20 August 2011

ifttt: automation for the social and the personal web

A couple of weeks ago I had a small problem with Twitterfeed; one of the actions I had setup was to post new book reviews to my secondary account. It turns out Twitterfeed sent the wrong links in the tweets: instead of the link to the article, Twitterfeed picked up a link to the comment form. I am in no position to troubleshoot such issues, so I went looking for another app that could do the job. I didn’t want to use for such a simple task; I tentatively went with Hootsuite, although I generally dislike it. But later I discovered a small web-app that does the job easily and has a lot of potential in other areas as well: ifttt. The unusual name (an abbreviation for “if this then that”) sounded vaguely familiar; soon I remembered that Louis Gray covered the app back in February.

The basic idea of the service is pretty simple: ifttt monitors a series of events defined by you – the “triggers” – and based on a set of rules – the “tasks” – performs some specific “action”. Or as they put it on the About-page: ifttt puts the internet to work for you. The app supports a variety of “channels”, basically other web apps or information sources that provide triggers for the tasks or can respond with simple actions. The current selection is pretty large, ranging from social sites like Twitter and LinkedIn, and , Services (Gmail, Calendar, Reader, Google Talk), blogging platforms like WordPress and tumblr, photo-sharing sites, up to more distributed services like RSS, email and SMS, currently totaling 35 channels. Setting up a new task is straightforward and user-friendly process built around a clear workflow with well defined steps: choose a channel, then a trigger and finally the action to perform with the corresponding options.

ifttt dashboardDespite it’s simplicity, ifttt can become a powerful tool for automation and notifications because of the tight integration with the services and the large number of possible combinations. Depending on the needs – and the creativity – of the users, it can accommodate a lot of use cases, for example:

  • Consolidating social sharing across multiple networks. It’s probably the most obvious use case for casual users and in this role it can easily automate a lot of actions. Don’t think strictly about the classic case of updating Facebook from Twitter (and vice versa - actually ifttt works much better than the solution presented there: it posts the original link to Twitter instead of linking to your Facebook post and doesn't care if you restrict the link to friends only); ifttt can do a lot more, especially with photos: you can publish photos from Instagram to Facebook, upload them on Flickr and, as of this week, post them natively on Twitter. Or you can restrict the cross-publishing to links, which can makes more sense if you have different communities in each network, who won’t be interested in casual status updates. The thing I love the most: ifttt can monitor likes from and use them as triggers! It’s the only app I have seen so far that harnesses this particular social action and a very strong reason to use ifttt in itself. I have set up a task to publish the articles I like in Google Reader as links on Facebook and it works beautifully.
  • Publishing blog articles across social networks: here also ifttt can replace a number of dedicated apps, especially for Facebook publishing. It’s better than Hootsuite and Twitterfeed because it uses the native Facebook embed instead of posting a shortened link inside a status update. If you don’t need the advanced features in FeedBurner (statistics, subscription by mail, etc.), you could also replace it with ifttt for Twitter publishing. A word of caution here: ifttt doesn’t check the length of the post, so the link could get truncated on Twitter if the title and description are too long and placed before it. Make sure you set up the action field in such a way that the link is towards the beginning of the text; this way if the message exceeds the 140 characters it will truncate less important parts.
  • Aggregating links or photos or videos (or all of the above) from a variety of sources on you blog, since ifttt can post automatically to WordPress, tumblr or Posterous. A sort of automated life-streaming, if you’re into that. Or you can archive those links in Evernote or Read It Later, as both are supported by ifttt.
  • And on the personal side, you can set up notifications for weather changes (currently only temperature and, in the US, pollen count!), stocks or emails, all delivered per SMS for example, to receive important information even if you are away from computer or Internet access in general.

Being invite only (for now), ifttt still has a couple of limitations that will hopefully be lifted or relaxed soon. The polling period for tasks is 15 minutes, so no real-time unfortunately. In my experience the actions are executed a lot quicker than this, so completely acceptable for casual users. I would also like to see support for multiple Twitter accounts and for multiple actions per task; it would be easier to create a single task for distributing blog posts to several networks instead of individual tasks for each end-point. A harsher limitation is that you can only have 10 task enabled simultaneously. It could simply be a scaling issue, preventing users from straining the servers in this initial phase; or maybe unlimited tasks will be reserved for some kind of premium accounts after the official launch. Again, this will probably be an issue only for power / professional users – I’m using only three tasks right now. Other than this, ifttt is a simple app with a nice interface that just works and I’m sure we will see more interesting developments from the team soon.

Update: If you want to get a better idea of the various ways people use ifttt, they just launched a dedicated page for “Recipes”, a set of templates you can use to create tasks.

1 comment:

  1. There are already several automated applications nowadays that are being used and in beta mode. Still they are being tested but not yet fully functional.