A meme (rhymes with theme) according to Wikipedia, is a “unit of cultural information” such as “…tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” As used in the Web 2.0 world it seems to have come to mean “hot topic” or “the next big thing”. A lot of people have a need to know the day’s newest and hottest memes and a number of Web sites attempt to track just that. The first was probably Gabe Rivera’s news and politics site memeorandum.com which uses an algorithm to pick the top stories from a combination of traditional news sites and blogs. Memeorandum developed quite a following and eventually spun off sister sites Techmeme, WeSmirch (gossip) and BallBug (baseball) and a small army of competitors.
The meme tracker is spreading to the mobile web. Here’s a roundup of current mobile meme trackers.
Mini-Techmeme (techmeme.com/mini) strives to find and link to the most relevant and authoritative versions of the top technology news, primarily from well known bloggers. Mini-Techmeme is the mobile optimized version of Techmeme. The stories that Mini-Techmeme links too are NOT mobilized. This works OK if you are using a full-web browser like Opera, Netfront or PIE and have an unlimited data plan. If the the large pages are a problem for your browser or your wallet you can always visit Techmeme via Skweezer or the Google Transcoder. Techmeme’s sister sites, Memeorandum on politics, WeSmirch for entertainment gossip and Ballbug for Major league Baseball all have their own mini sites at memeorandum.com/mini, wesmirch.com/mini and ballbug.com/mini
Tailrank (m.tailrank.com) is similar to Techmeme – they both track the web for the hottest and best stories. Their mobile editions work similarly too; a mobile friendly front page with links directly to non-mobile blog posts. Clearly the target is Smartphone and Opera Mini users rather than the great unwashed using the embedded browsers on their feature phones. The only real design difference I see between Mini-Techmeme and Tailrank is that Tailrank has a single site with sections for Breaking News, Politics, Tech and Entertainment while Techmeme is all tech with separate sites for politics, entertainment gossip and baseball.
Topix (topix.net) describes itself as “News on 360,000 topics, from Autos to your ZIP code..” It’s a meme tracker that you can customize. Besides the ability to pick a topic from a huge list, Topix will also give you headlines based on a search query. So if you want to follow news about the mobile web, you enter “mobile web” in the search box and you have you own customized book-markable news tracker that will always show show you the latest news containing the string “mobile web”. There are also featured tracks on the Topix home page for Top Stories, Local News (by zip code), World, Business, Entertainment, Gadgets, Autos, Health, Games, Tech, Music, Opinion, Sports, NBA, MLB, NFL, Blogs and Offbeat. Every page and search result on Topix can be rendered in a mobile version. There are no mobile specific urls for the mobile pages, Topix relies on browser detection to serve the appropriate version. I found the detection hit or miss, most Nokias, Blackberries and Treos are recognized as mobiles but some popular phones like the Motorola E710 and Samsung A900 are not. Opera Mini also gets the full page but handles it very well. Unlike Topix and Mini-Techmeme, not only is the list of tracked links mobilized but clicking a link usually leads to a mobile friendly version of the original web page. Topix links to the mobile version of the original site and if there is no mobile version, Topix creates one using their own transcoder which strips out everything but text. This process is inconsistent as some links lead to full-sized web pages particullarly in Topix’ Tech and Gadgets sections.
I like the meme tracker concept and think mobile is a good platform breaking news of all types including meme trackers. Which mobile meme tracker is best? The answer depends on both your browser and the types of sites you like to read. The algorithms the sites use for choosing what to include are different and the results are too. Techmeme seems to favor blog content while Tailrank and Topix pull a higher percentage of stories from mainstream sites like zdnet and the New York Times. Topix adds an occasional press release to the mix as well.
From the standpoint of mobile usability, I prefer Topix’ approach of reformatting linked content as needed because it’s usable on all mobile browsers, not just the full-web ones which account for no more than 15% of total mobile web traffic. But when I’m actually using a full-web browser, specifically Opera Mini, I’d rather have the Opera proxy do the reformatting rather than a transcoder because Opera retains the images and the results are more attractive. Sites like these really ought to have a PC page with the sort of fluid layout designed with document order in mind that I wrote about recently. It’s possible to create a simple layout like a meme tracker, which is really just a list of links, that will work well with both PC and mobile full web-browsers. Then there should be a a separate pure mobile page using transcoding or links to mobile sites. Using browser detection to send traffic to the two versions based on browser capabilities is good but it should always be possible for the user to override the detection if it doesn’t deliver the version that works best.
I’ve added Topix and Tailrank and Memeorandum to yeswap.com in a new News/Meme Trackers section. Techmeme is filed under Technology/Tech News , WeSmirch in Entertainment/News and BallBug is in Sports.