What We Are Up to At Gnip

As the newest member of the Gnip team I have noticed that people are asking a lot of the same questions about what we are doing at Gnip and what are the ways people can use our services in their business.

What we do

Gnip provides an extensible messaging platform that allows for the publishing or subscribing of events and data from across the Internet, which makes data portability exponentially less painful and more automatic once it is set up. Because Gnip is being built as a platform of capabilities and not a web application the core services are instantly useful for multiple scenarios, including data producers, data consumers and any custom web applications. Gnip already is being used with many of the most popular Internet data sources, including Twitter, Delicious, Flickr, Digg, and Plaxo.

How to use Gnip

So, who is the target user of Gnip? It is a developer, as the platform is not a consumer-oriented web application, but a set of services meant to be used by a developer or an IT department for a set of core use cases.

  • Data Consumers: You’ve built your pollers, let us tell you when and where to fire them. Avoid throttling and decrease latency from hours to seconds.
  • Data Producers: Push your data to us and reduce API traffic by an order of magnitude while increasing distribution through aggregators.
  • Custom web applications: You want to embed or publish content to be used in your own application or for a third-party application. Decide who, or what, you care about for any Publisher, give us an end-point, and we push the data to you so you can solve your business use cases, such as customer service websites, corporate websites, blogs, or any web application.

Get started now

By leveraging the Gnip APIs, developers can easily design reusable services, such as, push-based notifications, smart filters and data streams that can be used for all your web applications to make them better. Are you a developer? Give the new 2.0 version a try!

TheSocialWeb.tv Gets a Cookie, a Big Gooey Chocolate Chip Cookie Made with Love

John McCrea, David Recordon and Joseph Smarr have knocked it out of the park with a brand new weekly video podcast where they discuss the complex world of data distribution.  Since they say it better than I ever could, I’ll quote them directly:

With a revolving cast of characters, we’ll have some of the key technologists working on building the Social Web to explain what is going on; but this isn’t a show about technology. It’s about explaining what’s going on in the fight to make sure you have control of your data, your content, and your privacy — and the freedom to access your stuff from all over the Web.

In this first episode, they spend some time discussing Gnip, how it helps developers and how it will hopefully accelerate the move to true data portability standards.  Plus, they break out a copy of Gnip Gnop.  I mean, how cool is that!

The WHAT of Gnip: Changing APIs from Pull to Push

A few months ago a handful of folks came together and took a practical look at the state of “web services” on the network today. As an industry we’ve enjoyed the explosion of web APIs over the past several years, but it’s been “every man for himself,” and we’ve been left with hundreds of web APIs being consumed in random ways (random protocols and formats). There have been a few cracks at standardizing some of this, but most have been left in spec form with, at best, fragmented implementations, and most have been too high level to provide anything more than good bedtime reading. We set out to build something; not write a story.

For a great overview of the situation Gnip is plunging into, checkout Nik Cubrilovic’s post on techcrunchIT; “The New Datastream Aggregators, FriendFeed and Standards.”.

Our first service is the culmination of lots of work by smart, pragmatic, people. From day one we’ve had excellent partners helping us along the way; from early integrations with our API, to discussing specifications and standards to follow (or not to follow; what you chose not to do is often more important than what you chose to do). While we aspire to solve all of the challenges in the data portability space, we’re a small team biting off small chunks along a path. We are going to need the support, feedback, and assistance of the broader data portability (formal & informal) community in order to succeed. Now that we’ve finally launched, we’ll be in “release early, release often” mode to ensure tight feedback loops around our products.

Enough; what did we build!?!

For those who want to cut to the chase, here’s our API doc.

We built a system that connects Data Consumers to Data Publishers in a low-latency, highly-scalable standards-based way. Data can be pushed or pulled into Gnip (via XMPP, Atom, RSS, REST) and it can be pushed or pulled out of Gnip (currently only via REST, but the rest to follow). This release of Gnip is focused on propagating user generated activity events from point A to point B. Activity XML provides a terse format for Data Publishers to distribute their user’s activities. Collections XML provides a simple way for Data Consumers to only receive information about the users they care about. This release is about “change notification,” and a subsequent release will include the actual data along with the event.

 

As a Consumer, whether your application model is event- or polling-based Gnip can get you near-realtime activity information about the users you care about. Our goal is a maximum 60 second latency for any activity that occurs on the network. While the time our service implementation takes to drive activities from end to end is measured in milliseconds, we need some room to breathe.

Data can come in to Gnip via many formats, but it is XSLT’d into a normalized Activity XML format which makes consuming activity events (e.g. “Joe dugg a news story at 10am”) from a wide array of Publishers a breeze. Along the way we started cringing at the verb/activity overlap between various Publishers; did Jane “tweet” or “post”, they’re kinda the same thing? After sitting down with Chris Messina, it became clear that everyone else was cringing too. A verb/activity normalization table has been started, and Gnip is going to distill the cornucopia of activities into a common, community derived, format in order to make consumption even easier.

Data Publishers now have a central clearinghouse to push data when events on their services occur. Gnip manages the relationship with Data Consumers, and figures out which protocols and formats they want to play with. It will take awhile for the system to reach equilibrium with Gnip, but once it does, API balance will be reached; Publishers will notify Gnip when things happen, and Gnip will fan-out those events to an arbitrary number of Consumers in real-time (no throttling, no rate limiting).

Gnip is centralized. After much consternation, we resolved to start out with a centralized model. Not necessarily because we think it’s the best path, but because it is the best path to get something started. Imagine the internet as a clustered application; decentralization is fundamental (DNS comes to mind). That said, we needed a starting point and now we have one. A conversation with Chris Saad highlighted some work Paul Jones (among others) had done around a standard mechanism for change notification discovery and subscription; getpingd. Getpingd describes a mechanism for distributed change notification. The Subscription side of getpingd feels like a no-brainer for Gnip to support, but I’m not sure how to consider the Discovery end of it. In some sense, I see Gnip (assuming getpingd’s discovery model is implemented) as a getpingd node in the graph. We have lots to consider in the federated/distributed model.

Gnip is a classic chicken-and-egg scenario, we need Publishers & Consumers to be interesting. If your service produces events that you want others on the network to consume, we’d love to see you as a Publisher in Gnip; pushing events into the system for wide consumption. If your service relies on events created by users on other applications, we’d love to see you as a Consumer in Gnip.

We’ve started out with convenience libraries for perl, php, java, python, and ruby. Rather than maintain these ourselves, we plan on publishing them to respective language community code sites/repositories.

That’s what we’ve built in a nutshell. I’ll soon blog about exactly how we’ve built it.

The WHY of Gnip: Stop Building What Everyone Else is Building

Let me say this up front:

I have a tendency to ramble. Why use a sentence when a paragraph will suffice, right? As a result, I limit myself to 100 word posts on my sporadically updated personal blog. I’ll follow suit here, with only occasional excursions into longer territory. This is one such post.

I’ll try not to ramble too much…

Data portability, the ability to create content on one web site and derive value from it on other sites and applications, has become one of the defining characteristics of what is commonly referred to as “Web 2.0″. An emerging class of services are taking advantage of this data to create entirely new products, including social aggregators (Plaxo Pulse, MyBlogLog, FriendFeed), social search (Lijit, Delver) and communications dashboards (Fuser, Orgoo, Digsby). Each of these services is predicated on the belief that user-generated content is the raw material upon which great companies can be built.

Data portability, via RSS or ATOM or XMPP or open APIs is neither difficult nor complex. These are known problems with straightforward solutions and open standards. But each connection between two services (e.g. MyBlogLog and Flickr or Plaxo and Digg) is a custom integration, requiring at least one of the parties to set up a custom channel to access, process and ultimately make use of the transferred data. As companies seek to create robust solutions built upon dozens or even hundreds of data feeds, engineers face an exponentially growing problem of building and maintaining these custom communication channels. Simply put, data portability is a big hassle.

Crucially, data portability has become the cost of entry for these services. It is not enough for a social aggregator to claim the most sources or a social search company the biggest pool of data. The leaders in this space are focused on filtering and presenting data in useful ways; out of a billion pieces of data, they seek to connect you with the appropriate information at the appropriate time. All of the work building and maintaining back-end data portability services comes at the cost of building better front-end features that draw and satisfy users.

That’s where Gnip comes in. We’re dedicated to making data portability suck less, by reducing the effort required to collect and manage the data upon which these awesome new services are being created. Gnip aims to simplify the process of aggregating, standardizing and maintaining large pools of data, ultimately making he process as simple as uploading a list of your users.

Our first service is a solution to a key problem facing data portability implementations (Jud will give you the details in just a moment). We at Gnip believe in direct solutions to painful problems, and as a result, our first service isn’t fancy. But it’s quick to integrate, it scales like a monster and it uses a variety of web standards; we believe we’ve solved this particular problem pretty well. Over the coming months we’ll roll out additional direct solutions to painful problems, and before long we’ll have a bona fide platform for pushing data around the web.

We’re incredibly excited by the bounty that Web 2.0 has created. We are living with an embarrassment of riches in terms of shared information and experiences. But it’s overwhelming. I personally believe that Web 3.0 will herald a return to the individual — story, picture, friend, experience — because in aggregate, that which has great meaning often becomes meaningless. So it’s up to these awesome new services to take the Web 2.0 bounty and find for each of us those few things that will fundamentally enhance our lives. To give us something meaningful.

I hope that we at Gnip can build a foundation that enables these awesome new services to focus all of their attention on making great things. We’ll happily lay plumbing, mix concrete and smelt tin to see that happen.