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01 Jul

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Google+ First Impressions

July 1, 2011 | By |

It’s time to drop some off-the-cuff punditry. (Kidding.) I’m sitting at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport waiting for boarding one of a long series of flights, on a trip that’s been going on for the better part of a week. So when I got my Google+ invite, I hardly had time to check it out – besides through the mobile app on Android.

And I have to say: I’m impressed.

Disclaimer one: As we see a lot of bashing on one, and hyperbole on the other end of the spectrum, I’ll try to stay clear of all that. If you don’t like moderate blog posts, skip this one. Disclaimer two: I once worked on a small project for Google, and I’ve been (on and off) a member of the Google-initiated Internet & Society Collaboratory in Berlin (a multi stakeholder initiative, unpaid).

So! Is Google+ a Facebook killer? Nonsense, of course not. There’s a time and a place for Facebook, and the level of convenience as well as the incredible reach that Facebook has reached makes it unlikely to go away anytime soon. However – Facebook has been feeling stale and old for quite some time, and they have fumbled privacy so many times it’s hard to imagine that they really tried. Whatever their agenda is, protecting their users doesn’t seem to be part of it. If we’re lucky – and I must say I hope so – then Google+ might help nudge Facebook just that tiny bit closer to become more like MySpace: still around, but really, really irrelevant.

G+ is, however, the first serious and promising large scale attempt to offer a serious alternative to Facebook. While I’ve been really crossing my fingers for Diaspora – and it has become relatively neat over time – it’s not a very lively space.

The way Google has connected all the dots and learned from all the ways other platforms as well Google themselves were criticized is quite impressive. It’s obvious that a lot (!) of thought and resources have been poured into G+. Even the awkward loose ends like “+1″ and their other social near-failures seems to fit right in. And while of course only time will tell how protective of our privacy G+ will be, there are a number of interesting and very promising paradigms at work here. For one, sharing is much more granular – the “circles” metaphor works well. Group chat (“huddles”) works smoothly.

The mobile app is fantastic, and the notion of separating between a stream for your circles and “nearby” conversations happening allows for temporary local networks. Imagine you’re at a conference or concert, and instead of doing the awkward hashtag thing, you just see what people around you are saying. This could change quite a bit.

And one thing is certain: Since Google dropped G+ right into the Google navigation bar (along with mail, calendar etc) shows it really prominently whenever you have a touchpoint with another Google webservice – if you’re a knowledge worker these days, that means basically all the time. The integration with the other services, as far as I could tell, works very smooth, too. Google has managed to connect all the dots, and a very decent picture emerged.

Maybe it happened at random, but the fact that Google Calendar and Gmail also got a new, freshly designed interface just makes Google look that much more attractive than just a few days ago.

Of course, we’re seeing only the beginning of what will probably a long iterative process. The not-yet-quite obvious effects are hard to grasp at this point, where the beta users are only trying out what exactly it is that Google+ is even capable of. But besides becoming another big social network (which I’m sure G+ will become very quickly), I expect Google search results to become a lot more relevant.

When G+ will be available on iOS I don’t know. But Google has at least proven one thing: That despite their reputation they actually know how to do social. They’re a bit late to the game, but with G+ they put a stake in the ground.

This is going to be interesting to watch.

ps. For a very decent overview and analysis, this WIRED article is a must read.

08 Jun

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Facebook launches facial recognition, screws users (again)

June 8, 2011 | By |

Goopymart

Facebook has done it again: The company enabled a new feature that uses facial recognition to prompt your Facebook connections to “tag” you in photos they are shown. In other words: It recognizes user faces in photos, then shows them to their friends, encouraging them to identify the user by putting a name to the image.

Sounds useful? Yeah, right.

Consider this: A user does not get the option to pre-approve of photos of themselves being published. As you might know, I usually go for a share-all approach. This case, though, is another notch in Facebook’s bedpost of privacy violations. As so many times before, Facebook defaulted to share personal information instead of to protecting it. Again, they went for an opt-out model (where the user has to become actively involved to protect their privacy) and – to top things off – decided to hide the option to disable this “feature” way down in the privacy settings.

This is beyond bad style. Here’s how you disable facial recognition on Facebook.

I can’t wait for a truly privacy-conscious social networking service.

mystery cat / goopy mart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

25 Nov

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Diaspora Alpha is live, looks good

November 25, 2010 | By |

Diaspora has launched its consumer-facing alpha (as opposed to the last release that was for developers and tinkerers only). The privacy-conscious social network was off to a bit of a rocky start since it was profiled (in the media, on the web) enthusiastically as The Facebook Killer – a level of expectation that led to huge crowd-funding on Kickstarter as well as completely overwhelming expectations no one could possible live up to.

Fast forward half a year to now. The dust has settled, the first release is out. The “alpha” isn’t in the name to look more cute, it actually is a very early release with likely a lot of bugs and certainly only very basic functionality.

However, it does seem to work, and after the first few pokes at the service it looks quite good to me. A few screenshots:

Diaspora

The blog, just because I kinda like the logo.

Diaspora

The Diaspora dashboard is clean and minimalistic. Works fine for me, but it’ll only really become clear how usable it is once more contacts are linked to my profile.

Diaspora

To handle privacy and granular sharing, Diaspora uses the metaphor of “aspects” of your identity. An aspect could be your friends, your family, your work life: you can choose granularly which of these groups sees what you post. In Diaspora’s own words:

Diaspora lets you create “aspects,” which are personal lists that let you group people according to the roles they play in your life. We think that aspects are a simple, straightforward, lightweight way to make it really clear who is receiving your posts and who you are receiving posts from. It isn’t perfect, but the best way to improve is to get it into your hands and listen closely to your response.

At a glance this makes a lot of sense. Again, time will tell if it holds up.

Diaspora

On your dashboard you can also always see with whom you shared what kind of information.

Diaspora

Status updates and photos can also easily shared with external services. So far (ironically) this is limited to Twitter and Facebook. You cross-post by simply ticking the “make public” box.

Diaspora

User profiles are very minimalistic as of yet – for example you can’t put in a link to an external website. The age indicator is one of the less charming ones – never before have I actually felt old using a social network ;)

Since Diaspora is positioned as a more responsible social network than Facebook, data export and deleting your account is a simple enough task:

Diaspora

It’ll take a little while to test it all in full, and to gather a bit of a crowd on Diaspora to check out all the interactions. But at a first glance, despite this being very clearly alpha ware, it looks very promising. Another half year, maybe, and this may be a F… no. I’m kidding. This has nothing to do with Facebook, or being a Facebook killer – but it really doesn’t have to. This looks great by itself.

02 Jun

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Diaspora, an open Facebook?

June 2, 2010 | By |

IMG_4567

A few weeks ago, four recent NYU graduates announced – to the background noise of the latest (of many) major Facebook privacy fail – that they intended to build a privacy-focuses, decentralized, open-source alternative to Facebook. A social network, installed on a server of your choice, the data controlled by you alone.

Their fundraising period just ended. Instead of the $10K they had planned to raise, they got some $200K in pledges on Kickstarter.

There are several interesting points here: (1) these four young guys seem fairly inexperienced, yet they are a main focal point of hope for a large & growing number of privacy concerned web heads, including myself, so they get all the attention and are in a very interesting place right now. (2) After their initial announcement and the following hype (both on blogs and traditional media) they fell practically silent for several weeks. Which didn’t go down to well with many including myself, but others are more forgiving that way. (3) How can they match the expectations? Is there even a clear consensus about where the road should lead? Can they manage to pull of the first steps towards a prototype and open source quickly enough to engage the community, including some of the veterans of this field like Chris Messina and David Recordon (who both work for big companies now)?

As of yesterday, the Diaspora website is relaunched and also offers the Diaspora roadmap (PDF). Looks like late summer is still the first big milestone. From the (very top-level) roadmap, and with my very limited knowledge about the technical background of social networking and distributed computing, the project seems to be sensible. I really hope the four of them manage to pull off the first steps quickly enough to get more people and support on board.

This is potentially huge. But so is the chance of screwing up. And they just put a lot of stuff on a plate that’s growing by the day.

Image: IMG_4567, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from nearnearfuture’s photostream

02 May

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Facebook turns against its users, pro marketers

May 2, 2010 | By |

pitfall

The EFF has put together a timeline of Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy. And it’s a deeply disturbing thing to read. Please read the whole (brief) post over at the EFF website, but I’d like to highlight the development with just two quotes.

From the 2005 Facebook privacy policy:

No personal information that you submit to Thefacebook will be available to any user of the Web Site who does not belong to at least one of the groups specified by you in your privacy settings.

From the April 2010 Facebook privacy policy:

When you connect with an application or website it will have access to General Information about you. The term General Information includes your and your friends’ names, profile pictures, gender, user IDs, connections, and any content shared using the Everyone privacy setting. … The default privacy setting for certain types of information you post on Facebook is set to “everyone.”

This is just the most recent of many changes Facebook has unilaterally imposed on its users. It’s not like the 400+ million Facebook users were consulted about these changes, or will ever be. Unlike Google, which in Germany is often and harshly criticized about privacy concerns, there is a different quality to what Facebook is doing: Google has a business interest in only using abstract (i.e. aggregated) data (so they can sell access to this data as a middle man), and otherwise get out of the way as they live off of more people just using the web, thus being exposed to more ads.

Facebook on the other hand hasn’t figured out a really smart way to monetize on their users. But instead of working hard on figuring out a smarter way, they instead decided to just do the stupid thing: they are now in the business of selling their users. This wasn’t the second best option, but arguably the worst.

Now to put this into perspective: Facebook has introduced features or other changes many times over the years. Always there was a huge outcry; sometimes they were right in standing by the changes (activity stream, anyone?), sometimes they were right in abandoning them (remember Beacon?).

However, there were also cases where they stood by even their dumber decisions, like making the default setting of Facebook public. Since users of web services tend to leave the settings untouched, the default setting is a big deal. You make a bad decision and most of your users suffer. That’s what Facebook did a few months back: Just switch settings from private to public for everyone who hadn’t changed their privacy settings. (Better idea: if you want to switch defaults, just do it for new users and tell them about it.)

Now Facebook has implemented some major changes both in their privacy policy and in their architecture again. Much has been written about the (lousy, nasty, annoying) details; I recommend Chris Messina’s post “understanding the open graph protocol” to get up to speed on the criticism:

Ok, not a big deal, but think laterally: how about this? What if Larry and Sergey wanted to recreate PageRank today? You know what I bet they wish they could have done? Forced anyone who wanted to add a page to the web to authenticate with them first. It sure would have kept out all those pesky spammers! Oh, and anyone that wanted to be part of the Google index, well they’d have to add additional metadata to their pages so that the content graph would be spic and span. Then add in the “like” button to track user engagement and then use that data to determine which pages and content to recommend to people based on their social connections (also stored on their server) and you’ve got a pretty compelling, centralized service. All those other pages from the long tail? Well, they’re just not that interesting anyway, right? This sounds a lot to me like “Authenticated PageRank” — where everyone that wants to be listed in the index would have to get a Google account first. Sounds kind of smart, right? Except — shucks — there’s just one problem with this model: it’s evil! When all likes lead to Facebook, and liking requires a Facebook account, and Facebook gets to hoard all of the metadata and likes around the interactions between people and content, it depletes the ecosystem of potential and chaos — those attributes which make the technology industry so interesting and competitive.

So the new Facebook system sucks more than the old one, that’s one of the problems. But I think there’s another issue: I’ve lost my trust in Facebook. It’s not like Facebook was the most trustworthy service to begin with, but it seemed that our goals were kind of aligned: get more people on board, make it easier to share info with friends. Good stuff, right? But it turned out that Facebook management decided that this wasn’t enough for them, and instead they now cater not to their users, but primarily to marketers. (For them, the new Facebook is a pretty sweet deal. For site owners, it’s nice and convenient short term, but will suck in the longer run.) In other words: I had to learn that Facebook interests and my personal needs aren’t aligned, but pretty much contrary.

When I saw a message pop up from Facebook about linking my profile to certain sites and profile pages, even a few months ago I would have clicked OK. Now I manually opted out of every single check box, and went ahead to set my privacy settings to the most paranoid settings I could find. This means a lot, given that I’m usually not exactly a privacy nut, and my personal default setting is to share liberally online.

I don’t trust Facebook to handle my data anymore, nor to be open, upfront and acting in my interest when implementing changes.

Since 2005 I’ve been on Facebook. There is, at the moment, no decent alternative I know to keep in touch with my friends who live all over the place. So for the moment I’m locked into Facebook. But a locked-in user is a user lost – as soon as a better alternative pops up, I’m gone, and I’ll take my friends with me, even if it means adding them one by one, by hand. Because they deserve better than being exposed to Facebook marketers through their connection with me.

Generations of web startups will study Facebook and its development. I’m guessing that 2010 is the year they will mark red, as from there on the decline of Facebook would become obvious. Even though I’m still hoping that Facebook turns around. They had the chance of not just being a successful business, but a great one.

02 Feb

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News from the Twitter Farm

February 2, 2010 | By |

Five journalists using only Twitter and Facebook as news sources to provide their reporting, that’s the basic setup of an experiment going on for five days. The headline, by the way, of this post is just a translation of “Nachrichten aus der Twitterfarm“, the title of a blog post announcing a news-gathering experiment by five international journalists from different backgrounds (including France Info, Swiss RTS and Radio Canada). (Here’s a random English version of the announcement.)

Now, I do find it interesting to see professional journalists experiment with alternative ways of gathering their news.

On the other hand, this experiment is so fundamentally flawed that it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Why?

For one, the basic premise that news reporting as it is today is what we should try to replicate is wrong. News not taking into account different sources is just one problem there, but it’s also that news today are based on the production mechanisms of the middle of last century. They hardly allow for localized news or customization, nor for real-time updates or discussion.

But more importantly, relying only on social media for news gathering is exactly what you should not be doing. It’s all about the mix! It’s about taking into account other sources and then going out and verify them. It’s about enhancing your fact gathering portfolio, not restricting it. (Imagine, when the first vox pops came up, reporters only using those for reporting. Sounds like a dumb idea? Go figure.)

My guess is that the not-so-surprising result will be something along those lines: yeah, a few interesting nuggets of news will have been found; and that oh no, haha, a major story or two slipped by almost unnoticed by the five reporters. High five, everybody, we proved that social media is overrated for reporting. Only that’s not the case.

This experiment is, in theory, great. There should be more like it. But please think it through. It’ll be interesting to see if those five brave social media souls (and I’m sure they have to take a lot of criticism during their regular work) will come up with new conclusions. But please don’t take it for anything like real journalism unless the news organisations get the basics right.

21 May

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Social Media Campaigns: My Facebook Is Mine

May 21, 2009 | By |

Working with companies on their social media campaigns can pose a tricky dilemma for the consultants: on the one hand you’re hired because you know your way around the social media sphere, which of course you do because you’re very active there. On the other hand, you don’t want to abuse your personal social network for your clients. After all, who likes Tupperparty-style personal interactions?

So how much of your clients’ work should be mixed into your own social networks: Blog, Twitter, Facebook? I think we can all agree that full disclosure is the least all of us in the social media sphere need to do. (Here’s a list of my most relevant clients, and I’ll fully disclose wherever a conflict of interest may arise.) But that shouldn’t be all.

I’ve had situations where my business and private activity got mixed up. Partly that’s a good sign, as I often get hired to do stuff I love to do. At other times, there just wasn’t time to set up separate accounts. Sometimes, you forget to log out of your private account and into the campaigns account – it can happen. And frankly, it’s not the end of the world. After all, if I wouldn’t want to be associated with my clients, I wouldn’t work for them.

Still, it feels like all of us – together, or each of us individually – will need to negotiate best practices, guidelines, rules of thumb: Where do we draw the line? What’s ok, what’s annoying, what’s abuse of personal ties and friendships? How many invites to become fans of this new sneaker or that band or this party do we really want to find in our Facebook inbox? Using Overly abusing your personal friends for work will burn your social capital cost you friendships, and no job is worth that.

So here’s what I think I’ll go by, my personal rule of thumb:

  • Facebook: My Facebook is mine, and mine alone. I might decide to post stuff there if I personally care about them. But I won’t run another campaign inside my own Facebook – everything beyond setting up a Facebook page and handing it over is just too socially awkward.
  • Blog: I might blog my observations and thoughts on a campaign or project, mostly on a meta level.
  • Twitter: I might post a link to a project or campaign, with disclosure. The higher frequency of posts per day allows more liberal handling. Where possible, I’ll opt for setting up a dedicated Twitter account.

For all of these, I’m the only person to decide what I run in my personal outlets, how I run them, and what not to run. I won’t ever post anything a client or third party tries to pressure me into.

All of this is in flux, and will have to evolve over time, but it’s a start. And I’m very curious about your take on all this: How do you go about it?