It helps the president broadcast news and other information, and provides his staff with a new way of understanding what constituents really want. In 2011, President Obama used Twitter to ask Americans which government programs he should cut as he sought to reduce the federal deficit. That single tweet garnered more than 1,850 replies. Over the course of 2011, the White House account received a total of 125,832 Twitter replies from 42,902 people.
The problem is finding a good way to sort through all that social media. The White House staff has a not-so-secret weapon: an open source social media analytics tool called ThinkUp, a tool anyone — not just government agencies — can use to learn more about their friends and followers.
ThinkUp provides a set of dashboards and notification tools that tell you things like which tweets were your most popular, who your biggest fans are, and whether your posts tend to do better in the morning or in the afternoon. It also provides a searchable archive of your tweets and a handy way to reference responses to questions you’ve asked.
It’s kind of like Klout, which ranks your internet influence based on how many followers you have and how often your posts are “liked” and retweeted. But ThinkUp looks to do much more than that.
“We’re never going to put a rank on you or on anyone else. It’s about how you serve your audience and how you connect with them,” says ThinkUp founder Anil Dash. “Some agencies want to get a ranking, and that’s fine. But there’s no reason a local coffee shop should have a million followers. The question is how to help them better serve the followers they have.”
Like many applications, ThinkUp began as a solution to one person’s problem. Gina Trapani, the founder of the popular blog Lifehacker, found that Twitter was a great place to ask readers questions, but it was hard for her to organize and store responses. She was also frustrated that shouldn’t couldn’t really understand what her Twitter followers liked and didn’t like — i.e. what they wanted from her.
So she started building ThinkUp, originally called ThinkTank. Most personal open source projects grow gradually — if at all — but this was different. It leapfrogged from personal project to ambitious government initiative when Trapani joined Expert Labs, a non-profit founded by Dash and backed by the MacArthur Foundation and American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Expert Labs turned ThinkUp into a platform that could help government leaders — including the president — better understand what their constituents were saying on social media. “We were built as a science experiment,” Dash says. “If you built the tools, if you educated the policy makers, would they do it?”
Building the tools was easier than expected. The open source project attracted a surprising number of outside developers willing to contribute code. For the first year, Trapani wrote all the code, and Dash helped build the interface for the application, but now the project has 30 contributors, and the majority of them, Dash says, are women.
Dash says the most important thing Trapani did to build the community was announce, early on, that those on the project were “100 percent nice people.” He says that helped reframe conversations on the project’s mailing list. “There’s an idealism to that, and it worked,” he says. “If you tell people they’re expected to be nice, they’ll rise to your expectations.”
He says that in four years, there’s never been a flame war on the project’s developer mailing list. He thinks that attitude — and the fact the lead developer of the project is a woman — attracted more women and people who had never contributed to an open source project before.
Expert Labs was originally funded as a two-year project, but it ended up running for three years. When it finally came time to wind down last year, Dash and Trapani decided to found a new company dedicated to developing and hosting ThinkUp. It’s similar to the business model for the WordPress blogging software: The project will remain free and open source, but the company will sell a hosted service on the net for those who want it.
Last year, the team started thinking about how to make ThinkUp more appealing to those beyond the federal government. Up to that point, Dash says, ThinkUp had been more of a toolkit that Expert Labs used to help government agencies answer questions about social media use — not something lawmakers, journalists, or entrepreneurs would use themselves. “It was really good at solving problems for [government agencies], but you had to have incredible technical knowledge,” he says. “We didn’t focus on making it easy to use because it had this other focus, but it always bothered us.”
To improve the experience, the team decided to shift from a dashboard-centric interface with a stream of notifications about interesting occurrences. If one of your posts starts getting a lot of retweets, ThinkUp will tell you. It actually makes ThinkUp look a bit more like the kind of social networks that it monitors.
Dash says the company has raised some venture capital, but it will start a crowd-funding campaign this week as well. “We want our customers to be as fundamental as any investor,” he says. “The people who supported it in the beginning are people who supported the value of the open web, which is sort of out of fashion in this era of people building iOS apps.
“We want to build something that advocates that old fashioned web — not in that it was ugly and hard to use, but in that you could control you data, learn about yourself, and understand how something is shared.” – wired.com