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July 14, 2006

Hot or not CAPTCHA

Follow-up to CAPTCHAs from Autology: John Dale's blog

A while ago I wrote about CAPTCHAs – tests designed to prove that you're a human being, not a script running on a computer whose purpose is to flood your blog with comments advertising sundry undesirable wares.

I've just found a new one: Hot or Not CAPTCHA and it's astonishing: you're shown nine pictures of people (of the gender of your choice) and picking out the three, er, hot ones proves that you're human, not a computer. It's a mashup of the web site Am I hot or not?; it works by picking nine pictures from that site, six of which have been scored low and three of which have been scored high. You might think that there would be room for interpretation, that your choices might differ from the aggregate, but in my limited testing of it, I picked the intended three five times out of five. I'd be interested to hear if anyone (genuinely) fails the test by failing to identify the intended three.

August 05, 2005

Lists, lyrics and quizzes

So we've recently done some interviews with blog users, and one of the mildly interesting things that came out of the interviews is that most readers of blogs don't much care for blog entries which are online quiz answers ("What sort of helicopter are you?"), entries which are lists of (short) answers to questions, or entries which simply cite the lyric of a song without any further commentary or analysis. From our admittedly small sample size, it seems that most readers just blank these types of entries, scrolling right past them without looking at them at all, or just glancing very quickly over them.

This raises two questions:-

  1. Why don't people like reading these types of entry?
  2. Given that people don't like reading them, why do people write them? (and even some of the people who don't like reading other peoples' concede that they have published similar things themselves!)

The answer to the first question, I think is relatively easy; entries of this sort have certain attributes that make them less likely to be read:-

  • They aren't very discursive; there's no narrative thread to them that encourages the reader to move from the first sentence to the second, and so on. They're too disjointed to be readable.
  • They look repetitive, even if they aren't. The first time you see a quiz result, or somebody's favourite five songs, or whatever, it can be interesting or novel. But the next one is less novel, and the fifth or tenth one seems almost annoyingly repetitive - and interestingly this is true even if the content is genuinely original. Your list of your favourite five songs might contain wit and wisdom and insight, but if you're the tenth person who's done this, nobody will read your wisdom because their mental model of your entry will (wrongly) be that it's the same as all the others.
  • They're generally not hugely revealing. Quiz entries are particularly bad for this. Nobody reads them because knowing that you're a Westland rather than a Sigorsky helicopter (say) is pretty much meaningless. Maybe this isn't quite so true if you know the person who's writing well and can appreciate why it's true or untrue – but most readers don't know the author well. (Of course, the author might be writing for a handful of friends and be indifferent to the fact that it's uninteresting to everyone else. Nothing wrong with that.)
  • They're intellectually lazy. This might sound critical, but in fact I don't mean it to be; I'm not somebody who sees laziness as a fault. :-) But the feedback from our interviewees suggests that one of the criteria for interestingness is that some sort of intellectual effort has gone into the writing, and readers quickly learn that one of the reasons that quizzes, lyrics and lists are attractive to the writer is because they take less effort than creating something entirely from scratch – and thus, are less likely to be interesting and more likely to be skipped over.

So if these are all plausible reasons, then why do people write entries in these styles? Well, one of the reasons, obviously, is the same as the last reason cited above; it's easier to fill in a quiz or cut-and-paste a lyric or answer a dozen questions than it is to create something from scratch. It's attractive too, to feel as though you're participating in a group activity. If lots of other people are doing it, then if I do it I'll be part of the scene. And answering lists of questions has the added advantage that it gives the appearance of creativity and revelation whilst being quick and easy to do.

So what can we conclude? Not a great deal, really, except the passing observation that entries in this style are easy to write but largely ignored. That raises the interesting question of whether authors do any kind of effort-readership calculation when they're deciding what to write about; if you care about entertaining or informing your readers, then these entries are probably not a good bet. But I don't believe that this is always (or even mostly) the case; I think quite a lot of entries are published because publishing them is satisfying, not because the author wants to enthrall his or her readers. And there's nothing wrong with that. But one day we might introduce a "Quizilla filter" which removes any quiz results from the list of entries you're reading, and the evidence we have suggests that this would be hugely popular. :-)

July 11, 2005


We've been looking into various anti comment-spam measures recently. Kieran has done good work implementing support for the Movable Type blacklist system, which means that we can now block much more comment spam than we used to. However, it's still not perfect; it's in the nature of these things that new variants of spam inevitably arrive slightly ahead of new updates to the blacklist file, so (as we've already seen) spam still slips through from time to time.

One other approach that's sometimes used to try and prevent spam is the Captcha, a graphic which shows some distorted letters and asks the user to type in the letters that they see; if the typed letters don't match the text in the image, then the comment is rejected. The theory is that since most spam is sent by computers running scripts, they won't be able to pass the captcha test, so they won't be able to post spam. At the same time as Kieran was looking at better blacklisting, I was looking into captchas. Here's what I learned:-

  1. I presumed "captcha" was just a catchy name for something that attempts to capture whether you're a human being or a script, but not so; it stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Catchy. It's a trademark, too.

  2. One problem with captchas is that they are not in fact impossible for computers to solve. Various people have done work to demonstrate that captchas can be OCR'ed with very high success rates, though the success varies with the type of captcha. These people for example claim to be able to break the Yahoo captcha 92% of the time. Here's a list of common captchas with an assessment of their solvability.

  3. In general, making captchas harder for computers to solve also means making them harder to humans to read. Some people have done interesting work to make captchas which humans can read but computers would find difficult; here's an example of 3D lettering which (the authors believe) is human but not computer readable.

  4. Other people have come up with captcha variants which are not based around letters or numbers. Here's a captcha which draws shapes on a noisy background, here's one which asks you to click at the cente of distortion on a picture, and here's one which asks you to click on a shape which doesn't belong on its background.

  5. There's no strong evidence to suggest that spammers are actually using AI to solve captchas; it may in fact be cheaper just to use people to do the job; a human being can easily solve a hundred captchas an hour with a very high success rate.

  6. Cory Doctorow wrote about the whimsical idea that if you want a human to solve a captcha for you, you could do so by the ingenious approach of inviting people to come to your web site and offering them something they wanted – free porn or MP3s, say – and then protecting the content with a captcha which is in fact protecting some other site that you want access to. The visitor to your web site solves the captcha to get the porn, then you use the captcha to get whatever resource you wanted. It's ingenious, but again, there isn't any evidence to suggest that it's actually going on.

  7. Apart from being solvable in principle, if not in practice, the other big problem with captchas is that they aren't accessible. It's part of their design that they use tricky colour combinations, busy backgrounds, strange fonts and distorted lettering, so they are at best hard to read; if you're even slightly visually impaired, they quickly become unworkable for you. And since they're images, not text, you can't resize them or change their colour scheme.

  8. For that reason, some people have experimented with alternative means to protect their comment forms or sign-up forms or whatever. One clever chap has used Flash to make something which looks just like a comment form, but is in fact a little Flash applet which when you click on part of it submits the form together with a key which is buried inside the SWF file. The spambot has no idea that clicking on a special part of the Flash applet is how you submit this particular form, so wanders away disappointed.

  9. But my favourite, and in some ways most trivial variant on the captcha is one which is completely accessible and works like this; add one extra field to your comment box, and have a label next to it with a question such as "What is my name?" or "What colour is a banana?" or "What bird rhymes with carrot?". It's accessible, because the text can be resized, read out loud, etc. but it's hard for a bot to defeat because it isn't algorithmically solvable. Lots of people seem to have had this idea, but Eric Meyer's GateKeeper implementation is one that's often cited.

This last idea, it seems to me, is particularly well-suited to us because we could let everyone define their own question and answer, and make them as hard or as easy as they like. One special case of the Q&A system would be simply "Enter the password" with no clue as to what the password is; that way only people that you've actually told the password to can comment. And of course if bots start building up databases of common questions and answers, you can just change yours to something new.

If we can't beat spam by blacklisting, I like the QA idea.

Update 10th August: I'm tickled by this idea for asking users to enter large random numbers to help calculate pi. Nice blog design, too.

May 31, 2005

What do people search Google for?

Follow-up to What do people search for? from Autology: John Dale's blog

An interesting additional set of search stats come from Google. and other search engines outside of Warwick. What we can determine here is the number of times that WB pages were requested by someone who did a Google search and got a WB page in their results set.

This data is slightly different from my previous post, because for searches done within WB, it's safe to infer that people really are looking for a particular post within WB, whereas with Google searches, the user probably doesn't care whether the result is WB or somewhere else, it just turns out that WB has some content that they think might be what they're looking for.

May 2005

  • 3,148 imogen heap hide and seek lyrics
  • 1,467 imogen heap hide and seek
  • 850 msn screen names
  • 772 hide and seek lyrics imogen heap
  • 758 bt efnet
  • 598 graffiti generator
  • 590 hide and seek imogen heap lyrics
  • 503 charity wristbands
  • 476 hide and seek imogen heap
  • 475 warwick blogs
  • 425 big cook
  • 413 imogen heap lyrics hide and seek
  • 412 stupidvideos
  • 374 msn names
  • 354 barry chuckle
  • 342 lyrics to hide and seek by imogen heap
  • 329 west wing series 6
  • 327 cilit bang
  • 321 sweety the chick lyrics
  • 300 bathroom renovation
  • 299 hide and seek lyrics imogen
  • 281 citation machine
  • 257 lyrics imogen heap hide and seek
  • 255 hide and seek by imogen heap
  • 247 student survivor
  • 243 sweety the chick
  • 239 melanie harvey
  • 229 800b0001
  • 226 kitten cannon
  • 224 lyrics hide and seek imogen heap

April 2005

  • 875 warwick blogs
  • 689 stupidvideos
  • 481 citation machine
  • 460 sweety the chick
  • 440 sweety the chick lyrics
  • 383 graffiti generator
  • 373 800b0001
  • 358 msn names
  • 340 big cook
  • 323 big cook little cook
  • 312 msn screen names
  • 266 point and click games
  • 258 bathroom renovation
  • 247 funny gifs
  • 232 threesomes
  • 202 lol meaning
  • 196 sony erricsson
  • 193 kung fu hustle torrent
  • 187 poker statistics
  • 176 charity wristbands
  • 174 warwick blog
  • 171 bring your own bombs
  • 166 devvo
  • 147 cebeebies
  • 144 west wing series 5
  • 135 depressing msn names
  • 133 computer says no
  • 131 west wing series 6
  • 125 laptop pictures
  • 123 umd discs

What do people search for?

I’ve previously posted about who posts the most and who comments the most. But another interesting set of statistics relates to what people search for when they visit WB. There’s a search box on the home page on the left-hand side, and every blog also has a search box in its left-hand column. What do people type into these search boxes? Here’s the list for this month and last month. Determined readers with good memories can probably figure out why some terms appear in April but not May, and easily shocked readers will no doubt be shocked that there’s a steady stream of visitors every month hoping for the salacious scoop on students’ sex lives.

As always, if your appearance on this list bothers you then drop me a note and I’ll remove you.

May, 2005

There were 17,861 searches for 7,909 words or phrases.

Top 50 searches
  • 137 for honk
  • 85 for ben keates
  • 71 for widge
  • 60 for the fix
  • 54 for boar
  • 47 for halloo
  • 46 for adam taylor
  • 45 for prosser
  • 45 for tom prosser
  • 44 for john cross
  • 43 for helen ryan
  • 40 for laura poyner
  • 40 for redditch
  • 38 for sex
  • 37 for gems place
  • 37 for wsaf
  • 36 for arts centre
  • 34 for real
  • 33 for chelsea reay
  • 32 for k2
  • 32 for replica x
  • 31 for chris knowles
  • 31 for lapworth
  • 30 for chris carter
  • 30 for dc
  • 30 for keates
  • 28 for chris hinds
  • 28 for eleanor o donnell
  • 26 for [blank query]
  • 26 for adrienne
  • 26 for sam hates
  • 25 for hollyzone
  • 25 for library
  • 24 for karl niklas
  • 24 for sweety the chick
  • 23 for adam lyon
  • 23 for cherie wang
  • 23 for elizabeth jenner
  • 22 for film subtitle translation
  • 22 for final fling
  • 22 for laura powell
  • 22 for lucy young
  • 22 for mtw
  • 22 for then she said
  • 21 for alexandra
  • 21 for gethin jones
  • 21 for maths
  • 21 for miss julie

April 2005

There were 15,062 searches for 6,651 words or phrases.

Top 50 searches
  • 72 for ben keates
  • 64 for chris carter
  • 58 for honk
  • 54 for rugby
  • 54 for sex
  • 53 for tom prosser
  • 51 for the fix
  • 48 for gems place
  • 42 for chelsea reay
  • 42 for titanic
  • 40 for carter
  • 39 for john cross
  • 36 for adam taylor
  • 36 for ranger
  • 33 for cherie wang
  • 33 for thargreaves
  • 32 for alexandra
  • 31 for netball
  • 29 for adam lyon
  • 29 for dc
  • 29 for mike neary
  • 29 for real
  • 28 for sweety the chick
  • 27 for sam hates
  • 26 for widge
  • 25 for economics
  • 25 for karl niklas
  • 24 for boar
  • 24 for elizabeth jenner
  • 24 for prospectus
  • 24 for sociology
  • 24 for soul nation
  • 22 for oh dear
  • 22 for racing frogs
  • 21 for exam timetable
  • 21 for helen ryan
  • 21 for lorna griffiths
  • 21 for replica x
  • 21 for wsaf
  • 20 for anna davies
  • 20 for inter yamam
  • 20 for pippa s blog
  • 19 for [blank query]
  • 19 for final fling
  • 18 for law
  • 18 for mtw
  • 18 for sam
  • 17 for pope
  • 16 for amy baker
  • 16 for chris

May 10, 2005

Who comments the most?

Follow-up to Who posts the most? from Autology: John Dale's blog

A while ago, I posted a breakdown of who posts the most. Helen asked about a similar breakdown for comments. Let's take a look…

  • Currently about 68,000 comments, of which roughly:-
  • 54,000 are by logged-in users
  • 14,000 are by anonymous users

  • 1,778 staff and students have made one or more comments whilst logged in, of which:-
  • 617 staff/students have made just one comment

The top fifty commenters:-

  • 1910 comments by Daniel Lawrence
  • 1900 comments by Mathew Mannion
  • 1527 comments by Luke Blackwell
  • 1350 comments by Andrew Ingram
  • 1135 comments by Holly Cruise
  • 1081 comments by James Hughes
  • 1045 comments by Samuel Boulby
  • 906 comments by Simon Young
  • 776 comments by Kieran Shaw
  • 742 comments by Adrienne Cooper
  • 739 comments by Helen Ryan
  • 730 comments by Eleanor O'Donnell
  • 705 comments by Nicholas Howes
  • 678 comments by Max Hammond
  • 636 comments by Simon Brent
  • 629 comments by Robert O'Toole
  • 623 comments by Victoria Galloway
  • 574 comments by Jill Atkinson
  • 564 comments by Natalie Barton
  • 547 comments by Luke Parks
  • 521 comments by Paul Mills
  • 512 comments by Steve Rumsby
  • 492 comments by Charles Bourne
  • 442 comments by Christopher Knowles
  • 435 comments by Chris May
  • 434 comments by Claire Bowden
  • 416 comments by Christopher Sigournay
  • 407 comments by Philippa Daykin
  • 402 comments by Steven Carpenter
  • 402 comments by Jessica Booth
  • 399 comments by Paul Cuff
  • 368 comments by Lisa Cooper
  • 366 comments by Sarah Cooper
  • 365 comments by Eimear Ballard
  • 345 comments by Nick Forrington
  • 343 comments by Christopher Hinds
  • 342 comments by Stephen Rose
  • 331 comments by Christopher Carter
  • 326 comments by John Dale
  • 326 comments by Amy Baker
  • 324 comments by Daniel Wilson Craw
  • 323 comments by Casey Leaver
  • 306 comments by Gavin Alexander
  • 303 comments by Richard Lewis
  • 297 comments by Benjamin Heeley
  • 295 comments by Colin Mayhill
  • 288 comments by Ailsa Johnstone
  • 283 comments by Anna Davies
  • 280 comments by Lorna Griffiths

May 06, 2005


One of the goals we had for WB was that it would be a tool (but not the only tool) that could help people who wanted to engage in some kind of personal development activities. Now that blogs have been running for a while, there are some mildly interesting things we can say about its use for PDP:-

  1. The PDP activities which take place within blogs aren't highly visible. It's tempting to assume that if you can't see any PDP posts, then PDP isn't happening, but that argument is flawed, I think: PDP posts by their nature are often restricted to small groups such as Contributors or Me&MyTutor or My Module, or they're marked as "Show just on my blog". In the last four weeks, for example, there have been over fifty posts in the PDP category or a PDP-related category, and over 95% of them have been invisible to most readers. Is that a good number? It's hard to be definitive about that, although my personal view is that it's much better than I would have expected. But at any rate, it's not zero.

  2. There's an interesting question about how broadly you choose to define PDP: a narrow definition might be something like "Reflection about my course or my studies or my career aspirations". But a wide definition might be more like "Helping me understand or come to terms with things which have happened, or helping me work out what to do in the future." Obviously there's lots of room for debate about what kind of definition you favour, but equally, your view of the success of a blogging tool in supporting PDP depends on the definition you find credible.

  3. We've always expected that the use of blogs to support PDP (and learning/research activities) would take much, much longer to emerge than the use of blogs for social or personal publishing. WB has been live for just seven months now, but we're thinking more in terms of several years before we can judge whether or not it's a useful tool for these sorts of activities. Our research and evaluation work starts from the assumption that people are more likely to use blogs socially and personally before they decide to use it for other purposes, and the interviews that we've done so far, and the studies that we've commissioned are also beginning to bear this out.

So the future is, as always, uncertain. But the evidence, I think, supports a cautious degree of optimism.

April 19, 2005

Who posts the most?

One of the stats that we can get out of WB quite easily is a per-person post count. I've never needed it before today, but there was something I wanted to check, so I asked for a report. I find myself astonished by the results. If you can bear the suspense, try looking away from the screen now, before you see the list, and ask yourself who you think you'll see up near the top. Done? Now look back, and see whether you were right. I was nowhere near.

Disclaimers: some people contribute to more than one blog – a work one and a personal one, say – and so what you're seeing here is the total of their posts to both/all of those blogs. And some people write web forms which create blog entries, and in the process of testing their forms, they create dozens of entries, thus appearing high in the rankings for posts which are actually machine-generated.

(If anyone objects to their post count being published, by the way, leave a comment and I can easily remove you from this list.)

  • 430 Robert O'Toole
  • 325 Steve Rumsby
  • 307 Wen Gao
  • 302 Kieran Shaw
  • 260 Mathew Mannion
  • 249 Helen Ryan
  • 223 Charles Bourne
  • 221 Samuel Boulby
  • 218 Adam Taylor
  • 215 John Dale
  • 211 Chris May
  • 196 Michael Arthur
  • 191 Hongfeng Sun
  • 191 Casey Leaver
  • 187 Steven Carpenter
  • 184 She Bevan
  • 182 Hirokazu Itagaki
  • 181 Daniel Lawrence
  • 168 Tom Abbott
  • 166 Christopher Carter
  • 165 Chelon Yau
  • 162 Jill Atkinson
  • 160 Wing-Sum Wong
  • 155 Simon Brent
  • 152 Sophia Parveen
  • 147 Shalinee Singh
  • 145 Richard Winskill
  • 141 Matthew Rogers
  • 139 Christopher Hinds
  • 135 Jessica Booth
  • 130 Lisa Cooper
  • 129 Jonathan Stevens
  • 128 Yo Irie
  • 128 Luke Blackwell
  • 127 Nicholas Wake
  • 127 Max Hammond
  • 124 Holly Cruise
  • 123 Stuart Coles
  • 122 James Hughes
  • 115 Claire Bowden
  • 114 Peng Zou
  • 111 Eimear Ballard
  • 109 Andrew Ingram
  • 109 D Ambrose
  • 109 Gil Reichenstein
  • 106 Timothy Retout
  • 103 Alison Cronick
  • 100 Nathan Millward
  • 94 Hannah Jamieson

March 29, 2005


Writing about web page

Kieran has already written about this event, and I don't have much to add except that I was pleased that the presentation seemed to go well – squeezing something about the why, the how and the what happened into ten minutes was always going to be tough – and for me there were also some really interesting insights into what the Guardian gets out of blogs, as opposed to its "main" web site.

I was also pleased that Hannah's excellent design work, and the whole marketing campaign that she and Karen and Joanna worked so hard at, was very well received. I suspect that we could have auctioned some of our fridge magnets for charity, if we'd had the foresight to take some with us. Tom Coates notes :-

of everyone I've ever seen trying to market and publicise weblogs they seem to have done it best.

and Neil McIntosh said :-

…just perfect, and had echos of the way Apple's iPod is advertised in terms of graphic design and simple messaging, which I think is about the highest complement I can think of for an ad.

Well-deserved praise, I think. (A gallery of all the marketing materials produced for the launch of Warwick Blogs can be found here )

The other thing that the event made me think about is the possibility of trying to get some feedback from some of our users about why they blog, what they get out of it, and what they choose to write about. As I said during the session, we have some users who are highly prolific and many users who write on very personal and emotional topics: it would be great if we could do some video interviews with some of our users, and perhaps get some feedback which we could show people to help illustrate the strengths and uses of the system.

February 24, 2005

Anonymous blogging?

When we were designing Warwick Blogs, we considered the possibility of allowing anonymous blogs, that is, blogs where the name of the author was not revealed. At that time, we decided against it because the possibilities for abuse seemed scary, and we didn't see a huge argument in favour of anonymous writing. Recently, though, a couple of suggestions have been put forward for cases where it might be useful:-

  1. Authors who want to write about something very personal – illness, emotional issues, sexuality and so on – but don't want to be personally identifiable.

  2. Authors who would like to try creative writing – fiction, poetry, etc. – but are self-conscious about their work and fear being criticised or mocked in a way that would be worse and more irrevocable if their actual identity was involved.

Both those seem plausible to me. But of course it remains challenging to decide whether they justify the introduction of anonymous blogs, and if they were to be introduced, how they would be made available. Should anyone who wants to be anonymous be allowed to be? Or should it be a special-case situation where somebody has to decide whether each case seems appropriate (and if so who, and how?)?

And of course, this wouldn't be complete anonymity because there would always be some readers – the people who approved the blog in the first place – who would know who the author really was. You'd have to have that, because you'd need a way to manage abuses of the system.

It's tricky. I'd be interested in feedback on whether there are many users who would value anonymity and for what purposes.

February 07, 2005

Blogs statistics

Some interesting statistics about the usage of Warwick Blogs:-

New blogs requested per month:

  • Sept: 688
  • Oct: 1126
  • Nov: 482
  • Dec: 188
  • Jan: 277

Unique authors per month:

  • Sept: 407
  • Oct: 914
  • Nov: 765
  • Dec: 491
  • Jan: 712

Total number of blogs: 2,755. But…

  • that number is misleading, because 1,075 (40%) of those blogs are empty, so they shouldn't (yet) count for anything.
  • and a further 536 blogs (20%) of the total have just one post in them, so we might want to exclude those blogs from a count of "active" blogs.
  • there are 400 blogs (14%) with 10 or more posts.
  • there are 248 blogs (9%) which have 10 or more posts in them, and which have been updated in the last two weeks.

So the headline figure, 2,755 blogs, is arguably not the one we should take as signifying anything. The more relevant numbers are 400 blogs/bloggers who gain enough value from the process to keep doing it, and 248 active blogs which are frequently updated and have accumulated significant content. Those are obviously smaller numbers, but I'm still impressed by them.

May 25, 2004

Five BlogBuilder improvements

Response to prompt "Five things to improve BlogBuilder" (View all responses or all Autology: John Dale's blog responses)

My suggestions:-

  1. Go back to the old "showall" model where you see all of each entry. I agree with Chris ; seeing just the first few characters achieves nothing except being irritating.
  2. Add an option to expand the "showall" page so that each entry is shown with its comments (if any) as well, so there's no need to open a pop-up for each entry.
  3. Fix the "two spaces after a hyperlink" bug.
  4. Make it possible (and easy!) to upload and include an image within a post.
  5. Where there are comments to a post, divide them up more clearly. Change the comments icon at the bottom of a post to stand out more if the number of comments is > 0.
  6. (I'm over the limit now, but I don't care!) Take out all those insanely annoying "Operation succeeded, redirecting you" intermediate screens. Human beings don't say to each other "I have heard what you've just said and am contemplating my reply"; nor should our software!

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