And if you ask me, this is a big deal.
ThinkUp, the free, open-source brainchild of programmer and Lifehacker founder Gina Trapani, keeps track of what you've done online. It extracts the data from the walled gardens that house more and more of people's digital lives then replants it in your own garden.
The app isn't simple to install, unfortunately. You need some server administration skills so you can host ThinkUp on your own Web server or run it on an instance of Amazon's EC2 cloud-computing service. (More on that point later.)
But once it's running, it retrieves an important part of what you do online that can otherwise be hard to find.
"In ThinkUp, I can find the message where I announced my son's birth. On Twitter or Facebook, I can't," said Anil Dash, an entrepreneur and founding director of Expert Labs, in a blog post announcing ThinkUp 1.0.
Adds Trapani's ThinkUp announcement, "If you've tweeted more than 3,200 times, you can't page back to your earliest tweets on Twitter."
Most folks probably aren't craving this sort of data. But I see it as important.
It's like having access to your e-mail. How would you feel if, when searching your Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, or Gmail archive, the service only showed you messages from the most recent year? I'd feel like some of my own data was being withheld against my wishes.
ThinkUp actually makes its own copy of your social-network activity and--if you tell it to--posts it publicly online. If you go that route, search engines discover your comments and point them out to others. You also can choose to keep your posts private, naturally, and it's adjustable by service so you can publicly show your tweets but not your Facebook posts, for example.
Personally, the Web addresses are one of my favorite features. I live and breathe the Web, and information that's hard to find through search engines is as impermanent as something you read in the newspaper. Every now and then you might clip something out, but chances are it's headed to the recycle bin and it'll be up to your gray matter to remember it.
Indeed, I used to work at a newspaper, and when I moved to CNET for the then-novel idea of online publishing, I was worried about the ephemeral nature of the Internet. As long as you have a search engine and an archive, though, I soon discovered that history is much better preserved online than in print. ThinkUp gives you this search engine for your own comments.
But not just your own. The software also keeps track of conversations--your friends' and contacts' replies to what you said. To see this in action, check the White House's ThinkUp Twitter page. Each tweet has links that show who replied to it or retweeted it.
Importantly, when ThinkUp republishes your Facebook, Google+, and Twitter posts, the ThinkUp posts link back to the original posts. This isn't an attempt to hijack the social networks and to make them subordinate to ThinkUp. Instead, ThinkUp augments what the sites can do, making your own data more discoverable.
There are lots of analytics tools, too. (In fact, the software in its early days was called Twitalytic. You can find your popular posts, gauge how widely a particular tweet was retweeted, and sort your followers by categories such as chatterboxes and deadbeats.
For those who want the ultimate control, ThinkUp lets you export data from its own database--for example a spreadsheet of everything you've ever said on Twitter. And here's a nice example of a republished Twitter conversation that was created with ThinkUp.
The software publishes different facets of your online activity--the number of followers you have, your most replied-to or retweeted posts, the most liked Facebook posts. It would be nice if there were a more unified dashboard, rather than separate ones for Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, though.
Most of these features will appeal to power users, not the average person who just wants to hear what her college roommates or his fantasy football pals are up to. The installation alone will keep the vast majority of people away. But the core ThinkUp feature, as I see it, isn't just for the hardcore social network users. It has broader appeal: your own archive of what you said.
You might not care if your Facebook output vanishes because of some server failure or because some new startup puts Mark Zuckerberg out of business. But if you do, ThinkUp is a good way to keep a copy. Sure, you can download your Facebook information, but ThinkUp is constantly updated, and as an added bonus, it presents a nice online version of your activity.
As Dash points out, many online services have proven to have a finite life span.
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.
Unfortunately, to let ThinkUp unlock your data, you first have to unlock ThinkUp's potential through a potentially difficult installation.
Using the EC2 ThinkUp launcher--including signing up for Amazon Web Services for the first time--I spent well over an hour trying to set up the software. I had plenty of problems, some of them due to discrepancies between EC2's current interface and Trapani's EC2 instructions--for example, trying to create a custom "web" security group for my EC2 server instance. The automated EC2 installer is a step in the right direction, but still requires you to type in settings manually. It would be a lot better if you didn't have to copy and paste the database host, database name, username, and password information from one Web page and paste it into the form on the next page.
ThinkUp cries out for a service that takes the pain out of using it. But guess what--then whoever operates that service would be the one in control of your data.
But this is just version 1.0. ThinkUp 2.0 is on the way. Perhaps with a more polished installation process ThinkUp will live up to its promise.