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The Signal – Instrumenting Our Social Lives

By - March 16, 2010

From my FM column: Tuesday Signal: Get Ready for a Real Conversation About Privacy, Publicy, and Social Media

I’ve long said that I’m a fan of social networks and media, of course, but I’ve also pointed out that most of it is artless and ingenuous in comparison with the sophistication each of us has when it comes to “being social.” So far, our technologies lack the instrumentation each of us employs when interacting in the simplest social situation. We have the benefit of hundreds of thousands of years of social evolution – not to mention millions of years of biological evolution. Yet as social creatures we flock to technologies that allow us to express that fundamental need, even if it fails to truly reflect our nature.
What’s heartening is how our culture has begun to ask interesting questions about what this all means – for our businesses, as marketers, as citizens, and as individuals. As Danah Boyd states in her opening keynote at SXSW: “ChatRoulette may be a fad, but the idea that publicity and privacy will get mashed up in new ways will not be.”
Tens of millions have flocked to ChatRoulette – and while it may well be a fad, the impulse which sent so many to “only connect” is not. Understanding who we are as private and public beings will be a fundamental component of what it means to be literate in a modern society. And marketers who make a practice of understanding this will succeed over those who do not.
I predict a punctuation mark in this conversation over the coming months, in the form of Facebook’s public data firehose. Expected at their F8 developer conference this June, the Facebook firehose will allow developers to create all sorts of unexpected applications and services which leverage Facebook status updates, wall posts, and more. Twitter should get the credit for pushing this open architecture, but Facebook’s implementation of it will be revelatory – and not necessarily in ways that might be positive. I predict one of the first applications created will be a site publishing Really Stupid Pictures You Probably Should Not Have Posted To Facebook, for example. Cue media frenzy and….well you get the picture.

Video Chat on the Plane? Illegal? OK? Legal Gray Area?

By - March 10, 2010

201003101937.jpgI’m writing this at around 36,000 feet, on a United Airlines flight between New York and San Francisco. That’s not so unusual – anymore – Wifi had been on planes for over a year now, and I’ve grown accustomed to the service.

Why? Well, because my family also has Wifi, and my kids can now gather around any one of our home computers, fire up iChat, and BAM! they can see me even as I zip across the Nebraska sky at some 400+ mph.

Except tonight, as I was chatting with my lovely wife and two lovely daughters (much to the amusement of my seat mates, using Bose headphones and my MacBook’s built in microphone), the very nice steward – who I must note brought me extra nuts even though he didn’t have to – told me I had to quit my video chat.

“Security. Cameras not allowed!” was the response. There was clearly no argument.

Screen shot 2010-03-10 at 7.17.08 PM.pngI protested, but not too loudly. I don’t want to end up stripped searched in a cold basement cell below SFO, after all. I told my family I had to quit the video chat. My girls were not pleased – today my oldest got a new bed and REALLY wanted to show it off (and let me tuck her into it from an airplane. I mean, how cool is that?! Isn’t that what Cisco makes the commercials about? Or AT&T back in 1994?! You Will? Until someone tells you that you won’t!). My wife spent three hours putting it together, and she wanted me to see it too. (Well really, she wanted me to see the look on our daughter’s face when I saw it, anyone who’s a parent will understand…)

So what’s a curious guy to do? To the Internet! Which is exactly what I did. Responses starting pouring in. Including one from a pal at the State Department, who echoed my basic goal: To use video chat to tuck my kids into bed isn’t a crime. Or at least, shouldn’t be.

Anyway, this is clearly a wonderful charlie horse. The flight attendant just showed me the United policy manual which prohibits “two way devices” from communicating with the ground. However, the PLANE HAS WIFI. To combat this, not unlike China, United and other airlines have blocked Skype and other known video chat offenders. Apparently, they missed Apple iChat. Oops.

DOH! It’s a conundrum! More on this as it develops. My pal at State is working on it….

At least I can still write a post from 36,000 feet. Kids, you’ll have to wait for the tuck-in…for now. (Despite my son and wife’s attempt at busting me by repeatedly inviting me to new video chats…)
(image credit )
Update: My pal at State says she can’t find any government rule against video chat on a plane. She did point me to this FAA fact memo, which says the reason Skype et al are blocked are to stop chatty folks like me from bumming out their seatmates. Not exactly the same logic used by my otherwise stellar United flight attendants…

Google's Microsoft Moment? European Antitrust Review Looms

By - February 23, 2010

In past writings I’ve intoned that Google was following the path of Microsoft in many ways, and suggested that at some point it may face the same kind of scrutiny – and potential enervation – as Gates&Co did back in the late 1990s with the DOJ. Now comes news from the WSJ that the European Union has decided to open an investigation into the company, though the allegations seem less serious than those which ultimately forced Microsoft to permanently alter its practices. Not surprisingly, one of the complainants is a subsidiary of Microsoft in Europe.

From the piece:

Google Inc. is set to announce later Tuesday that European antitrust authorities have opened a preliminary probe into complaints made against it by three European Internet companies, according to people familiar with the matter. The inquiry into allegations of anticompetitive behavior is at an early, fact-finding stage and may not result in any action. But it appeared to be the first time that European antitrust authorities have examined Google’s conduct outside of a merger review. It also comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of Google in Europe, where the company has an even more dominant position in search advertising than it does in the U.S.

The China Story

By - January 14, 2010

It’s my sincere hope that this blows up, not over. With reports coming in that the Chinese government was most certainly behind the attack on Google and 20 other companies (and has done this before), and that the White House is now supporting Google’s position, it’s about time that we call a spade a spade here. What China is doing is wrong, regardless of how much debt of ours they hold. Looking the other way in the name of pure profit is a practice whose time should end.

Update: Cato has an interesting take on how the Chinese hackers got in: by leveraging infrastructure Google put in place to help the US Government do wiretaps. Thanks to reader Brandon Byers for this.

Another update: Xian Qiang, who I taught with at Berkeley and launched China Digital Times earlier this decade, has a take here.

Google's Tortured History With China

By - January 13, 2010

china-flag-wave.jpgGoogle yesterday surprised Wall St. and its partners with the announcement that it may pull out of China (most expect it will, given the politics of making such a statement, the move is most likely assured). Google said that “hackers” had leveraged its infrastructure to target Chinese dissidents. To my mind, that means Google has discovered that China’s government is using Google’s networks and data, and Google realized that can’t stand, for any number of reasons. (Including that US and European based activists were targeted – via phishing and other similar types of scams).  

Google further noted that at least 20 other companies were also being targeted, and it has been in contact with those companies as well.  

What’s interesting and consistent to me is that Google has been here before – at the same time that Google was entering China (Jan. of 2006), the US Dept. of Justice demanded data from Google as part of a child porn fishing excercise, and Google refused to comply, and then went public, in essence becoming a leader in data rights by forcing the government’s hand.

In this case, Google is again taking a leadership role, and the company is forcing China’s hand. While it’s a stretch to say the two things are directly connected, the seeming fact that China’s government was behind the intrusions has led Google to decide to stop censoring its results in China. This is politics at its finest, and it’s a very clear statement to China: We’re done playing the game your way.

From the blog post:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

As I wrote in the book and here, Google was never entirely comfortable with getting into China, and used a fair amount of tortured logic to get to the point of committing resources back five years ago. From one of my posts:

There’s still time to pull out, guys. I’ve read your rationalizations, and Uncle Bill’s as well. I don’t buy them. I don’t buy that this is what, in your heart, you believe is right. Sure, I understand the logic. But, well….in your heart, is this what you wanted to do? No? Then why did you do it?

….I was having dinner with some dear friends tonight. They asked me why did Google do this? My answer: I think they convinced themselves it was the right thing to do. They thought themselves into it. And deep down, they aren’t sure they did the right thing. At least, that’s what I want to believe. Sure, Microsoft is going to go in. Yahoo and IBM are going to go in. But Google? We thought…well, we thought you were different.

Apparently, Google is.

Privacy: Is Zuckerberg Misreading? Or Is This a Story at All?

By - January 10, 2010

Reading coverage of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent commentary on his company’s newly changed privacy policies, I was struck with the urge to ask all of you a question: Do you think this is a big deal? Or is this simply the evolution of our society’s ongoing contract with the individual, an evolution that Facebook is reflecting?

In short, as Marshall submits in his article on RWW, is Facebook trailing public sentiment on privacy, or is he forging it? I’d love your thoughts in comments.

The Brewing Privacy Storm

By - December 14, 2009

We’re pushing it as an industry, I think. Google making all search personal and its leadership claiming privacy is for those with something to hide. Facebook pushing all data out into the world (and ticking off Danny, of all people). The advertising ecosystem leveraging more and more data, but not thinking hard enough about how that data is controlled. All of this is drawing the attention of major media and the folks who read it – IE, Congress.

We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

And we need to stop and take a breath before something happens we’ll all regret.

I’m heartened by all the privacy dashboards that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others are creating and making available. But I think it’s time for us as an industry to really stop and think about this issue and address it. Because we can’t afford a conservative (and I mean that in the catholic sense of the word) backlash on this issue.

Just leaving a note here on this, as much to remind myself to spend time on this issue in the new year as anything…

This is the Facebook Step We Expected: Default Public

By - December 09, 2009

This is a big deal. Facebook is taking the final step to become more like Twitter. Thanks to RWW for pointing it out. I’ve been traveling and had not had a chance to read the new privacy settings, which state:

…we’ll be recommending that you make available to everyone a limited set of information that helps people find and connect with you, information like “About Me” and where you work or go to school…. This information is name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, friend list, and Pages….

The blog post explaining the changes amounts to a massive act of “burying the lead”, to use a journalistic phrase. The lead is “the core of the story.” To me, the fact that your status updates and other info will now be public is a pretty big story. But Facebook leads with this:

Today, we’re launching new tools to give you even greater control over the information you share.

This is true, and having a more instrumented cockpit for privacy is really cool (and a big deal on a site with 350mm folks). But nowhere in the post is the status message shift mentioned. RWW found it in the video explaining the changes in more detail:

According to the video explaining the changes, the new default for status messages is “everyone.” That’s a huge change. Of course it’s not hard for people to keep their existing privacy settings, but confusion around what those settings are is hardly resolved by the phrase “old settings” and a tool-tip phrase appearing when you hover over that option.

A substantial backlash has already begun in comments on the Facebook blog post about the announcement. Previous moves by the company, like the introduction of the news feed, have seen user resistance as well – but this move cuts against the fundamental proposition of Facebook: that your status updates are only visible to those you opt-in to exposing them to. You’ll now have to opt-out of being public and opt-in to communicating only with people you’ve given permission to see your content.

Clearly, this change was not made lightly. And clearly, this is a move that pushes Facebook more toward embracing and extending a Twitter like model in the future.

What’s next? Well, if the changes stand, expect a hell of a lot of action in the third party Facebook developer world….

A Step Toward Realizing the Data Bill of Rights Vision

By - November 05, 2009


Danny was kind enough to ping me about this story, which breaks the news about Google’s new “Dashboard,” which is, in essence, a first start toward realizing the “privacy dashboard” I asked for so long ago (and again here), back when I was posting ideas like a madman (I’m going to be doing that again shortly, so watch out…).

It’s a big deal I think, even if most of us never use it. And it’s very smart of Google to lead here. It really had no choice, when you think about it. And it’s kind of cool to see stuff I wrote about here over three years ago happen in the real world.