ThinkUp 1.0 and Software With Purpose

Today, ThinkUp is out of beta and available for free. If you have a presence on Twitter, Facebook or Google+ and know how to run a PHP/MySQL app on a web server (or on EC2), you should install it and get it started now. ThinkUp will collect all of your activity across these networks and give you great analytics, search and archiving for them.

I’m incredibly excited about the launch of this app, of course. Gina Trapani has been shepherding ThinkUp’s evolution through 25 releases, three names and five dozen contributors over the past two years, ably assisted by a phenomenal community that I’m proud to be part of. ThinkUp is also the flagship platform for our efforts at Expert Labs, enabling some incredibly powerful new ways of connecting citizens and their government, which we’ll be talking about soon.

But today, ThinkUp’s launch matters to me because of what it represents: The web we were promised we would have. The web that I fell in love with, and that has given me so much. A web that we can hack, and tweak, and own.

Where We Stand Today

  1. Picture everything you’ve ever written on Twitter

  2. Now add in every photo or status update you’ve ever posted on Facebook

  3. Add to that every message you’ve ever sent on Google+

  4. And then include every response you’ve ever gotten from anyone to any of those messages

Now understand: The companies behind these networks can, and someday will, destroy all of those moments. Delete them from the record. Forever. With no advance notice. I want you to understand, and really truly believe that. Read the terms of service yourself if you don’t think they can do that.

Sand Castles

Why would I ascribe such awful behavior to the nice people who run these social networks? Because history shows us that it happens. Over and over and over. The clips uploaded to Google Videos, the sites published to Geocities, the entire relationships that began and ended on Friendster: They’re all gone. Some kind-hearted folks are trying to archive those things for the record, and that’s wonderful. But what about the record for your life, a private version that’s not for sharing with the world, but that preserves the information or ideas or moments that you care about?

I’m not saying this destruction is always deliberate or malicious. I’m friends with a lot of nice folks at the companies that run our big social networks. I think they mean well, and when they can, they do the right thing. And most people wouldn’t be that upset if their online presence were destroyed.

Beyond the Numbers

But whether everyone cares about the risks of today’s social networks isn’t the point: Vast and important parts of our culture are bring destroyed in the digital domain. ThinkUp can’t help everybody, yet. But it should help anyone with more than 1000 connections on their network, or anybody who cares about what they’re creating online.

Right now the only way we have to show that we care about our networks is to quantify them, and assign metrics that aren’t as meaningful as the conversations they’re meant to represent.

Of course ThinkUp has great analytics — but it does not, and will never display some arbitrary score to your profile. We want you to better understand who you’re talking to on your networks, and to better share what you discover by letting you publish a pretty, embeddable version of your Twitter or Facebook conversations.

And while those features are unique and valuable, simply being able to look back and search for the things my friends and I have shared on our networks is the driving force for enabling all of the amazing things that are built, or will be built, on top of ThinkUp.

In ThinkUp, I can find the message where I announced my son’s birth. On Twitter or Facebook, I can’t.

I’m Old-Fashioned

ThinkUp Timeline thumbnail

Caring about these issues on the web isn’t, frankly, very fashionable in the tech world right now. Building apps that are open source, decentralized, and require the pain in the ass of installing a PHP app on your own web server is certainly not in vogue. But, being built by a non-profit and a community of volunteers, we have the luxury of creating something valuable even if it’s not what’s currently in favor amongst the Techmeme set. Plus, we’ve got great hackers adding all kinds of cool features every day.

This isn’t just some nostalgia trip for me, though. I take a long view of the tech industry and of the web as a medium. I know we swing from centralized to decentralized and back again. If everyone’s headed to one giant centralized network, then somebody oughtta be looking the other way, too.

But we’re not making some shiny, loud app that’s designed to get TechCrunch coverage. What Gina started two years ago, what Expert Labs has been proud to support, what an incredibly enthusiastic (and, importantly, extremely diverse) community has been moved by is that ThinkUp is software with a purpose. It is technology with a set of values.

ThinkUp’s values are simple:

  • Meaningful conversations are important
  • People’s self-expression is valuable and worth preserving
  • Technology meets its highest use when in service of people‘s desires instead of big institutions
  • Well-built networks can empower people in a way that counters social imbalances
  • Good tools can impact culture in a positive way

Get Going

I know there’s still some of us out there that believe in these ideas. If you do, block out some time during your lunch hour or this weekend, and install the app. Don’t have time? Run it on your EC2 account; It’ll only take about 5 minutes — as easy as when you first set up WordPress. You’ll find some bugs and some rough spots, and we’ll be eager to see both your bug reports and your code over at Github.

  • If you’d like to see a ton of screenshots in an app walkthrough, Gina Trapani’s post has you covered.
  • For the official announcement of ThinkUp 1.0, hit the Expert Labs blog where there are complete details and a changelog.
  • And do take a look at ReadWriteWeb’s review, one of the best of the early looks at the app, which opens by calling ThinkUp “the social media management tool that matters most”.