Next up in my series of RailsConf speaker interviews is Michael Bleigh, who is Creative Director and Open-Source Activist at Intridea in Washington D.C.

Michael will be presenting Twitter on Rails at RailsConf this year, highlighting a small but growing trend of applications using Twitter as a communication platform.

You work on and you’re giving a talk on Twitter apps at RailsConf. Micro-update services is obviously a topic that has you excited. Why is that?

I wasn’t a super-early adopter of Twitter; I honestly think it’s
something that takes some time to “get.” Then one day I woke up and
realized that without even trying I was getting all kinds of news and
information that I might not even have heard otherwise. The beauty of
Twitter (and for teams and organizations) is that it’s a
fast, passive medium: you don’t have to make an effort to keep up to
date, it just sort of happens. It works with two-way communication,
too; on our team if I have a quick syntax or sanity check question
about my code, I post it up on and get five responses
within three minutes. Micro-updates excite me because I feel like I’m
getting smarter just by glancing at growl notifications for a few
seconds every couple of minutes while I’m working. It’s effortless.

What are the coolest Twitter applications you’ve seen?

It’s hard to pick out just a few; from a client perspective I’ve been
using EventBox lately. It’s integrated
Twitter search feeds are really useful for keeping an eye on all of
Intridea’s brands (as well as my plugins and open-source projects).
While I don’t think anyone has nailed it perfectly yet, aggregators
like TweetMeme are interesting in their
attempts to bubble up content from the noise. Honestly, I don’t think
there are just a couple cool apps; I think that Twitter’s true
strength is this really energetic ecosystem around creating cool stuff
with the API. That’s what my talk is all about: lowering the barriers
to people making cool stuff with Twitter. With the hundreds of apps
currently available I still think we’ve only scratched the surface of
the utility that Twitter-based applications can provide.

What does it mean to be “Open Source Activist” for a company? Should other companies fill this role?

As the “Open Source Activist” I’m basically just trying to push people
to package up what they’re doing and share it with the community,
whether it’s through a Ruby gem, a plugin, or just a blog post. My
colleagues are making cool stuff all of the time, and sharing that
cool stuff with the community is absolutely beneficial for the
company, the individual, and everyone who finds it useful. We’ve had
clients come to us and when they’re vetting our work it’ll be “Oh
yeah, I’ve used that plugin! You guys wrote that?”

I think that every company needs someone who is pushing for that
community involvement. Pushing for us to blog more often and release
more open source doesn’t just yield intangible reputation benefits:
I’ve learned really cool techniques from other people at Intridea that
they used for a project on which I’m not currently working. I’m always
excited to foster that kind of sharing environment because the rewards
are just great. I could go on for hours and I strongly encourage that
every company working with Ruby or Rails try to release at least a few
open-source libraries and write some blog posts to share your
knowledge and expertise with the world at large.

We really believe in putting our money where our mouth is on the
open-source front. When we wrote mobile applications for on
five different platforms it was a no-brainer to me to release them
all as open-source
. Open source, open
APIs and open communication foster innovation in amazing ways, and
anything I can do to make that happen more often I will.

Why is Twitter Search special and/or interesting?

Twitter Search is special because it’s intrinsically a different beast
than Google and other search engines. It’s not indexing information,
it’s indexing conversation, and it does it in real time. If I’m
trying to find information about something that happened in the last
24 hours (like who was that old woman on Lost?), I don’t use Google
anymore; I turn to Twitter because it will have up-to-the-second
information that just isn’t available anywhere else. Obviously it
doesn’t replace the usefulness of other search engines, but it opens
up whole new channels of information discovery. Honestly search and
Twitter are such a natural and amazing fit that it’s surprising that
it took a third party (Summize) to come along and realize that
potential. I really look forward to where they (and third parties) are
going to take the technology in the next year or two.

As I understand it, Intridea started as a consulting group but has quickly developed a set of products that have gotten some positive press. How do you balance consulting and product development? Do they support and feed off of each other?

The balance actually works really well. We have a few people full time
on products and then we rotate in services people either part-time or
full-time depending on our client engagements at the time. I think
it’s been great for both sides of the company to have both services
and products: we can try really bleeding edge and experimental things
on the products and then bring that knowledge to the client work we
do. Likewise, everyone at Intridea on the services side has an almost
inhuman work ethic and an ability to juggle several projects at once
so when they come on to the products they can pick it up fast and get
things done. Consulting has also allowed us to try a number of
products without ever having to accept outside funding.

A number of our products also grew out of needs that clients would
have again and again. For instance Scalr is a great
piece of software (don’t ask me about how it works, it’s over my
head!) that gives us the ability to provide amazing scalable cloud
hosting to our clients. MediaPlug
similarly provides an easy infrastructure that saves our clients time
and money. We scratch our own itches with our products and that
usually means that there are benefits for the consulting side of our
business with every product we make. I’m honored and privileged to
work with so many brilliant people and be allowed to pursue so many
amazing ideas.