door, as it were. But with them the material being shared is generally academic research.

    Perhaps the problem with Twitter and Smartr is that a wider range of reading matter is included – from professional through to leisure interests.

    • Hi Frank.

      For me Smartr provides an element of serendipity which you highlighted in a recent blog post. However I agree with you that although such serendipity may be useful in both a professional and social context, mixing up these two areas could cause difficulties.

  6. Hi Brian,
    Thanks for the thoughtful post about Smartr – just wanted to say that we take your feedback and comments very seriously. Please keep them coming so we can improve Smartr.

    What are your thoughts on the Smartr feed? Do you find yourself ‘stumbling’ on articles that your sources are reading?

    Sincerely,
    Temo.

    • Thanks for your invitation to provide feedback on Smartr :-)

      I now use Smartr on a daily basis. However I don’t make any significant use of the “See what others are reading” option – only a few of my contact are using this (so there’s not much content) and I have disabled it so that my reading preferences also aren’t published due to concerns over privacy.

      However the share your links functionality is very useful and I have created several Twitter lists in order to be able to better categorise the links I read in Smartr – my followers timeline for serendipity and lists of organisational Twitter accounts for more managed and focussed links.

  7. [...] Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber? [...]

  8. [...] a debate on the British way of death”. As I described in a recent post which asked “Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber?” sharing, perhaps unknowingly,  details of what one has been reading whether, as in the case [...]

  9. temo said

    Hi Brian,
    Just wanted to point out that we don’t share what you read on Smartr anymore. Instead, what you see on your smartr feed are articles you’ve added to your stacks/blogs through Smartr.

    Hope this alleviates the privacy concerns you raised above.

    best, Temo

  10. [...] risks associated with frictionless sharing. Indeed, I made this point in a post in which I asked Is Smartr Getting Smarter or Am I Getting Dumber? following the Smartr app’s unannounced release of frictionless sharing for reading Twitter [...]

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