Closing Down the Social News Experiment Voczie.com

About 6 years ago now, in 2011 I had this cool idea; rather than the celebrity tweets and the occasional news story posted to Twitter, wouldn't it be great to allow people to read news stories and see peoples reactions to them at the same time. At the time I was also searching for a personal project I could undertake which would allow me to p

The Hope : Sharing views on news will allow me to learn more

Voczie.com main page showing news feeds and the latest tweet on each story.

The idea was that you could be reading a news story on your favorite news website, and live in a side panel you could see what people were discussing about the news story. My hope was that if we open our mind to understanding other people's points of views on the stories of the day we might learn more about them.

My thinking was basically along the following lines : "So much of the news is curated and presented to us by news organisations and algorithms that we often don't get the whole story. There are still times today when I'll ask a friend about a news article and get a completely different view on the same story. If this experience happens to me in real life, then perhaps by extended how I read news I could get a wider view online. I could write my views and have a conversation tied to a new article with the whole world."

The Reality in 2011

Voczie.com showing BBC Brexit news story with tweets

In 2011 when I launched the site Twitter wasn't the source of news sharing it has become today, and at the same time it had a limit of 120 characters per tweet, and that included the URL of the news story. The result was that most of the news links that were shared where shared without comment, simply a link to a story. The discussion of view points and ideas I had been hoping to discover just didn't exist. Then, just as I was completing the site news came from twitter that they were limiting the Twitter API. In doing so they wanted to stop people from using none-twitter owned user interfaces from posting to twitter. My site allowed users to post comments to twitter about a news story. These changes would basically cripple my site and prevent it from having the number of users that I would ultimately like to see. It was the death nail in my idea.

Learning Technically

I learnt a lot from the experience of creating voczie.com, on the technical side the site had allowed me to learn about a range of technologies; from Twitter's APIs through to some of my first large bits of JavaScript programming and right through to MongoDB and dealing with virtual machines and compatibility issues.

Playing in someone else's garden

Vocize had a hard dependency on Twitter, and Twitter's ecosystem. When your are building within a closed ecosystem like Twitter, you are ultimately at Twitter's whim. If Twitter changes it's terms of service you can be out of business overnight. There are opportunities to make money, but you need to be careful when and how you invest in them. I was pretty devastated when the API change was announced by Twitter. But realistically I had even bigger problems.

Dude, where's my business model?

Voczie was a fun idea, but it had no business model. I took it on as a learning exercise and as a change to explore social and news interaction on line. It never had a business model, or an idea about how it would generate any cash. Sure the site might generate value for people, but would they pay for that value? Would enough people be interested in the value that voczie brought to news reading that it would allow me to generate cash via advertising? - All great questions, but ones I ignored at the time. However keeping the site going is a costly experience. Not only are there hosting costs, but there are also time and maintenance costs. The site needs updating, everything from the version of PHP it is running on, through to the VM and the virtualization technologies that my provider supplies, they all need updating.

The Reality in 2018

News and Twitter have both changed dramatically since 2011. The rise of "Fake News", and indeed the rise of use of Twitter and Facebook for political discussion and advertising has really changed the scene. People have become more polarized than before. Arguably there is a need for something like voczie.com to help bring people closer together and to encourage debate and ultimately better understanding of each other. However for this to happy voczie.com would need some significant changes..

Bringing Voczie up to date

There are some technical limitations on how voczie was implemented, but that is a product of my learning experience. To make voczie work for the new reality of news and twitter would require the following changes.

Story Matching

Voczie currently uses RSS feeds (news feeds) from news websites. When you click a story it will highlight the associated tweets. However news providers and audiences are becoming ever more polarised. Fox news fans aren't fans of CNN, and Guardian fans don't read the Daily Mail. But for discussion to occur then equivalent reporting between the news sites needs to be matched, and then the comments aligned. So that as a voczie user you can understand the full gamut of views both by the press and by their readers.

Implementing this will require some natural language processing to ensure that stories about the same issues are matched across news sites. Then a large rise in the search terms to try to catch all tweets about all of the related news feeds.

Conversation Views

Twitter now has the concept of a conversation with users able to reply to tweets. This wasn't included in the original implementation of voczie.com. Instead voczie.com simply found the tweets which mentioned the URL of the news story. Additional work would be needed to identify and show any replies to those tweets and the associated conversations. Indeed we'd want to reply to these conversations and that would need to be supported by voczie.com as well.

Thread Reading

A common approach used today when folks have a lot of information to share on twitter is to create a "thread" or a series of tweets in which the original tweet author effectively replies to himself. This concept is supported by Twitter, but not by voczie.com and additional work would be required to add this, both for reading the content posted to twitter and also for allowing extra long tweets.

Same subject, no URL

As I discovered back in 2011 people will often post about a news story or political item on twitter, but this usually doesn't include the news story or a news source. These comments are often more insightful that the original tweets which mention the story URL, however they are missed by voczie.com. Similarly hashtags associated with a story are also excluded and could provide additional context for a conversation.

Longer Tweets

Supporting Twitter's longer tweet length (256 characters) is important too, and voczie.com would need to be updated to support this.

UI Updates

All of the above will require a large UI update and change, and that excludes some of the technical challenges which are yet to be addressed.

Technical Challenges

One of the unique features of voczie.com is that not all of the work is performed by the server. Searching twitter is actually performed by the users web browser and the results are then transmitted back to the server for other users. This was done to get around twitter's search cap, twitter limits the number of times a given IP address (computer) can call it's search service. Voczie.com is a search heavy site. To address this the search functionality was moved to the client. This works, but it can make the site seem slower than it should.

PHP and Migration

The voczie.com code base needs to be moved from its current PHP implementation to a new version of PHP and then migrated away from the current hosting solution to a new one.

Finding the Money

With all of these changes, voczie.com will need to make money, to pay for the service and its development costs. So much of the news content and social media is free to the end user. I'm unsure if anyone would be willing to pay for a site which presents them with news reported in a style they may not like, along with opinions which they may disagree. It all seems like Monty Python's Flying Circus' sketch "Argument Clinic".

I'd love to think people would pay for such an experience, but I'd doubt it. So in the end I think the time has come to pause voczie.com. I'd love to come back to it one day, and I might yet. But for now I think the time has come to hit big red the power switch in the cloud and turn voczie.com off for now.

Voczie.com about box

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