Analyzing Social Media: Graffiti and a Tweet Heard Round the World

6/25/12Follow @bvbigelow

I’m sitting with Patrick Giblin in the back of Caffé Calabria in North Park, and he’s talking about Graffiti, analytic software developed by 451 Degrees, the business he founded in 2003 to provide a variety of Internet and media-related products and services.

Among San Diego’s Internet entrepreneurs, Giblin is one of the ancients. He dropped out of the University of San Diego School of Law in 1997, after co-founding The Golfer.com, an Internet-based golf reservation and marketing service. After the dot-com bubble burst, Giblin spent a couple of years as an executive at Entravision Communications (NYSE: EVC), the Spanish language media giant based in Santa Monica, CA, working to develop Internet applications for networks like Univision and Telemundo. By the time he started 451 Degrees, Giblin says he knew he wanted to develop his concept for Graffiti, but consigned his idea to a back-burner while he worked as a strategic consultant for local broadcast media, entertainers like Jamie Foxx, and cable TV companies. Development of the application didn’t begin in earnest until three years ago, when he could devote the necessary time and money.

“For a long time, people thought Twitter commentary was just junk,” Giblin says. “But the day that plane went down on the Hudson, I thought, ‘This is the future. This is how news is going to be created—as truth and not assumption.’”

Giblin is referring to what the New York media dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson,” the U.S. Airways flight that hit a flock of Canada geese within minutes after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009. A photo of the 155 passengers and crew outside the ditched aircraft, captured by ferryboat passenger Janis Krums, became one of the iconic images of the mesmerizing drama—in part because it went viral on Twitter well before the TV trucks arrived on the scene. (Krums, who runs a nutrition supplement business, gave his permission to use his photo at the top of this story.)

It was a revelation, Giblin says, because he realized that tweets, social media status updates, and the online buzz that envelopes incidents like the emergency landing of Flight 1549 reflect what he views as the Internet’s fundamental purpose—to serve as a new form of communications. “Comments are part of story-telling,” he says, and “by aggregating every ones’ thoughts and comments, you gain true understanding and meaning.”

Under the old media model, Giblin says the news was like a controlled faucet. Now it’s more like a neural system that reacts to different kinds of stimulation.

Giblin says this line of thinking spurred the development of Graffiti—a software-as-a-service system that the news media could use to sharpen the focus of its content—and attract bigger audiences—by making better use of comments scattered across a variety of social media platforms. “We can take the comments on every article, image, video, and music file, read it, and apply artificial intelligence, machine learning, root word analysis, latent semantic analysis,” Giblin says. “We crunch it down to a CliffsNotes version for anyone who wants it.”

Giblin says the distilled product of Graffiti’s analysis consists of the most relevant keywords and terms from social media arising from specific events or content—and the system can then update the content by inserting these keywords as the metadata tags used by Internet search engines. In essence, the process serves as a kind of feedback loop for search engine optimization (SEO).

“The Miami Herald has no idea about what people are talking about on Facebook, but we can tell them, and they can use that information to focus on the core issues that people are most interested in,” Giblin explains.

For example, a Graffiti analysis of social media commentary about the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin might show that people rarely mention the victim’s name, but frequently use other terms—like “hoodie”—in their online discussions. People don’t talk about something with proper names and titles, Giblin says. They say “that hoodie killing in Florida” or “that plane that went down on the Hudson.” “Hoodie” would therefore be a more important keyword for a news report about the shooting than “Treyvon,” and Graffiti would re-jigger the hierarchy of the metadata tags on the story accordingly.

“Stories now have a head and a tail, and the tail is becoming more important than the head,” Giblin says. “Can you read 1,000 comments and 10,000 tweets? No. But my software does, and it gives context to those comments.”

Giblin acknowledges that there are a lot of companies doing so called sentiment analysis of social media content. “VCs like to tell me, ‘You’re in a very crowded space,’” he says. “But they don’t realize that what we really do is provide this extra step… The core of our proprietary technology is that we take that information and deliver it as better SEO, by inserting new metadata in the content. We can update an article’s keywords a hundred times a day.”

In any case, Giblin says he doesn’t think Graffiti is ready for venture capital just yet.

He’s applied to be enrolled in San Diego’s new downtown EvoNexus, a venture incubator backed by CommNexus, the local nonprofit telecommunications group, and he’s looking for some startup capital from angel investors.

He says he also recognizes the importance of securing some customers, and Giblin says he’s made some inroads in that area. The company’s first client for Graffiti is the former San Diego Union-Tribune, now known as The San Diego U-T, which is expected to bring the system online in the next few weeks. “They are moving outside the box as quickly as they can down there,” Giblin says.

He’s now focused on expanding the customer base for Graffiti, and then perhaps developing some other opportunities. “The next evolution of Graffiti will be to take the same product and orient it for advertising,” Giblin adds. “The commentary should really help drive the advertising.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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  • http://twitter.com/tom_semantic Tom Marsh

    Great explanation and article on 451′s value prop vs other sentiment analysis applications.  We’ve known Patrick and his team for awhile and they are going to carve out a big part of this market once they get fully commercial with the platform.  Good to see his story picked up.