Posts Tagged‘social networking’

Honeypotting, Social Networking and You (or When You Can’t Trust Your Friends on Facebook).

I don’t know how people keep getting caught up with their online social presence like they do, what with the dozens of stories that seem to come out each week about someone who’s been burned by their social networking activities. I’d like to say that I’m lucky that it hasn’t happened to me but it’s got nothing to do with luck and everything with the company I keep. All of my friends are aware of the impact putting up compromising pictures on the Internet and there’s an unspoken agreement that nothing of the sort will make it up there. However for those people out there who have “friends” who delight in posting embarrassing pictures of them online and haven’t learnt the privacy settings of Facebook there’s a lot you can do to make sure that they don’t come back to bite you in the ass.

The idea I’m talking about is called honey potting.

The nomenclature comes from the IT Security/hacker crowd and is used in reference to a system that’s set up to be attractive to people with less than righteous intents. In essence you’d set up this system so that a would be hacker would target it first and you’d set up alarms in order to alert you to when someone’s going in there. The core of the idea is that not only do you know that the intruders are coming you also control exactly what they see in that honey pot environment. Extrapolating that idea to the world of social networks and the potential for embarrassment contained therein the idea would then be to craft an online persona that’s more easily found via a cursory Google search than those compromising Facebook pictures are.

For me this was done accidentally when I created this blog. My name is tagged on every post and after 3 years of blogging any search for my name usually ends up with this blog at the top or something equally safe such as my LinkedIn profile or Twitter page. Facebook is much further down and contains barely any details on me at all (apart from a few pictures) meaning that the impression that a potential future employer will get will be mostly shaped by what they see on those other sites. Sure it’s not exactly a quick fix that people would be looking for but it works.

This strategy won’t help you too much if your employer asks for your Facebook login upon applying for a job though. Should they do that however I’d advise you to turn tail and run as far away from them as you can since a company that requires that level of invasion will more than likely screw you in more ways than you can imagine. I have no sympathy for people who willingly put compromising information on a public forum but an employer has no right to ask for that level of access.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the questionably ethical process of tracking down all the information on a potential candidate. Whilst the ultimate solution is abstaining completely (although that can lead to the undesirable situation of the Internet making your persona for you in the mind of the searcher) most won’t choose to do that. Hell even if you can manage your friends it’s still a good idea to craft an online persona that looks the way you want it to be, rather than one that constructs itself.

Google+, 6 Weeks On.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of what Google’s done with their latest product, Plus. Initial impressions of the service were good with the interface being clean and apart from the Huddle app experiencing some technical difficulties it was essentially bug free. It also seemed to be quite the hit with it gathering 10 million users in just 2 weeks, no small feat even for a tech giant like Google. I’ve been using the service ever since it launched to the public and now that we’re starting to get to the tail end of the honeymoon period for Google+ I’m starting to see some similarities to other social networks I once used, and that’s not a good thing.

When I first saw Google+ the first thing I thought of, and I wasn’t the only one to think this, was how persuasive Google could be in order to drag my friends across from Facebook. Now initial numbers were pretty good, with about 20% of my friends signing up in the first few weeks. They were all my somewhat technically inclined friends and I had expected the majority to come across in the early adopter wave. However the rest of my social network hasn’t shown any traction at all and in fact mentioning the fledgling social network to them draws blank stares. Thus whilst I was quick to see a good chunk of people come across the inertia for the regular user to jump ship is, at least at this point in time, still way too high.

It’s also become apparent that even these early adopters seem to value Google+ as a second rate candidate for their social networking. Whilst both my Twitter and Facebook feeds see dozens of updates every day I can’t say the same for Google+, sometimes going days without seeing anything new on my front page. I’ll admit that I too barely post anything to the service as most of my activities are automatically syndicated by way of in built APIs. There are of course solutions to this but unfortunately unlike WordPress, Twitter and Facebook which have rather elegant solutions anything involving Google+ at this point feels rather hacky. This may change once Google releases an official API and allows native apps ala Facebook, but since all my other technical friends aren’t syndicating their streams it makes me wonder if they’re that engaged with Google+ in the first place.

My anecdotal experience however doesn’t explain why Google+ is seeing such explosive growth. They hit 10 million in just a fortnight and managed to more than double that to 25 million just two weeks after that. By all rights that would seem to be an impressive number of people who were looking for an alternative to Facebook (around 5% of their users, give or take) but still a tiny number comparatively. Realistically it’s still way too early as whilst such traction is impressive it’s still very early days for Google+ and the real test will be if they can capture any semblance of that exponential growth in the next 6 months.

Google, to their credit, hasn’t been resting on their laurels since launching just a month and a half ago. Just recently they launched the games section of Google+ which includes a fair number of familiar titles. Whilst I haven’t had a play around in that section yet it does seem to be an almost straight up port of the games section of the Chrome Web Store. This isn’t a bad thing as it means that those looking to develop for the Google+ platform can already do so, just that it seems like a bit of duplication of effort even if Google+ and Chrome target different markets. Still initial reviews of the games service aren’t entirely positive but there is hope for future iterations that have tighter integration with the Google+ platform.

Google+ also seems to be sticking to its guns when it comes to being clear of privacy with it managing to avoid any scandals in that area. There has been the rather sticky issue of those users who didn’t want to use their real name getting booted from Google+ and subsequently losing everything attached to that Google account. This is really the only major issue that Google has faced with their network and whilst I can understand their position their reaction to those users has been rather heavy handed. Considering nearly all other Google services allow you to operate under a nickname many were under the impression that they could do the same on Google+. Whether Google will change this policy in the future remains up for speculation.

The next few months are going to be crucial for the ongoing success of the Google+ platform. They’ve definitely managed to make a product that a lot of people want however the competition they are going up against has a long head start, enough that such explosive growth looks like a drop in the bucket to them. Fortunately Google does seem committed to the platform with it being under heavy active development and it’s those improvements and additions to the service that will determine whether or not it becomes a viable alternative to Facebook.

If you haven’t yet got an invite to Google+ you can click here to get yourself an invite. 

A Weekend With Google+.

When I wrote about Google+ last week I was under no delusions that I’d be able to get myself into the program before they started doing their open testing. Like Google Wave and Gmail before it I didn’t have any friends who were in on the first round invites so I put my name in the email form and resigned to come back to it after all the hubbub had died down. One of my clever friends (who has recently become a fellow blogger) hit up someone giving out invites on Twitter and was himself granted invites upon joining in. Since my entire group of friends was chomping at the bit to get in and have a go with Google’s latest toy we all jumped at the chance to get in on the action, and I spent the weekend having a fiddle with it.

The landing page of Google+ looks eerily similar to that of Facebook’s, with a very familiar 3 column layout that has all the major components in approximately the same positions. This is a decidedly non-Google way of presenting a service but it appears that this will be the way they go about it from now on since the same styling has made its way onto the Google search engine. I’m definitely a fan of it since the layout is clean, uncluttered and isn’t yet ridden with ads. I’m sure eventually it will start getting ads much like Facebook has as there’s a lot of real estate on the right hand side that’s just sitting there unused currently, right in the same spot that Facebook has its ads.

As part of the Google+ implementation it looks like at least one other service, Google Talk, received a small upgrade in functionality. I’m a big user of the chat function that’s long been available through Gmail (mostly because all my friends use it) but the experience on there has never been that great. Unless you’re on an unfettered connection to the outside world the chat would likely drop out at least once or twice a day and the only way to get back into a group conversation was to be added back into it. Now it seems to be able to remember sessions quite well and I was able to access the same conversation in Gmail and Plus simultaneously, even on different computers. Having the concept of rooms would still be an awesome feature to have, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.

The circles idea is an interesting one, albeit one that I don’t have much use for currently. Circles are just groups of people you can create on the fly and they’re only visible to you. There’s 4 default groups that take their inspiration from the other major social networks (Friends/Family = Facebook, Acquaintances = LinkedIn, Following = Twitter) but they’re really just there to get you started. Since at the moment the only people I know on there are my tech enthusiast friends I’ve really only needed a single group. Should Google offer an API that will allow me to consolidate all my social doings in one spot I can see this being a very handy feature but until such a time I get a feeling that this feature (and by extension much of the benefits of Google+) will be lost on me.

Two features I didn’t get much of a chance to play with were Hangouts and Sparks, although a couple of my mates gave me a rundown on how they work. Hangouts are basically Skype in a web browser which is pretty amazing by itself but it’s also meant to make group conversations more useful by making whoever is doing the talking the main person in the Hangout window. I’ve had a quick fiddle with the Sparks bit but all it seems to do is search the web with the keywords you plug into it, generating a stream of on-topic articles that may or may not be of interest to you. For kicks I tried video games and got everything from recent articles to reviews dating back a year. The curated feeds that are displayed when you first click into Sparks might be better, but none of them really aligned to my interests.

At the same time Google released Plus they also debuted the accompanying Android application, which has just as much polish as the web based product. It functions pretty much as expected with the vast majority of functionality available. Strangely however the Huddle feature, basically group messaging ala Beluga et al, is a standalone application. Huddle was up and down over the time I was using it but when it worked it was very usable, however it lacks the maturity of other group messaging apps as there’s no media or location sharing built in. Additionally the lack of a web interface for Huddle feels like an oversight on Google’s part since that would make it infinitely more usable, especially if it was available through Google Talk.

Overall I’m quite impressed with Google+ as a service and so are a good portion of my friends. However only a fifth of my direct social circle has made it onto Google+ and with no API to speak of yet (although one is coming) it’s really just another curiosity for the time being. Once there’s a bit more integration with other services and the user base hits critical mass I could see it being the one stop place for my social networking needs. The  hardest challenge that Google+ faces isn’t technical however, it will be attempting to break the stranglehold that Facebook holds on the market. If there’s anyone who’s capable of doing this it’s Google, but even they are going to have a hard time drawing users away from the place where all their friends still reside.

Google+: I Like It, But Will My Friends?

If there’s one thing that the search giant Google doesn’t seem to be able to get right it’s social networking. This isn’t for lack of trying however, in Google Latitude is one of the most popular location based social networking applications out there and Orkut, their first social network, is still going strong with over 100 million users. However Orkut is still a far cry from what Facebook has become and Buzz has come no where near touching Twitter as a platform, even with the advantage of being right up in every Gmail user’s face. Google isn’t one to take things like this lightly and rumors have been swirling around for a long time that they were prepping to launch a new product that would be a direct competitor for the social networking starlets.

Today they announced Google+.

In essence it’s yet another social network, but it seems to combine aspects from all the hot start up ideas of the past couple years (group messaging, video chat, social recommendations, filtered photos) with a UX experience that feels distinctly non-googlesque. Whilst the product isn’t available for people to use right now you can put your name and email address in here to get added into the product sometime in the future. The screenshots I’ve been able to get my hands on have definitely piqued my interest in the product, not least of which is because of some of the features.

The first concept that I like, and one that had been talked about extensively prior to the announcement, was the Circles feature. Basically it lets you create groups of people out of your greater social network for sharing things like pictures and status updates. It’s a different paradigm to that of groups within Facebook since they’re only visible to you. It’s a great way of getting around that whole limited profile thing you have to laboriously set up within Facebook to make sure that you don’t inadvertently share something to people you didn’t want to. Grouping people up by interests is great too since I’m sure that not everyone is interested in the same things that I am.

The media sharing aspect sounds interesting too with Google saying it will be heavily integrated with mobile. In essence every picture or movie you take can be automatically uploaded to Google+, although it remains hidden until you choose to share it. Their image editor apparently integrates Instagram like photo filters for those of us who think that makes them some kind of artist, which is great but I feel is only there because that whole filtered photo thing is so hot right now. Google+ also has what they call Hangouts, basically video chat rooms that up to 10 friends can join. Hopefully that product doesn’t necessarily require video to work as it would be great to get an upgrade to Google Talk.

However after looking at what Google+ has to offer I started thinking about what I’d be using it for. I’d love to start using it in place of Facebook but unfortunately my entire social network is already on there and apart from the technically curious among them I can’t see any of them bothering to make the transition across to Google+. This means for Google+ to be any use to me it will need to have some pretty heavy duty integration with Facebook (and probably Twitter) in order for me to use it for any length of time. Google has been mum on the details of how deep the integration with existing social networks will go so we’ll just have to wait and see how they tackle this issue.

Like any new Google product it’s always interesting to see what kinds of innovations they bring to the table. Whilst nothing revolutionary in itself Google+ does show that Google is taking the whole social idea very seriously now and is looking to capitalize on many current trends in order to draw people to its platform. Whether or not this will lead to Google+ becoming a successful social network to rival that of Facebook and Twitter remains to be seen but I’ve already put my hand up to be one of the first to try out their latest offering, and I know I’m not alone in that regard (since the page refused to load twice when I tried to sign up).

Microsoft’s Social Network: Curiously Absent?

There’s no question now that the hot thing for any company to do is to make some kind of software that has a social component to it, and why wouldn’t you. If your product is based around friends (and not really friends) interacting with each other then the marketing really does itself, so long as your product is somewhat useful or novel. It’s getting to the point where once a service has been around for a while they will inevitably either integrate with Facebook or build in their own social networking components, usually to keep driving the user numbers upwards. No company seems to be immune to this, even my fledgling little application allows you to login via Facebook, except for one: Microsoft. Despite the social revolution that seems to be rampaging on around them Microsoft has quietly kicked back letting others duke it out for social supremacy. For a company that’s renowned for throwing money around in order to gain market share in pretty much every IT related area their silence on the social scene is quite eerie, verging on the point of them knowing something the rest of us don’t.

For the most part their strategy seems to have been one of going along with the current trend of integrating their products with the current social giants. Their MSN Messenger product was just recently updated with a new beta that had Facebook integration. Already it’s garnered a healthy 4.6 million users or approximately 1% of Facebook’s user base. That might not sound like much but considering that it’s still in beta and the current incarnation of the Live product has well over 330 million users you can expect that a lot of people are going to be getting their Facebook fix from Microsoft. Additionally many Outlook users would be familiar with their new Social Connector which is in essence a social network for businesses and has been getting some traction due to its integration with Sharepoint and the Office suite of products.

Still there’s no Microsoft Social Network (MSN? Ha!) to be found, so what’s the deal?

Part of the answer would seem to lie in the past. Rewind back about 3 years and you’ll come across a flurry of articles speculating on a bidding war between Microsoft and Google for a piece of the next hottest thing: Facebook. Surprisingly enough Microsoft won out in the end managing to secure a small share of the company for a cool $240 million, or 1.6% stake. This was a continuation of the relationship that they had established previously when Microsoft secured an advertising deal with Facebook just one year earlier. Still it was an odd move for Microsoft as the investment was peanuts for them (They had over $23 billion in cash on hand, yes cash) and realistically even if the company went to IPO and they got a 10x exit from it you’re still only looking at $2.4 billion dollars for a company who turns that over in about 2 weeks, so it was more a foot in the door than anything else. Their recent integration activities with Facebook also shows that they’re more keen to work with them rather than try to push them out of the market.

Strangely enough it looks like Microsoft actually did try to compete with Facebook all those years ago. I’ll admit I didn’t know about this when I first starting writing this post, I came across it in my research, but it appears that in response to Facebook going open to all back in 2006 Microsoft retaliated by launching their own site Wallop:

Seattle-based Microsoft Corp.‘s (NASDAQ: MSFT) spin off Wallopsaid Tuesday it was starting service. It’s a site intended to compete head on with MySpace and Facebook. Wallop starts with $13 million in backing from Microsoft, Norwest Venture Partners, Bay Partners and Consor Capital.

Considering that I’ve never heard of this site it’s not surprising that it never managed to get off the ground. Checking out the wiki page on the service it appears that they left their lofty ambitions behind back in 2008 instead focusing on developing applications for social networks rather than trying to compete with them. This it would seem is the reason behind Microsoft’s curious lack of a real social network. They tried, they failed and then realised that there was more to be done with them than against them. This really is contrary to their normal kind of behaviour and I’m sure there’s an ulterior motive to this that I just can’t figure out.

Taking a wild stab in the dark I’d say that they just don’t think they can take the shine off Facebook’s crown. Microsoft really isn’t the kind of company you expect to make products and services like that, they’re more of an underlying services platform that will deliver those products to you. Considering this is where their main revenue line is drawn from it’s not surprising but it’s still one of the first times where it looks like Microsoft has just thrown in the towel and capitulated to the competition. It will be interesting to see how this maneuver pays off as Google starts to ramp up their efforts in the social space with a rumoured Google Me service starting to make waves on the Internet. I still think Microsoft will hang back on that one too, but there’s every chance they’re waiting for the market to segment a bit before attempting to jump back in to the social networking scene.

When All You Have is Twitter, All Your Problems Look Like Tweets.

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.

The End of Online Anonymity? (or The Currency of the Future).

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.

Do You YouTube?

I’ve had a strange relationship with the world’s largest video sharing site. Way back when it debuted in early 2005 I was still one of those unfortunate people who was rocking blazing fast 56k dial up, due to my remote location. If I wanted to watch any videos on the site I’d have to stop all browsing actions for a good 30 minutes while the darn thing loaded, so for the better part of 2 years I ignored the site completely. I only started using the site after I got a reasonable form of broadband after moving into Canberra, but even then I still wasn’t a big user of it. At the start of the year however I started to notice it’s market pull with a lot of media giants and startups, and I’ve been an avid user ever since.

Primarily what caught my eye was the YouTube Partner program which is basically Google Adsense for videos. If you’re successful in applying to be a partner you get a cut of the ad revenue that your videos generate. The caveat is of course that you have somewhat of a proven record in making videos that people actually watch so for the most part the partner program is free of spammers attempting to get in to make a quick buck and the quality of YouTube partners content remains fairly high. There’s also been some perks like most partners getting a free Nexus One if they did a video about it, which led to some very interesting clips. I guess it was also a bit of a paradigm shift for me as well since I didn’t really know that anyone could generate revenue from the site, save for sponsorships and external sales.

What really got me interested however was the common thread amongst the top YouTubers: they’re almost all just individuals or small independent groups. Really this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the YouTube grew on the backs of users who submitted content to it so it makes sense that the community creates its starlets from within its own ranks. Still the marketing power of viral videos has been known for quite some time so it still seems a bit odd that most corporations aren’t ranking too highly as you would think they’d try everything to break into this platform. There is one notable exception however in Universal Music Group who owes their success to their acquisition of VEVO and the two starlets they dug out of this social network (Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga).

So the question remains, do corporations actually understand YouTube?

From what I’ve seen on the various “news” channels that focus on YouTube events it would seem that as a whole the YouTube community is rather hostile to traditional corporate entities. This phenomena isn’t limited to YouTube either as other social networking sites like Twitter seem to shy away from the big organisations and gravitate more towards real people. Take for instance the (rather short lived) backlash that President Obama got hit with when he publicly admitted that he’d never used Twitter, despite the fact that he had a verified account in his name. It would seem then that corporations are doomed to flounder in these new social mediums because, to the communities, they’re not part of their social circle.

Taking a step back for a second though you can see why things like viral video marketing began to take off. Faced with the prospect that such large communities will actively reject any of their advances corporations began looking for more innovative ways to sneak their advertising under the community’s radar. Whilst sponsored videos from community starlets work to a point people are quick to label people sell-outs, thereby diminishing a starlets marketing potential over time. Developing a video that appeals to the community yet does not make reference to the product or service you’re attempting to market will hopefully help it sneak under it under the radar and if its good enough you’ll have a flurry of people searching to figure out what its all about, and there your product will be.

Realistically I think most corporations that are seeking to use YouTube understand it completely, and that’s why many of them are maintaining a presence there but don’t spend a lot of time trying to break into the community. There’s notable exceptions of course that have managed to strike the balance between being a community member and a corporation but for the most part the YouTube community remains dominated by people like you and me. Personally I like it that way as it gives people the opportunity to work on a global scale without having to have the resources of a global company, and history has shown just how powerful a large community like YouTube can be in propelling people from the unknown to the spotlight.

As for myself? I have some plans to start something on YouTube just for fun, but I’ve got a couple other projects to knock over before I do. Stay tuned 😀

Geo-Social Networking (or Why I Don’t Get Check-Ins).

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.

I’m Watching You Bucko.

I’ve been heavily involved in many online communities for a long time now, probably the better part of a decade. Still many of the nuances of having an online presence escaped me until a few years ago when social networking started exploding and people started putting all sorts of embarrassing things up for the world to see. Thankfully I have a standing agreement with all my friends that nothing embarrassing or incriminating gets put up anywhere mostly because if they do decide to do it I have a whole arsenal of juicy material to use, so it’s a kind of mutually assured destruction of the social kind that keeps us all at bay. After setting up a website however I became increasingly interested in the presence I could create online rather than the one that was carved out for me by the giants of the social networking world.

For most people the only presence they will have online will be their Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn/MySpace pages as anything else would require a bit of effort from them and unless you’re in the business of doing things online there’s really no need. As long as their public facing pages are relatively tame they won’t face any repercussions from potential employers and in fact it might help them, serving to verify that you are who you say you are. Even the myth that you can’t get security cleared positions if you have a social networking page are false too, as I know many people with high level clearance who are my friends on Facebook.

Still for the IT industry having your own image on the web can be quite handy. Apart from the obvious utility of having your own space on the web with which to do things (like being able to remote into your machines at home from work, great for testing things) being able to control what people will see when they look for you online is quite invaluable. Whilst this blog isn’t yet at the top of Google searches for my name, that honour still belongs to LinkedIn for some reason, it’s right at the top. It might not sound like much but when a potential recruiter/employer is looking for information on me they never go past the first few sites and when they come to mine things start to get interesting.

You see I run Google Analytics on this blog. At the most basic level it’s just a visitor tracking system that Google provides for free in exchange for knowing all sorts of wonderful data about my site, the people that come to it and where they come from. Just to give you a taste of the kind of info that I get from running this here’s a screen shot of the data for the past month for this site:

Probably the most interesting part is the traffic sources overview down in the bottom left hand corner. Clicking on that brings up a report of where everyone is coming from, whether it be from Google or Twitter or if they had a bookmark/typed the address directly into the browser. The most powerful part of that, for me at least, is the search term category which tells me what people searched for to get to this blog. For the most part there are certain posts that will get picked up a lot (you can see in the Content Overview what they are) but every so often I’ll get people searching my (or friends) names popping up, and that’s when the digging begins.

Now I’m not an Internet celebrity by any stretch of the imagination so my name doesn’t get Google all that often. Usually it happens when one of my friends is trying to show my site to someone else (although most of them remember the address now) or, more importantly, it’s a potential employer or recruiter checking up on me. Since I’m usually in shotgun application mode for most jobs it pays to see which companies are looking into me and how deep they go in their research, and the results are usually pretty telling.

The last one I can remember came to the site and checked out the home page and the about page, but didn’t check the lab or any of my post archives. I think they spent a total of about 5 minutes on the site which tells me they were doing a quick check to make sure I was who I said I was and to see if there was anything obviously wrong with me. They didn’t notice the work and career tags in the tag cloud to the right hand side which could’ve soured their opinion of me somewhat but most of my work related posts seem to go unnoticed, so I think I’m safe there 😉

What’s this all mean in the end then? Not a whole lot really, the Google that many recruiters do is just a modern form of the informal interview that a lot of places used to (and some still) do. The unfortunate part was that you, the person being looked into, stopped getting something back from them, I.E. knowing they were interested enough to look into you in the first place. Running your own personal website, if you’re into that kind of thing, is a great way to mold your own online presence whilst keeping tabs on those who would look you up. I guess I’m just a bit of an information vortex, I can never get enough of the stuff 😉