Maybe I’m just hanging around the wrong places on the Internet but recently there seemed to be a higher than average level of vitriol being launched at Microsoft. From my totally arbitrary standpoint it seems that most people don’t view Microsoft as the evil empire that they used to and instead now focus on the two new giants in the tech center, Apple and Google. This could be easily explained by the fact that Microsoft hasn’t really done anything particularly evil recently whilst Apple and Google have both been dealing with their ongoing controversies of platform lock-down and privacy related matters respectively. Still no less than two articles have crossed my path of late that squarely blame Microsoft for various problems and I feel they warrant a response.
The first comes courtesy of the slowly failing MySpace who has been bleeding users for almost 2 years straight now. Whilst there are numerous reasons as to why they’re failing (with Facebook being the most likely) one blog asked the question if their choice of infrastructure was to blame:
1. Their bet on Microsoft technology doomed them for a variety of reasons.
2. Their bet on Los Angeles accentuated the problems with betting on Microsoft.
Let me explain.
The problem was, as Myspace started losing to Facebook, they knew they needed to make major changes. But they didn’t have the programming talent to really make huge changes and the infrastructure they bet on made it both tougher to change, because it isn’t set up to do the scale of 100 million users it needed to, and tougher to hire really great entrepreneurial programmers who could rebuild the site to do interesting stuff.
I won’t argue point 2 as the short time I spent in Los Angeles showed me that it wasn’t exactly the best place for acquiring technical talent (although I haven’t been to San Francisco to give it a good comparison, but talking with friends who have seems to confirm this). However betting on Microsoft technology is definitely not the reason why MySpace started on a long downward spiral several years ago, as several commenters point out in this article. Indeed MySpace’s lack of innovation appears to stem from the fact that they outsourced much of their core development work to Telligent, a company that provides social network platforms. The issue with such an arrangement meant that they were wholly dependent on Telligent to provide updates to the platform they were using, rather than owning it entirely in house. Indeed as a few other commenters pointed out the switch to the Microsoft stack actually allowed MySpace to Scale much further with less infrastructure than they did previously. If there was a problem with scaling it definitely wasn’t coming from the Microsoft technology stack.
When I first started developing what became Lobaco scalability was always something that was nagging at the back of my head, taunting me that my choice of platform was doomed to failure. Indeed there have been only a few start-ups that have managed to make it big using the Microsoft technology stack so it would seem like the going down this path is a sure fire way to kill any good idea in its infancy. Still I have a heavy investment in the Microsoft line of products so I kept on plugging away with it. Problems of scale appear to be unique for each technology stack with all of them having their pros and cons. Realistically every company with large numbers of users has their own unique way of dealing with it and the technology used seems to be secondary to good architecture and planning.
Still there’s still a strong anti-Microsoft sentiment amongst those in Silicone Valley. Just for kicks I’ve been thumbing through the job listings for various start ups in the area, toying with the idea of moving there to get some real world start-up experience. Most commonly however none of them want to hear anything about a Microsoft based developer, instead preferring something like PHP/Rails/Node.js. Indeed some have gone as far as to say that .NET development is black mark against you, only serving to limit your job prospects:
Programming with .NET is like cooking in a McDonalds kitchen. It is full of amazing tools that automate absolutely everything. Just press the right button and follow the beeping lights, and you can churn out flawless 1.6 oz burgers faster than anybody else on the planet.
However, if you need to make a 1.7 oz burger, you simply can’t. There’s no button for it. The patties are pre-formed in the wrong size. They start out frozen so they can’t be smushed up and reformed, and the thawing machine is so tightly integrated with the cooking machine that there’s no way to intercept it between the two. A McDonalds kitchen makes exactly what’s on the McDonalds menu — and does so in an absolutely foolproof fashion. But it can’t go off the menu, and any attempt to bend the machine to your will just breaks it such that it needs to be sent back to the factory for repairs.
I should probably point out that I don’t disagree with some of the points of his post, most notably how Microsoft makes everything quite easy for you if you’re following a particular pattern. The trouble comes when you try to work outside the box and many programmers will simply not attempt anything that isn’t already solved by Microsoft. Heck I encountered that very problem when I tried to wrangle their Domain Services API to send and receive JSON a supported but wholly undocumented part of their API. I got it working in the end but I could easily see many .NET developers simply saying it couldn’t be done, at least not in the way I was going for it.
Still that doesn’t mean all .NET developers are simple button pushers, totally incapable of thinking outside the Microsoft box. Sure there will be more of those type of programmers simply because .NET is used is so many places (just not Internet start-ups by the looks of it) but to paint all of those who use the technology with the same brush seems pretty far fetched. Heck if he was right then there would’ve been no way for me to get my head around Objective-C since it’s not supported by Visual Studio. Still I managed to get competent in 2 weeks and can now hack my way around in Xcode just fine, despite my extensive .NET heritage.
It’s always the person or company, not the technology, that limits their potential. Sure you may hit a wall with a particular language or infrastructure stack but if you’re people are capable you’ll find a way around it. I might be in the minority when it comes to trying to start a company based around Microsoft technology but the fact is that attempting to relearn another technology stack is a huge opportunity cost. If I do it right however it should be flexible enough so that I can replace parts of the system with more appropriate technologies down the line, if the need calls for it. People pointing the finger at Microsoft for all their woes are simply looking for a scapegoat so they don’t have to address the larger systemic issues or are simply looking for some juicy blog fodder.
I guess they found the latter, since I certainly did
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.
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.
Just as the IT industry continues to reinvent itself every 10 years so it also appears do the people in that industry. Whilst the term IT is relatively new when compared to many other trades it has still managed to capture a stereotype. What is interesting however is how the image of the typical IT geek has progressed over the past few decades from a lab worker to now something completely and utterly different.
Image courtesy of the Computer History Museum.
In the early days of large computational clusters many technicians would look like this. Well dressed and with an almost business like demeanour. It was part of the culture back then as many of these types of systems were either for large universities or corporations, and with big dollars being shelled out for such systems (this was the IBM 7030 Stretch which would cost around $100 million in today’s dollars) this was kind of expected. I think that’s why the next generation of geeks set the trend for the next couple decades.
Image courtesy of Microsoft.
A young Bill Gates shows what would become the typical image conjured up in everyone’s heads when the word geek or nerd was uttered for a long time to come. The young, tall and skinny people who delved themselves into computers were the faces of our IT community for a long time, and I think this is when those thick rimmed glasses became synonymous with our kind. It was probably around this time that geeks became associated with a tilt towards social awkwardness, something that many people still joke about today. What’s really interesting though is the next few steps I’ve seen in the changing geek image.
Image courtesy of JustTheLists.
Jerry Yang and David Filo, the first of a generation of what most people call Internet pioneers. Whilst I can’t find a direct link to it Yahoo had a bit of a reputation for a very casual work environment, with t-shirts and sandals the norm. It was probably because of their success from coming straight out of university and into a successful corporate world, where they grew their own business culture. This kind of thing flowed onto many of the other successful Internet companies like Google, who lavishes their employees with almost everything they will ever need.
Image Courtesy of Robert Scoble.
Tom Anderson, one of the co-founders of MySpace is not what you’d call your typical geek with a degree in Arts and a masters in Film. You’d struggle to find him even associated with such titles, yet he’s behind one of the largest technical companies on the Internet. Truly the face of the modern geek aspires to something more like Tom Anderson then it does to a young Bill Gates.
I found this interesting because of the company that I keep. We all love computer games and the latest bits of tech, but you’d be hard pressed to find among us anyone you could really call your stereotypical geek. I think this is indicative of the maturity that the IT industry has acquired. The term IT Professional no longer conjures up an idea of a basement dwelling console hacker with thick glasses, more it gives the impression that you’d expect from a professional in any industry. Something which carries with it a decent chunk of respect.
I guess the next step is when we start seeing Joe the IT Professional used in political campaigns.
With the increasing prevalence of social technologies more and more of our daily life is becoming part of an online community. Increasingly spending leisure time at the computer is no longer a “geeks only” activity and what we’re seeing is the transition of what people would regularly do through another, less public, medium onto online sources viewable for almost anyone who would want to see them. What is truly surprising is how people willingly share some of this information, until you consider the origins of these social applications.
Take a social group (friends, colleagues, etc) what are some of the main activities that such a group might carry out? Going out to places, sharing experiences about recent events, chatting about topics and so on. In essence social networking tools have just enabled a greater audience to use the Internet as a more convenient place for them to gather, and as such they will use it as they would say a table in a coffee shop, sharing experiences and the like. This is the two sided coin of exhibitionism and voyeurism, we all want to share our lives with other people and we’re also intersted in learning about others.
Sites like Twitter and MySpace take it one step further. Instead of it being focused directly on a circle of friends it’s more about your own personal space on the Internet that you can just happen to share with your friends (and let everyone else know who your friends are). These sites are more suited to people who’s personality tends towards the exhibitionist in them, as it’s basically an open invitation for anyone to come in and have a look at their life. They’re also a boon for the more voyeuristic types as well, since they can get a glimpse of someone’s life without them knowing about it.
It’s this strange combination of unleashing two sides of a (usually) socially taboo coin that drew a lot of people to these sites in the first place. We all know someone who has 300+ friends on Facebook and know full well that at least half of them are just on their to bump up their friends count. However this is exactly what would attract them to the site, since they now have a captive audience of 300+ who will get all their status updates and delightful quiz requests. On the other side there are those who want to see what people they used to know are getting up to, sometimes out of a slightly twisted desire to see if they’re doing better then them (basically a real time high school reunion, with all the lovely embarrassment/embellishments that come with it).
Personally I got into this whole social networking thing for two reasons. The first was that a lot of my friends were on it and were using it increasingly to organise events and get togethers. This got my foot in the door so to speak, and I stayed as it became a great tool to keep in touch with my friends in far off lands. The second was after I discovered LinkedIn, as I began to use social networking professionally. Although I do question the benefits of doing so currently.
In essence these online social networking sites are just another playground for groups of people to do things that they would normally do, just through a different medium. Whatever attracted them to these sites originally existed in the real world first and it’s no surprise that these sites have brought their real world problems along with them.