The old saying goes that when you have a hammer all your problems look like nails. I first heard this saying quite late in my life, during a university lecture with one of my more inspired professors. He used it after describing one of his former classes who, enamoured with the latest and greatest chip from Motorola, sought to use it to solve every assignment they were given no matter how much shoehorning it took. The example is counter to all the proper engineering principles you should be taught in university as you should first gather requirements to solve your problem and then find a solution, never the other way around. This also implies a level of critical thinking when tackling any problem rather than rushing in head first in an attempt to solve the problem.
In my career however the opposite has proven to be true more often than it should be. Working on the supply side of the equation whenever a customer came to me with a problem I could do nothing but suggest our product as a solution, lest I gain the ire of my supervisors. Jumping the fence to the other side (where I’ve spent the vast majority of my career) many “skilled” system administrators have one technology they know well and will never stray from that path. Depending on how much sway they have with the decision makers you can end up in quite the mess when all your problems are only half solved by an inappropriate product. Just ask anyone who’s tried to implement SAP or maintain Lotus Notes.
The same can be said for social networking tools. The serivce of choice today is Facebook whether you like it or not as they have the most users and therefore has the highest potential usefulness out of any the applications out there. For many people then Facebook is the medium with with they will communicate with the outside world and those be damned who don’t check their feed regularly to keep up to date with them. In essence Facebook has become their hammer to all their online problems and whilst it does a good job at solving quite a few problems it’s not the be all and end all of social based tools.
As of right now I’d consider myself an active user of at least 4 (well 5 if you include this blog) different social tools that all serve very different purposes. The first is of course Facebook which I use primarily for things that concern my direct social circle. Sharing pictures, video and anything else with friends and family is so much easier when I can just tell them to look at my wall rather than trying to explain how to view them elsewhere (even the gallery on this blog was far too confusing for many of my family). The second is Twitter which I find perfect for putting out those short updates that used to constitute my Facebook status updates. The difference is that anything I put on Twitter I want to be public whereas Facebook status updates aren’t usuallyfor general viewing. Of course I have the two interlinked but that’s purely for convenience sake, since not all of my friends have a Twitter account, nor do the majority that do actually use it.
The last two are Foursquare and YouTube. Now neither of these tools have a good chunk of my social circle in them but they both still solve a particular problem, even if it isn’t that big of a deal. Foursquare was (and still is really) a curiosity, something I got into after hearing gobs about about it and wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. Realistically all I was doing with it was appeasing my inner hipster that craves to be in on something before it gets cool and my use of Foursquare reflects that. YouTube on the other hand is something that I’ve come to appreciate after diving into the community a little more and getting a feel for the whole thing operates. In the future I’ll be using it to chronicle my various adventures overseas and product demos for my up and coming products, something it appears to be aptly suited for.
Every one of these tools I’ve described has some overlap with each other but for the most part none of the overlap is their core focus. Facebook could quite easily replace YouTube as a platform for disseminating videos amongst the wider public but it just not as good as YouTube. I could use Twitter to distribute pictures to my friends (and I do from time to time) but without Facebook integration most of them would go completely unnoticed. Each of these tools has a very specific purpose in mind and that’s why I’ll continue to use most of them.
This idea that a specific tool designed to solve a certain problem is what drove me to create Geon in the first place. Being able to go to a location and find out what’s going on there whether by viewing the information available or asking someone in the area isn’t solved by any of the currently available tools. Sure there are similar products (and one that if you didn’t know any better would swear was in fact Geon built by someone else) but they all go about it in a way that I don’t believe actually addresses the issue. Thus I have resigned myself to build the hammer to hit this particular nail, and in that hopefully build something of worth for everyone else.
Does this mean I think everyone should be using a raft of different services to do everything? Hell no. For the most part tools that accomplish several things work quite well for those who don’t have the time nor want to use other more appropriate for the task at hand. Thankfully this usually means that they just use Facebook which has done a good job of levelling out the learning curve on new features. Still for those of us who have specific use cases in mind there are tools available that will accomplish our goals much more efficiently, rather than bashing our heads against our platform of choice to get it to work the way we want it.
So I’ve got a thing for information that’s got some location meta data, that’s no secret. You’d then think that I’d be drooling over all these hot location based applications that are constantly popping up all over the place but for the most part I’m indifferent to them. That’s not to say I don’t know about them, I probably know more about them than what’s considered healthy, just that I can’t seem to find a use for them no matter how hard I try. I’ve been on Foursquare for quite a while now and whilst I have a few friends on it there’s not enough of them to make the service useful nor interesting, especially when most of them only check-in when they see me doing it.
I mulled this over recently with an old friend of mine who’s also been on the service for a while and he echoed my sentiments. Whilst Foursquare might be growing users in other locations its popularity here made it something of a non-event, even amongst those who were inclined to try something like that out. We both agreed that if more people were using something like Foursquare its utility would increase dramatically but couldn’t see it happening any time soon. The idea of Facebook doing something in this space had been around for a while but with no word from them on what they were doing (apart from outside speculation) I put it all down to rumour milling.
That was until just recently when Facebook released their Places application.
Now whilst the service isn’t available here in Australia yet there’s been enough coverage of it in the news to get a good idea about what it actually entails. For the most part it’s the barebones features of all the popular location applications, just good old fashioned check-ins. The only innovative part that Facebook deserves credit is for being able to check-in friends with you which, whilst sure to draw the ire of your more private friends, helps to reduce the real anti-social part of checking in. Apart from that you wouldn’t be far off the mark from calling this Foursquare without any of the game aspects, except for the fact that it’s more appealing than its predecessors.
The biggest hurdle to overcome with any new social application is one of a critical mass of users¹ and Facebook Places solves this by having all my friends as potential users of the application. I’ve had a tough time trying to convince other people to use yet another social app at the best of times but rarely have I heard about a new feature on Facebook before one of my social circle is using it. The check-in a friend feature also means that I can basically goad them into using it by tagging them when we’re doing something together and if they don’t appear in the check-in I know that they’d rather not participate. It’s quite an unobtrusive way of getting people into the check-in mindset.
I’m interested in seeing where they take the application from here. Facebook have shown that they want to be more active in the location space but don’t seem to be too interested in trying to dominate it. I say this because at their launch event they had all the big location players there with them to talk about the future of location now that Facebook was getting involved. Realistically it looks like Facebook is taking aim at being the platform for check-ins and letting others do the hard work of innovating around it. Mostly this is because they want to own the check-in data which will make them more valuable to their advertisers and investors. They’re also transferring the risk of developing check-in based applications to third parties and you can bet your bottom dollar that if any of them make a killer feature that Facebook has to have they’ll be knocking at their door, cheques in hand.
I might not see more of my friends venturing out into the fringe world of social applications but I’m sure I’ll have a few of them checking in as the feature makes its way down under. Facebook has demonstrated yet again that the big players aim to be the platform of the Internet and the small players are the ones that innovate around them. As the service expands I can see it becoming the defacto place for place information, fulfilling that vision of a grand central database someone had not so long ago.
¹You could also argue that something that has utility can also drive adoption as much as critical user mass does. I’d agree with that since the only reason I got into Twitter was to join this blog to Facebook and the social part came a long time later. A great example of an application that’s popular because of its utility first is Evernote although its recent popularity could easily be attributed social factors.
If there’s one trendthat I’ve noticed about any of the successful Internet businesses of the past decade or so is that they tend to be platforms on which others can build their business. Sure there are many highly successful companies that operate in a closed fashion but the trend towards a more open web is undeniable. Nearly every successful Internet based company allows some form of interoperability with the wider world allowing anyone to leverage the platform for their own purposes. Thus today for any fledgling start up the choice on whether or not to open up your service for others to use has already been made for you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing.
There are many great examples of companies as a platform dating back to the early days after the dot com bust. One of the examples that sticks in my mind is eBay which started out as a simple way for anyone to sell their unwanted goods online. Quickly though people realised that eBay was in essence a cheap online shop front, much cheaper than many of the alternatives available at the time. This quickly snowballed and many niche businesses found their home on eBay using the brand to get exposure and the platform to grow a business that wouldn’t have been possible before.
The examples flow thick and fast for nearly all of the current Internet giants. Facebook has shown that whilst its core of replicating your friendship online remains it’s now a gaming platform and promotion network. Twitter owes quite a lot of success to its wide open API which has generated hundreds of quality applications, drove adoption of the service and makes it the de facto target for any Internet mash-up (even Geon!). So why does being an open platform do so much for driving adoption of a service?
Primarily it appears to be due to the amount of free development that one can receive by making their services available to developers. Twitter for the longest time didn’t have an official mobile application, arguably the killer app for something that’s based around short frequent updates. Still that didn’t mean there were a lack of clients available for it like Echofon, Tweetdeck and Brizzly. Opening up their API meant that they could focus more on improving the service and developing new ideas rather than having to spend additional resources bringing their platform to where it was needed. This forms a positive feedback loop that enables the underlying platform to improve whilst ensuring that it still remains relevant to its users.
Of course this all relies on the idea that your service provides something of value to your users. For a lot of companies the services that they provide start out closed off in order to ensure that it functions as expected. Early on development time is at a premium and the additional resources required to ensure the platform is stable can outweigh the potential benefits of doing so. However once a critical mass of users is crossed it makes sense to open it up in order to drive adoption. A great example of this is Gowalla who only recently released a full API after being available for about 2 years.
For someone like myself who is seeking Internet fame and stardom the idea of being a platform underpins many of the decisions I make when developing a service. You see whilst I may think I know what people might want there are so many things that I just don’t think of when I’m elbow deep in my code. In fact about half of the features in the current version of Geon have come just from talking the idea over with my friends and people who’ve been in the business for some time. Keeping my service open means that should an enterprising user find something lacking they’re able to build it hopefully bringing more users to my service and giving them a little Internet e-cred.
Does this mean that every service that isn’t a platform is doomed to failure? Absolutely not. There are many things where an open API simply isn’t required like if the company themselves provides products that cater to their user’s needs succintly. Still the writing is on the wall for those who build things on the Internet and the more open your application is the more likely it will be picked up by the wider world. Google VP Andy Rubin said it best with the words “Open usually wins” and the recent decade of the Internet seems to agree with him.
Regular readers of this blog will know I’m no fan of our Senator Conroy and his proposed Internet filter, even though I have him to thank for the original creation of this blog and it’s subsequent success. Apart from delay after delay there’s been little to no movement from Conroy on the policy despite it being increasingly unpopular. Initially I was able to write him off as just a figurehead for the Rudd government’s slight bent towards a nanny state for Australia but as time has gone by Conroy has dissolved what small amount of hope I held out that that was true. Conroy believes in the policy wholly and damn those who would oppose him.
Most recently the biggest talking about the Internet filter was that it was going to be delayed until after the election, hoping to skirt some backlash over the unpopular policy. Not only did that ignore the fact that tech crowd saw this move for what it was (and would likely vote accordingly) soon after the announcement they back peddled with almost breakneck speed. Then, in a move that didn’t surprise anyone, they went ahead and delayed it anyway:
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy says he plans to introduce legislation for the Federal Government’s internet filter in the second half of the year.
Senator Conroy had intended to introduce the legislation in the first half of 2010.
The Government announced the filter two years ago as part of its cyber safety program to protect children from pornography and offensive material. Last year it ran tests on the system.
But the plan has been criticised by internet users who claim it will slow download speeds and lead to unwarranted censorship.
Right so you prematurely announced that you would delay introducing the legislation (in a vain effort to save votes) and back flipped on that position (to try and save face that you were delaying the policy) and then went ahead and delayed the policy (in an effort to save votes?!?!?!?). Not only has Conroy shown dedication to incredibly unpopular policy he’s beginning to show complete disrespect for the exact people he’s meant to be representing. The tech crowd had little love for Conroy before and any support for the man has now vanished in a public display of incompetence. Whilst there are many bigger issues that will cost the Rudd government votes they really can’t afford to lose yet another block of voters, and Conroy isn’t doing them any favours.
Still all of that could be easily written off as political games save for the fact that Conroy has launched multiple vitriolic attacks on several Internet giants. Now granted the ones who wield the most power in the Internet world are the ones who carry the most responsibility and none are as big as Google. Still the culture and policies implemented by Google are really some of the best on the Internet when it comes to user privacy and security. This didn’t stop Conroy from launching several attacks at them, with the latest ratcheting up the crazy to whole new levels:
Instead, Conroy launched tirades on search giant Google and social networking site Facebook over privacy issues raised with both corporations over the past week. The Senator called Google’s collection of Wi-Fi data the “single greatest privacy breach in history“, and attacked the social networking site over a failure to keep user’s data private.
That classy one liner I’ve bolded for effect is probably one of the best bits of hyperbolic rhetoric that I’ve seen Conroy spew forth. The Wi-Fi data that Google collected was initially only meant to be the SSIDs (the wireless network name) which they could then use to augment their geo-location software, ala Skyhook. Unfortunately they also captured some payload data as well during the course of their collection and got slammed by the German government because of it. Realistically though the data was fairly useless to them as they couldn’t have been in range of the access points for any meaningful amount of time, so the data they would have couldn’t have been more than a few MB at most. Additionally if you had set up security on your wireless access then the data they have is completely and utterly unusable as it would appear encrypted to anyone who captured it. Saying that this was a breach of privacy is a best misleading and at worst completely ignorant of the actual facts.
Conroy doesn’t stop there either, hoping to drum up support by lambasting yet another Internet giant with his choice brand of ignorant vitriol:
The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has attacked the social networking site Facebook and its former college student founder for what he says is its ”complete disregard” for privacy.
Senator Conroy is under fire from many in the internet industry for his proposed mandatory net filter. He has previously attacked Google, a key critic of the filtering plan, but last night in a Senate estimates hearing turned his attention to Facebook.
”Facebook has also shown a complete disregard for users’ privacy lately,” Senator Conroy said in response to a question from a government senator.
I’ll relent for a second and say that Facebook has had some trouble recently when it has come to user’s privacy. However the fact remains that they can’t reveal any information about you that you don’t give them in the first place and putting information online that you don’t expect anyone else to see is akin to leaving your belongings on the sidewalk and expecting them not to get taken. Facebook may have had their troubles trying to find their feet when it comes to user privacy but their response has been rapid albeit somewhat confused. They’ve heard the criticisms and are responding to them, hardly what I would call a “complete disregard” for user privacy.
Conroy has shown time and time again that he has little respect for the industry he’s meant to represent as the minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. His constant, vitriolic attacks on those who’ve been in the industry for a long time (much longer than he’s been a minister for such things) shows a flawed belief that his vision for Australia’s digital future is the right one. I and the vast majority of the technical crowd have opposed the Conroy and his Internet filter from the start and in the coming election I’d bet my bottom dollar that you’ll see a noticeable swing against him for his repeated blows against us. It would seem that the only way to kill the Internet filter is to remove him from office and it is my fervent hope that the good people of Victoria will do Australia a service and vote accordingly this year.
I’d like to think of myself as knowing a bit about the geo space and how it can be used as a basis for new applications or how it can augment existing ones. I’ve been elbow deep in developing such an application for over 6 months now and I’ve spent the last couple months checking out every service that could possibly be considered a competitor to me (there’s not many, if you’re wondering). Because of this I’ve started to notice a couple trends with up and coming web applications and it seems that the social networking world is going ballistic for any service that incorporates the idea of “check ins” at any location around the world. After spending some time with these applications (even ones that are still in private beta) I can’t seem to get a hold of why they’re so popular. Then again I didn’t get Facebook for a long time either.
The basic idea that powers almost all of these applications is that you use your phone to determine your location. Based on that the application will then present you with a list of places which you can “check-in” to. If your friends on the application they’ll get a notification that you’ve checked in there, presumably to get them to comment on it or to help you arrange with getting people together. It’s a decent trade off between privacy and letting people know your location as you control when and where the application checks in and most of them allow you to share the updates with only your friends (or no one at all). The hook for most of the services seems to be the addition of some kind of game element to it, with many of them adding in achievements and points. For someone like me it falls into the “potentially useful” category, although my experience with them has led me to think that saying “potentially” was probably being kind.
The services themselves seem to be doing quite well, with Foursquare and Gowalla both managing to wrangle deals with companies to reward users of their applications. In fact it seems that check-in based services are the latest darling child for venture capitalists, which funding flowing thick and fast for any and all services that implement this idea. For the most part I’d attribute most of their success with their ability to hook into Facebook through Connect, as building a user base from scratch for a social networking based site is nigh impossible lest you tangle yourself up with Zuckerberg’s love child. It also helps improves user trust in the application, although that benefit is on shaky ground as of late.
Still though the value they provide seems to be rather limited. After hearing that a couple of my tech inclined friends had ventured onto Foursquare (and I got bored of reading about them every day on my RSS reader) I decided to download their iPhone app and give it ago. The integration between other social networking services was quite good and it instantly picked up a couple people I didn’t know where using Foursquare. Playing around with it I began checking in to various places, accumulating points and my first badge. Still I didn’t feel like I really got anything out of using the application, apart from some virtual points which don’t appear to be worth anything to anyone (although the same could be said of Xbox GamerScore and PSN Levels). This hasn’t stopped Foursquare from reaching over 1 million users in just over a year which is quite impressive when compared to the current giants (Twitter took twice as long to reach a similar milestone).
It’s no secret that I’ve shied away from calling Geon a social networking application, despite the obvious social implications it has. Primarily this is because I don’t want to be lumped in as yet another social app but more and more I find myself needing to incorporate such features into the application, as that’s what people are coming to expect. There’s also the point that many of the ideas make a lot of sense when translated properly into my application. Two recent suggestions were a kind of rework of the Twitter trending topics and the other being the ability to follow people and locations. The first wouldn’t exactly be considered a social networking feature but the latter is pretty much the bread and butter of many social networking services. Still I don’t think people will be looking for check-ins in up and coming social apps, even after Facebook introduces their Foursquare killing service.
It’s true though that although I might not get it that doesn’t matter when so many others do. For as long as I develop Geon I’ll be keeping an eye on these services to see how they evolve as their user base grows, mostly to see if there’s anything I should be doing that I’m not already. It’s going to be interesting to see how this all changes when Facebook finally unveils its location based service to the world and you never know, I might have the penny drop moment that so many people seem to be having about check-ins.
Until then however my Foursquare app will be little more than an interesting talking point to bring up amongst friends.
If there’s one defining feature about Web 2.0 is that the focus shifted from one way information delivery to user centered interactions. Primarily I’d attribute this to the resulting fallout from the dot-com crash that fostered an environment for innovators to rise from the ashes of the former Internet giants. Such companies didn’t have the built in following that the companies that preceded them did so their best bet for success was to focus on drawing users into their various services. Once it became the in thing to be big on the Internet we saw the explosion of user centric services we see today and the current starlets of the Web 2.0 stage are of course the social networks.
Owing their success to people’s inate desire to belong and a non-obvious competetion element (read: the friend/follower/whatever counts) the social networks started out as just that, a place for you to keep in touch with real world friends. However as their popularity grew they inevitably attracted the attention of big business who, after many years no longer had the bitter after-taste of the dot-com crash in their mouths, saw a large and as of yet untapped market. From there it wasn’t very long before the user centric service became yet another essential part of every marketing campaign known to man, save for the few who see the social web as a passing fad.
For the most part though this actually increases the allure of social networks for most people. The fact that there’s even a tenuous connection between you and the celebrity du jour or your favourite company, whether it be following them on Twitter or becoming a fan of them on Facebook, gives the Web 2.0 generation that same sense of belonging that they craved when they first joined their social networks. This also works well for the other side of the equation too (the celebrities, Internet starlets et al) as there is little disconnection between themselves and their fans, meaning that they are much more able to command the attention of their audience. When your audience numbers aren’t big enough for you to command your own research and marketing teams social networks become your lifeline to staying in touch with your audience and hopefully keeping them on as fans.
However after using the top tier of social networks for a couple years I’ve started to notice an interesting yet puzzling trend. For the most part people will usually settle on their network of choice which is largely centered around what their highest percieved value of said network is. For the wide majority the pervasiveness of Facebook amongst a wide demographic makes it the best for connecting with friends. Others crave the constant stream of consciousness that is Twitter whilst some may just prefer to see videos from a select bunch of people, thus gravitating towards Youtube. For those on the other side of the equation, those looking to exploit the ability to capture an audience, it seems that you can’t be as choosy with your social networks. You’ve basically got to be on all of them.
Readers of this blog may or may not know the many different ways I promote it, but I know how many of you come through my different channels. Taking a gander of my Google Analytics reveals that about 11% of you have this site bookmarked (or type the address in manually every time, you sadists!), 9% come from Facebook and a mere 2.5% come from links on Twitter. The vast majority of people who get here come through searches, just under 50%. But as many marketer’s will tell you ignoring the long tail can be quite foolish and that is the exact reason why I’m publishing myself through all of those mediums (hey come on I never made it much of a secret that I thought this blog would be my shot at Internet fame and fortune :P).
For many of the current generation of Internet starlets they are in the exact same position. The place that I see this being most prevelent is on Youtube with every single big channel littered with links to follow them on Twitter and fan them on Facebook. They know that if they deliberately abstain from being available through these mediums they’re losing a potential audience. Never mind that the content that they delivered is what made them popular in the first place the fact that someone doesn’t participate in a certain social medium says more than “I can’t be bothered” to the social networking crowd. They would seem to take it as you don’t really care about them, almost tantamount to ignoring them in public.
Partially this is what spurred my current conquest of aggregating a whole lot of information from across the Internet. Whilst I’m under no delusions that I will be the next big thing on the Internet I’m finding more and more that the delivery of information doesn’t seem to matter as much as the people and places that it is coming from. Whilst I’m still aghast to calling my current project a social network (although I will admit I’m about to cave on that point) the high value information streams come from said networks. Thank the Web 2.0 gods for the mantra of being open and accessible or I probably wouldn’t be working on the application at all.
I guess what I’m really getting at here is that the segmentation of social networks would on the surface appear to be capturing different markets when in reality it’s just the same market duplicated several times over. Hats off to them for doing it though as traditional industry couldn’t of fathomed capturing the same market 3 times over but it feels like there’s so much duplication of effort for little benefit.
Maybe it’s the engineer in me seeing redundancy when its not needed that has lead to this feeling of wasted effort but every time I see those familiar icons on the side of a blog or whatever page to link up via various social networks I always twinge a little inside. We live in an age where information is so accessible yet we seem intent on erecting walled gardens everywhere that serve no purpose but to make dissemination of that information harder than it needs to be. Maybe I’m wrong and the simple act of providing an aggregate interface to all these services will change people’s view of such networks, but if that’s the case I’m one genius kid in a garage away from being over taken as the aggregator to use on the Internet.
The explosion in social networking sites and technologies over the past few years has been nothing short of staggering. When I first joined Facebook sometime back in 2007 I only did so because of the social pressure to do so, not because I had any interest in the technology itself. Fast forward a year or two and you would be hard pressed to find anyone of my generation who isn’t on at least one social networking site with many of them on several. Today social networking and media are the biggest draw cards of the Internet with them only being surpassed by the long time giants like Google and Yahoo.
As with the dot com crash before it the kind of sensationalism that surrounds the social Internet has led to a veritable army of competing services all looking for a slice of the extremely profitable pie. For the most part they all have their niche, such as Tumblr and DeviantArt, and a dedicated following that will ensure that they’re around for a long time. Other sites are popular due to a critical mass of users within a region, such as Friendster and hi5. Any social networking site that doesn’t fit into these two categories generally comes and goes without too much fanfare leaving their creditors in the lurch and a set of users looking for another service. Due to the fact that social networking is still a new phenomenon we have yet to see a giant fall, but that doesn’t mean some aren’t about to.
Take MySpace for instance. Ever since it was dethroned as the number 1 social networking site by Facebook it’s been on a long downward path to becoming irrelevant. The past year have seen it drop from its lofty heights of the top 10 most visited sites on the net to its current position of 16. Whilst I doubt that it will fade from existence completely, thanks mostly to the niche it cornered with band/music sites, you can bet that this drop in traffic is hurting their bottom line. Still the current owner, media giant Rupert Murdoch, has no plans to sell off his interest in the flailing site so that begs the question: what’s he got up his sleeve?
About 6 months ago I was having a healthy debate with some of my friends about the life and death of social networking sites. A few held the belief that these sites were going to be very short lived and we’d soon see them fall off the face of the earth. I didn’t share their view but became interested in what would happen as a social networking site started to circle the bowl. In the end I came to the conclusion that when advertising revenue began to wane they’d turn to the thing that once made them great: their users. So whilst you might not have the eyes to attract the advertisers you once did you do have a giant database on millions upon millions of people, with all sorts of delicious data mineable data held within. I made the point that upon the company realising the site was going down they’d start selling off data whilst it was still relevant in a desperate hope to keep themselves afloat.
You can then imagine what I thought when I saw this little tidbit of news:
MySpace has taken a bold step and allowed a large quantity of bulk user data to be put up for sale on startup data marketplace InfoChimps. Data offered includes user playlists, mood updates, mobile updates, photos, vents, reviews, blog posts, names and zipcodes. Friend lists are not included. Remember, Facebook and Twitter may be the name of the game these days in tech circles, but MySpace still sees 1 billion user status updates posted every month. Those updates will now be available for bulk analysis.
This user data is intended for crunching by everyone from academic researchers to music industry information scientists. Will people buy the data and make interesting use of it? Will MySpace users be ok with that? Is this something Facebook and Twitter ought to do? The MySpace announcement raises a number of interesting questions.
The 22 sets of data being made available are cheap. Prices range from $10 for raw dumps from the MySpace API to $300 for everything broken out by latitude and longitude. Subsequently derived data sets can be put on sale by InfoChimps users as well, with a revenue split.
It’s always nice when you make predictions that are eventually vindicated
Save for the companies that will build their revenue streams off doing exactly this your traditional free, ad supported social networking site will one day turn around and start selling your data when times get tough. To be honest I’m surprised that they didn’t do it sooner as in June last year they slashed their workforce by about 30%, another sign of their imminent downfall. So whilst this maneuver won’t draw anymore users to MySpace it will probably keep them afloat for a little longer, maybe in the hopes of revitalizing or re-branding it.
Does this mean that other sites will quickly follow suit? Unlikely, whilst its tempting to start peddling out your data to anyone who wants it you open yourself up to a whole lot of issues with privacy that might not be immediately apparent. Whilst I appreciate that most users will probably be unaware of MySpace doing this if, for example, Facebook did this you can guarantee that there would be a noticeable backlash amongst the more privacy savvy crowd. It probably wouldn’t hurt them in the long run, but it really wouldn’t do them any favours as well.
MySpace is well on its way to be the first casualty of the social web and its demise will provide interesting insight into how these giant social sites unravel as they venture downwards. It will still be a long time before we can stick a fork in MySpace but the slow downward trend it is facing will show us what to look for in the other Internet giants should they begin to falter.
After losing around 6 weeks of my life to a project I’ve only vaguely referred to as “The Plan” I promised myself a month off to catch up on my backlog of games, relax and then hit Geon hard with new features so that I could release it upon the world. That month is now closer to 6 weeks mostly because there were just so many good games out at the moment (I still have 4 to play through, ugh!) and I was thoroughly enjoying slacking off. I’ve justified putting off the development because in all my research around the web I haven’t found anything quite like it. That was until I happened across this:
Facebook is allegedly planning to roll out location sharing capabilities next month, once again playing catch-up to other services that have gained popularity thanks to location data. The rumor comes courtesy of anonymous sources who have been “briefed on the project” speaking to the New York Times, who said that Facebook will announce the feature at Facebook’s annual f8 conference in late April.
Great news right? I toyed with Facebook integration a while back but I never got the authentication working right and after a night of tinkering I found that I’d have to do some pretty heavy handed guessing to get the data in the right places. With services like Twitter and Flickr having beautifully easy geo-apis available I wasn’t too keen to muddy the information feeds unless I could guarantee a certain level of actual geo accuracy. So Facebook introducing a true blue geo api means more work for me, but also yet another hook for potential users.
But further down the article there comes a list of four services that have built their success based around user data that has geographic information in them. They are:
The last, and the one that made me almost jump out of my seat, was Brightkite. The front page has a lovely little section down the bottom that said “What’s happening in Canberra” and was happily displaying images that were supposedly from my area. Considering that I’m in the business of information aggregation with a geographical bent (trying saying that 5 times fast :P) my first reaction was that dreaded sinking feeling anyone gets when they think they’ve had the most brilliant idea in the world only to find it’s already been done, packaged and sold to everyone who would want it. However diving deeper into Brightkite’s world I can see that yet again they’re focused on the social networking side of things and much less on aggregating information based on location.
This I believe is the selling point for Geon. Whilst I appreciate that social networking is all the rage these days (as was blogs before them, and badly hacked together personal sites on Geocities before them and so on) it’s not the vision I have for Geon. It will have some kinds of social features in there (like following your friends, although Facebook integration might render that moot) but my main goal is getting information and hopefully establishing 2 way communication between people who want information.
The upside to all these apps coming out (and subsequently kicking my ass into gear) is that there is real demand out there for something like Geon. Talking to people about it only goes so far and it’s always good to have that little bit of hope that your work will someday be appreciated by the wider world.
Maybe I scare too easily
Even though I’ve been doing this whole blog thing for a while now (well, longer than I’ve held most jobs in the past 5 years which is saying something) I still feel that’s probably one of the more out-there hobbies that people take on. Whilst I share this interest in blogging with many of my social circle for the majority of them they have little to no interest in the long form of social media, gravitating much more heavily towards Facebook. Can’t say I blame them either as the format there lends itself easily to posting a quip or comment in under 5 minutes and usually generates a very immediate response. Writing a blog post takes at least 1~2 hours out of my day and the results vary wildly from a slew of comments to barely registering on anyone’s radar. It’s definitely akin to shouting into the darkness hoping someone listens.
Maybe that’s why I feel so comforted by my Google Analytics account.
More interesting however is how the long form of social media on the Internet is on the decline:
Blogging is falling out of favor among the young’uns these days as they move to quicker-moving social networking sites. At the same time, older adults are getting into blogging and teens still aren’t hot on Twitter, at least according to the latest report from the Pew Internet and American Life project.
Only 14 percent of teenage Internet users said that they blogged last year—that’s half the number from 2006. Similarly, teen commenting on blogs is way down from 76 percent in 2006 to just over 52 percent in 2009. It doesn’t matter whether the blog is on Blogspot or buried within MySpace, either—blogs in general are definitely not the new black.
Delving into the statistics that the article above was based on reveals that not only did the teenage population leave the blogging platform en masse but also the young adults. There was a slight improvement in the over 30s and as a whole the Internet has seen a rise in the usage of blogs but for the youngsters and fledgling adults it would seem that blasting your thoughts out hundreds of words at a time is just not the in thing anymore. That left me wondering: why the hell is that?
I could easily write the whole phenomena off as being part of the revolution of mobile Internet. Nearly every modern phone has a Facebook application on it or you’re a Twitter account away from enabling it on any SMS capable phone. I’ve tried doing blog posts on my phone in the past and even with a hardware keyboard its laborious work and I can imagine would feel quite unnatural to a demographic who grew up with short form communication method SMS as their defacto standard. Thus with our increasingly mobile generation the longer forms of social media become outmoded for the quick, up to the minute feeds that services like Facebook and Twitter provide.
However I believe there’s also another side to this phenomena that will be hard to find in statistics like this. The blogging medium has evolved quite a lot over the past 10 years, going from something that only the technically elite were capable of to becoming freely available to anyone who cares to spend 5 minutes setting up an account on Blogspot. Over this time corporations began to see the value in such information channels and so the corporate blogs were born. The same thing could also be said for celebrities with their blogs functioning as a direct channel between themselves and their fans. A great example of this would be the Dilbert blog as prior to launching it no one really knew the face behind the comics that parody our cubicle life so aptly.
To use a musical analogy, blogging sold out. For the most part all the large blogs around the world are centered around driving traffic and getting more eyes on the content you’re either producing or regurgitating. Gone are the days when a blog was someone talking about their life or what interests them. No today you’re more likely to find a corporate blog or niche news aggregator, with the one you’re reading now being no exception. It started out as a platform for me to collate my various Internet censorship fighting exploits and evolved into what it is today. But make no mistake I’m just a few steps away from being the newsbots I used to loathe so much.
Personally though it feels like an evolution of the medium. It initially started out as an easier way for anyone to have a presence on the web and has since evolved into a tool that’s been applied in a much wider sense. The younger generation hopped on this tech because it was new and cool but with all the late adopters coming to the field the platform of blogging has lost its cool and the likes of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are here to pick up the slack. It will be interesting to see how long social network can go before it starts to lose its shine to, if it ever does.
Ever since the social web revolution of the past few years the issue of privacy has been thrust into the limelight repeatedly with the same results every time: people whine and complain yet nothing really changes. Unfortunately the majority never end up realising that anything you put on the Internet can be considered private, just as anything you left out on your front lawn would be. Still people continue to use the service and put increasingly inappropriate information up causing sites like Fail-Book to materialize that exploit everyone’s misplaced trust in this service.
Don’t get me wrong though, I have a Facebook account with quite a lot of information on it. However for the most part the majority of it is locked out to the wider world, but I’m under no illusions that I’m a social engineering attack away from one (or more) of my friends being compromised and my full account being laid bare for whomever was after it. That doesn’t worry me however as the data I have on there is nothing a quick Google or thumb through the Whitepages wouldn’t pick up. I also have a damn good level of trust in my friends to not put anything stupid up there and three years of use of the service hasn’t seen this trust broken. It would seem however that I’m in the minority.
This still doesn’t detract from the fact that some of Facebook’s policies are a ass-backwards. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, has gone on record recently saying that privacy is no longer considered “normal”, something which I’m finding hard to swallow:
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and chief executive of Facebook has said that people no longer have an expectation of privacy thanks to increasing uptake of social networking.
Speaking at the Crunchie Awards in San Francisco this weekend, the 25 year-old web entrepreneur said: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.”
Zuckerberg went on to add that the rise of social media reflects the changing attitudes among the general public, saying that this radical change has happened in the space of five years.
We have a term here in the IT and engineering industry called eating your own dogfood. When an organisation provides a service it speaks volumes when they use the service themselves. Zuckerberg, to his credit, does use Facebook however it would seem that he has a different expectation of privacy to the one he preaches. I say this because recently Facebook enforced all users to update their privacy settings, with them oriented towards exposing more information to the wider world. It was a valid move for them from a business perspective (more public data = more visibility) however when their own CEO ends up blowing his profile wide open you have to question how the normal user will fair. Zuckerberg stated that it was deliberate, but his actions say otherwise (I.E. it’s now back the way it was). You can see why I don’t swallow the tripe that Zuckerberg is peddling, he’s saying one thing and doing another.
For some reason the social web has made us incresingly trusting of large organisations providing us something for free. In fact it’s the norm and any organisation attempting something on the web that dare charges for it is only months away from being usurped by some young upstart in a garage who does the same thing for gratis. This means now that most of the free applications on the web don’t seek revenue directly from their consumers, they get it from the data that their application harvests. The price you pay for free services is that organisation knowing some very intimate details about you.
You might not think there’s much value in knowing that you loved that book you read last week or that you and a couple friends are all fans of the same celebrity but to marketers and product researchers this stuff is a drug. Facebook’s advertising system is so detailed that you can narrow the demographic you target by age, gender, location and even sexual preferences. It doesn’t stop there either, with them tracking basically every activity on Facebook:
The Rumpus: On your servers, do you save everything ever entered into Facebook at any time, whether or not it’s been deleted, untagged, and so forth?
Facebook Employee: That is essentially correct at this moment. The only reason we’re changing that is for performance reasons. When you make any sort of interaction on Facebook — upload a photo, click on somebody’s profile, update your status, change your profile information —
If you have a product with a known demographic your advertising budget will go a lot further if you can just target them, rather than say posting a billboard on a highway. Facebook isn’t the only one doing this, our friendly search giant Google’s advertising network has been using such demographic capturing technology for years now to better target their Adsense and Adwords programs.
So while I won’t go on a crusade and say that everyone should stop using these services I will say this: manage your expectations appropriately. Facebook et al are great tools for staying in touch with friends (and finding long lost old ones) but if you wouldn’t put it on your front lawn you shouldn’t put it on Facebook. If you can’t trust your friends not to put something on there then it would be best not to be on there in the first place. Whilst I would lament the death of such humourous sites like Fail Book it would be a small price to pay for the populace at large wising up to the fact that there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.
But then again I’m probably asking too much. (Seems I’m getting more and more cynical in my old age ;))