There’s been very few times in my online life when I’ve felt the need to go completely anonymous in order to voice my opinion or partake in an activity. Mostly that’s because I’ve got quite a bit invested in my online identity and with that comes a certain amount of pride which I hope to carry with me during my online activities. I think the only times I can remember trying to be anonymous about something was when I wanted to pull a prank on someone or if I was voicing a controversial/against the groupthink opinion. Still I recognise the need for a medium such as the Internet to facilitate completely anonymous communication especially when it facilitates such great things as Wikileaks.
I remember back in the early days of the Internet I spent the vast majority of my time there under a pseudonym purely because that was the way it was done back then. Indeed sharing personal information across the wire seemed like a bit of a faux pas as you couldn’t trust the people on the other end not to use it for nefarious purposes. Over time however I saw services begin to crop up that chipped away at this idea, encouraging their users to divulge some sort of personal information in order to get something in return. Blogs were a great example of this with many of the blogging starlets being those who shared interesting stories about their lives like Tucker Max or Outpost Nine. Still for the majority there was still a layer of anonymity between the writer and the reader with many choosing not to reveal details that could identify them personally, keeping their online and offline presence happily separate.
A few years later we saw the beginnings of the current social Internet revolution. These services are based around the idea of mimmicing those interactions we would have in everyday life and usually attempting to augment them as well. In order to facilitate such an idea any of the anonymity granted by the Internet has to be stripped away so that the offline relationships can be replicated online. Such information also forms the basis of the revenue streams for those who provide these online services to everyone, usually at no cost to the end user. In essence you’re trading your online anonymity (and by extension privacy) for the use of a service, effectively turning it into a currency.
Interestingly enough is that your privacy doesn’t have a fixed cost, it’s quite relative to who you are. Heavy users of social networking tools are in essence costing the company providing the service more money than those who don’t use the service as much. From a pure metric standpoint you could boil this down to bandwidth, storage space and potential incidents raised that need to be fixed by a member of your team. However those heavy users are more likely to have more personal data on your website making them far more valuable than someone else. If you take an example of say a celebrity on Twitter (as much as it pains me to say it, like Bieber and Lady Gaga) they are probably the biggest cost to you on a per user basis, but they’re also the most valuable. In essence one unit of their privacy currency is worth oodles more than someone like me.
Still the use of these services does not preclude you from going anonymous when you need to. If I really wanted to hide my tracks I could go to an Internet cafe in another city, encrypt my connection and pipe it through TOR and start blasting out information through all sorts of means without it ever being traced back to me. All the information about me online then would be less than useless, save for the fact that anyone attempting to trace me would figure out that I knew a thing or two about IT. Realistically even in this time of sharing almost too much information with the world there are still very few barriers to hiding yourself completely should the need arise.
I will admit though that the traditional means of being anonymous, which were usually an innate part of the service, have faded away. The Web 2.0 revolution’s focus on user generated content has meant that there’s is literally untold masses of information available, something which hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Internet giants:
“There was five exabytes [five billion gigabytes] of information created between the dawn of civilization through 2003,” he said. “But that much information is now created every two days, and the pace is increasing… People aren’t ready for the technology revolution that’s going to happen to them.
“If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go,” Schmidt said, adding unnervingly.
“Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are. You think you don’t have 14 photos of yourself on the internet? You’ve got Facebook photos!”
For those who enjoyed the anonymous online life this means that, like it or not, there’s probably information on you out there in the Internet. Whilst we’re still a long way from being able to make sense of this data avalanche the ever rapid advancement in computing technology means that one day we will. This means that peeling back the veil of anonymity will be easier for those seeking to do so but on the flip side that just encourages those who value their online anonymity to find better ways to combat that. In essence we have an arms race that I can’t fathom how it will play out, but history has shown that a dedicated minority can put up one hell of a fight if they’re cornered.
I guess I take a engineering perspective to online anonymity: it’s a tool to be used for certain problems. When the time comes that you need to do something online that doesn’t come back to bite you there are options for you to follow. I’m quite happy to trade some personal information for the use of a service that I deem valuable, especially when most of it is a matter of public record anyway. In the end whilst we might see the end of our traditional views of online privacy and anonymity the tales of its death are greatly exaggerated and it will remain a fundamental feature of the medium for as long as it functions.
A few lucky people have already seen the progress I’ve made in reworking Geon into Silverlight but as I won’t be making too much progress on it for a while (enjoying the sun and surf on Turtle Island ;)) I thought I would share the progress I’ve made over the past month or so. It’s a completely different idea to the original where you were only able to monitor a single location at a time. The whole thing is more “Web 2.0″ with it being a rich web application that is for all intents and purposes running locally on your machine. This not only means that I can do a heck of a lot more it also helps so if Geon gets popular my poor little server under my desk doesn’t die under the strain of more than 10 users trying to use it at once!
You can check it out now here, however you might want to read on for a quick tutorial of how to use it.
The first thing you’ll notice is the giant map in the center of the screen. If you checked out my previous Silverlight work (a basic translation of Geon from ASP.NET into Silverlight) you’ll be familiar with this. It functions just like Google Maps however this is Microsoft’s Virtual Earth control for Silverlight. Mouse wheel zooms you in and left clicking moves the map around. Pretty simple and intuitive.
On the left is a column of buttons with some familiar terms on them. Clicking any one of them will set them off pulsing to show you that you’ve selected them and clicking on the map would drop that control on the map. For now I’d recommend zooming in to about the 50~100km scale and then selecting the Location button, finding somewhere you’d like to see information about and click on it. You’ll get a circle that’s about 50km in diameter centered on where you clicked and this will be the anchor for the other controls.
Now the only other control implemented at the moment is the Twitter one, so click on it and click somewhere close to the location circle you placed earlier. You’ll notice a big sqaure pop up with the Twitter icon at the top. After a couple seconds or so it should start populating itself with all the tweets from that area, and you can click the blue names to jump to the tweet itself.
You can do this multiple times all over the map, and the tweets will continue to update for as long as you have the app open. If you’re feeling adventurous try clicking the Twitter button again and clicking near the location circle. You’ll notice that it automatically places them around the circle for you. It works well up to about 5 and then the placement starts to get a little weird but it’s at least usable.
On the right hand side you’ll notice a list of things appearing. That’s a list of every “Geon” (piece of information tagged with some form of geo information) and will eventually be a little more usable than it is now. It’s supposed to be a list that you can browse if you have say, 20 different locations tracked and can’t look at them all at once. It will also have a bit more to it when the request/respond part of Geon gets developed, but that’s still a little way off.
You don’t have to use the location field to plop down one of the info controls but since they’re, you know, massive, they kind of cover up the entire area you’re looking at. I’ll also have some options in a future release for the location field so you can refine your area down to a smaller area or filter for a specific term.
So there you have it, Geon 2.0 alpha. Have a fiddle, tell me what you’d like to see, what you hate and anything else you’d like to say
Mention the words “Web 2.0″ to me and you’ll usually be greeted with a slight snarl and maybe a comment or two about how the web doesn’t really have version numbers. Sure I can appreciate the idea that after the dot com bust companies shifted their focus from just having a web presence to truly leveraging the Internet but it still never sits right in my head. However with my recent foraying into rich web application development I’ve come to realise that if I try to describe what I’m doing using any other term I usually get blank stares from those supposedly “in the know”, so I’ve relegated myself to using the term. At least just in general terms to describe something that’s on the web but feels like a desktop application.
With all this angst that I had built up for Web 2.0 applications it was nice then to see an example of a something I would deem Web 2.0-ish that added value to my browsing experience rather than trying to do nothing but make money off it:
Basically there was a term I didn’t understand (it was Latin after all) in an article so I decided to highlight it and copy it into Google so I could find out what it was. Imagine my surprise when a little question mark popped up and upon clicking it, a definition of the word popped up. For me as a user of this site it’s quite handy, since I can just highlight and click. For the content provider it is doubly advantageous as I don’t leave their web page to go hunting around for a dictionary defintion, and I also give them another page view which helps with their revenue. Overall it’s a win-win situation for everyone and has helped to soften my harsh view on the whole Web 2.0 scene.
The problem I initially had with many Web 2.0 oriented companies was that their only selling point was that the application looked flashy and was driven to generate as much revenue as possible off the user’s experience. For most end users this was all transparent and I can’t deny that the business model has worked for a few of the current web giants. As an IT professional however the lack of value that could be derived from using this applications only served to make me look like an Internet Luddite, wishing for the good old times when pages rendered fast and I didn’t need to download flash to run 90% of sites on the web. With the Web 2.0 crowd now having to mature their business models in order to survive in an increasingly harsh and competitive environment we’re now starting to see some applications with true value enhancing experiences for the end user, something that I felt had been lacking up until now.
This idea is what has been driving force behind me developing Geon and hopefully with the way things are going I won’t be too far off providing some added value to the information its bringing in. Of course since this is a bit of a side project for me the plans to try and monetize it are a bit far off (and indeed, I have little experience in dealing with advertisers) so it’s not a grab for cash yet, so hopefully I won’t be alienating people like myself right off the bat.
As with all new technology there comes a time when the platform matures to the point where the fact that something is built on it or uses it is no longer novel, and that’s the point when the true innovation can begin. The next few years will bring out some truly amazing stuff which I, for one, can’t wait to see.
Tune in five years from now to see me ranting about Web 3.0
Back in the hay days of the Internet companies were all looking at exploiting this new means of marketing their ideas. This saw the meteoric rise of many Internet firms who specialized in either creating an online presence for a company or building web enabled apps. I liken it to when you were a child and one of your friends got the latest and greatest widget, you just had to have it for yourself. It was this kind of me-tooism that lead to the technological stock ticker of America (NASDAQ) to reach a dizzying height of 5048 points on March 10, 2000.
Anyone can tell you that the only place to go from the peak of achievement is back down, and boy it did.
After the rush that was the Y2K problem many companies found themselves set for the next couple years. Generally speaking most IT equipment has a life between 3~5 years when speaking in terms of major upgrades. This left many of the companies who had based themselves around selling equipment and services for the web and Y2K compliance without clients for years. Combine that with the dodgy accounting practices and the excessive IT culture that had developed (Aeron chairs anyone?) many IT companies found themselves failing in a heap very quickly, with a lot of them declaring bankruptcy and flooding the market with IT professionals.
In reality this was a good thing for the IT industry. With any new market you’ll get a time when investors will go crazy over it because it’s the latest and greatest, which leads to an asset price inflation bubble. Once people realise that the market is based purely on speculation (or someone reveals it’s just a fancy ponzi scheme) then it will inevitably crash. However, once the crash is complete and the vultures have flown away the new market will seek to establish itself as a true discipline, and I can tell you that the quality of many Internet based companies and applications improved dramatically after the dot com bust, as the business struggled to entice investors back.
Whilst I can’t remember who said this to me first I do have a great quote from one of the engineers who rode out the dot com bubble (probably paraphrased to):
I remember sitting down with some executives and explaining their new accounting system to them. About 10 minutes into the meeting one of the execs said to me “That’s all great, but can you put it on the web?”
Using this as an example, can you think about a current trend that also lends itself to this quote (I’ve already given it away with the title for this blog post).
Right now Social Networking sites and services are growing rapidly in popularity and it seems every other week some new fangled Web 2.0 application comes out that will revolutionise the way we communicate with each other on line. The popularity of these services is now starting to affect business decisions, with many companies wanting to increase their online presence utilising them in some way or another. There are some benefits to this however, as since many companies want their services available through social networking tools they have to increase their ability to interoperate with the world at large, and openness in communication is always a great thing.
It would seem the quote for the Social Web Bubble would be “That’s all great, but can it update my Facebook page?”.
However, thanks to the global financial crisis I don’t believe we’ll see another dot com bust style drop in the technology stocks like we saw back in 2000. All the speculative value that was created in the short time between the dot com bust and now has been effectively killed by the crisis, but with the strange side effect of leaving many of the companies in tact. The GFC may be a blessing in disguise for the companies who have based their wealth on social technologies, which will hopefully lead them to establish themselves properly as the times get better.
When I first thought about writing this blog post I was reminded of the old saying “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it”. With only 8 short years between the dot com bust and the GFC it would seem that many tech companies would be wiser then to try and hop on a bandwagon to make a quick buck. The answer lies in the pioneers of the new social technology. Primarily these people are made up of those who, whilst have a rich technological background, where not in the industry at the time of the crash. A great example would be Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who would have been only 16 at the time of the bust. I’d bet my bottom dollar that whilst he created the idea there are many engineers working on his team who were in the dot com bust, but make their money on their skills rather then their ideas.
It would have been interesting to see what would have happened to the Social Web had the GFC not came along.
Most people know about the ideas of Virtual Reality, such as the concepts expressed in the Matrix trilogy of movies and other Science Fiction productions. However many people are unaware of the bridge between these worlds that already exists using today’s technology. This is known as Augmented Reality and it attempts to enhance our current perception of the world using technology. The simplest form of this I can think of is Heads Up Displays (HUDs) that you can even get in your car these days (if you happen to own one of those spiffy European cars ;)). However I don’t want to get bogged down in the idea of visual augmented reality, as that’s really just a small part of it.
With today’s technology putting more and more information at our fingertips our reality is becoming more augmented then we might think. For instance, my phone has a web browser built into it and an Internet connection that would’ve cost most companies thousands of dollars a decade ago. Right now if someone asks me a question that I have no idea about a quick trip to Wikipedia has the general information about the topic at hand almost instantly. Additionally back when I had a Windows Mobile phone (Which I managed to lose, but that’s another story!) I used to subscribe to RSS feeds that would be updated every hour. This meant that I had up to date information on various topics that interested me in my pocket at all times. If I was out at lunch I’d merely scroll through the newest items and I’d always be up to date on the latest.
But even this “pull” side of augmented reality is only one part of it. When I was down in Melbourne visiting one of my friends he happened to tell me about these new shoes that he got. It seems that Nike had gotten together with Apple to produce what basically amounted to a pedometer that was embedded in the shoes and was capable of recording statistics whilst you were jogging. He was partly doing this because his work had a sponsored health campaign, and they were all uploading their stats to a website to see how they were all going. As much as I hate the term “Web 2.0″ it’s very much that, putting the users in charge of generating content that is of interest to everyone.
So where is all this technology going? Back in 2004 a university project in Singapore spawned a real world Pacman, using GPS and a complex overlay of the real world. Whilst this is more of a gimmick it did show the potential of using many disparate forms of technology to augment and enhance our view of the world. One of the coolest apps, which also demonstrates the power of Open Development Platforms, is Wikitude AR Travel Guide for the HTC G1 Android mobile phone:
What I like about this app is that it is a consumer level application. It’s designed for your everyday user to be able to download and use without having to think about it. As the Android platform matures I’m sure we’ll start to see many more implementations of applications like this and I for one, can’t wait.
It’s almost enough for me to break out Visual Studio and start coding again……