Zensify launched yesterday with a wave of tech blog coverage. Early reviewers were excited not just about the app's ability to display updates from friends on multiple networks in one interface - the big innovation is that Zensify creates a "hot words" tag cloud showing what topics are trending among your friends alone.Social web aggregating iPhone app
Unfortunately Zensify doesn't work as well as we hoped it would. Its problems may be instructive to similar projects elsewhere or they may point to trouble inherent in this kind of social network user experience. Here are three interesting problems we see so far with this new app.
1. It Asks A Lot From an iPhone
Zensify's baseline performance is not that great. Pageloads hang, searches sometime fail to catch up to the live web, but relaunching the app helps it a lot and despite the complex tasks it enables the UI feels a little clunky. We were turned off as soon as the app asked for our Twitter password instead of using Twitter Connect, but that's just one little detail on a long list.
The poor iPhone had to be struggling to deal with message intake, keyword tracking, tag cloud creation and more over multiple social networks - especially given that the Twitter, Flickr and Facebook accounts we tested with get updates from hundreds if not thousands of friends. It's becoming more and more commonly discussed that iPhone apps are sometimes slow to load and function because the iPhone is simply processor challenged. We ask a lot from those little phones and Zensify asks a whole lot for an app.
2. Sophisticated Social Network Analysis Needs to Be More Sophisticated
Zensify's idea of serving up trending topics among a limited group of people (your friends) is a fabulous one. Unfortunately, as many heavy Twitter users know, the bulk of all messages from all friends is not as useful as the strategic creation of groups. I'm following more than 3,000 people on Twitter and the most commonly used words across that many people tend to be pretty "lowest common denominator." They are words like "Life," "Business," etc. Those are pretty worthless "hot topics."
Zensify should support the creation of groups of friends (someday there will be a standard format that allows us to import groups created in Seesmic or Tweetdeck into other apps) and the tag clouds need to be granular on a sub-group level. That's asking all the more from the app and phone, though. As we go further and further into these kinds of details, it might make more sense for Zensify to have an iPhone-friendly web app.
Whenever you offer "hot topic" discovery you also need there to be "stop words" or words that are automatically excluded. We're sure there are some already, but they need to be user-editable. I'm following one high-volume Twitter account that just pumps out retweets that include the word censorship, for example. I barely notice it in all my other Twitter interfaces but half of my Zensify "hot topics" cloud is dominated by a few related words every day. Please let me exclude those words.
While you're at it, let me exclude Twitter with a click. It's so noisy that sometimes I'd like to limit my view to everything else. That's a very common problem among social network aggregation services.
3. There Still May Be Too Little Signal to Parse
Despite my following 3k people on Twitter, hundreds of people on Facebook and probably 20 on Flickr - the threshold for a hot topic is really low. Three or four mentions of one word across all my friends in the recent past put that word at the top of my hot topic cloud. The promise is exciting but the reality of that user experience is pretty disappointing. Throw one spam attack or senselessly repeated message into the mix and I end up clicking through a number of worthless faux-trends.
Zensify may not be storing enough messages from the recent past in order to offer meaningful trend analysis. For example, the hottest topic among my friends right now is the word "social," which has been used 11 times over the last 30 minutes. That's a uselessly common word and, really, it's hard to believe that thousands of people I know have only used it 11 times over the last 30 minutes. That doesn't seem credible.
Some of these may be problems with the very-well received Zensify app in particular, but we suspect that most of them are problems that would be found with just about any app ambitious enough to try to offer powerful cross-network social aggregation and analysis on the iPhone. Please, developers, prove us wrong!