MediaFile

Home is where the phone is

It hasn’t yet been six years since the start of the smartphone revolution and we’ve already become an “always on” culture. At least, that’s the temptation. Those who submit can be called The Immersives: checking e-mail, keeping tabs on Facebook “friends,” debating on Twitter, snapping photos of food for Instagram. It would be rare if any of us didn’t have at least one toe dipped in the stream.

We are all Immersives sometime: We bury our faces in the small screen while we walk, or come dangerously close to driving blindly into traffic. We can’t get through a meal without virtually leaving the table. We keep our phones on permanent silent to conceal the depth of our addiction. If we even momentarily lose track of our phone, we are as anxious as new parents whose toddler has dipped out of sight.

Immersives are the target audience for Facebook Home, a new version of the social network’s app that was announced this week. Home lives on the front side of the lockscreen — it’s the first thing you see when you pick up the phone. It’s a major release that reveals the extent to which Facebook needs us to stay Immersives to help it meet its bottom line. This decade’s major technological question is:  Who’s in control — our phones, or us?

Facebook is the flagbearer of the former. In a press event Thursday to unveil Home, CEO Mark Zuckerberg sought to position this app as a breakthrough for “us.” Smartphones, he said, are designed around apps and not people. This is clever messaging: A smartphone’s customization is all in its apps. We have little control, on any platform, of what our phone serves up for us the moment we pull it out of our pockets.

Facebook Home is perhaps the first of what Wired’s Steven Levy has already coined as the  ”super apps” — always on, always current, and the first thing you see. Super apps come with an easy sell:  If you are immersed in one thing more than others — Zuckerberg says we spend almost a quarter of our time on smartphones on Facebook — why shouldn’t your phone give you the option to put that app on a virtual pedestal. 

What is Google doing?

A few years ago, web thinker Jeff Jarvis published an homage to the world’s most successful Web search and advertising company titled “What Would Google Do?” These days, the question seems to be, “What is Google doing?”

Google won us over with a revolutionary approach to Web search that made its predecessors seem archaic. It quickly toppled Yahoo as the coolest company on the planet based solely on its efficient and fast way of finding everyone else’s content. Now, though, Google is something entirely different.

What is Google doing? I’m not sure. There may well be a great, bumper-sticker answer. But Google’s actions are too chaotic to come up with a grand, unified theory. It’s toying with apps, mobile software, mobile hardware, mobile phones – and, oh yeah, still dabbles in Web services it decides with zero discussion to terminate with extreme prejudice. It’s one thing to be pulled in all directions as a dance partner, it’s another to have it happen on some carnival ride.

Paying the piper for privacy

Three privacy stories caught my attention in the past week:

1. Google is paying a token $7 million fine for sniffing out private information as its roving Google Maps cars gathered images for Street View.

2. A new study has found that seemingly innocent disclosures on Facebook can be used to form highly accurate predictions about whether you are a genius, drug user or gay.

3. If you use certain porta-potties at the Austin, Texas, tech confab South By Southwest, passersby know if you are … standing or sitting inside, and for how long.

Facebook’s search has been found

With “Graph Search,” Facebook’s newsearch engine announced Tuesday, the world’s largest social network has finally begun to index a trove of Big Data that’s been piling up for years. Even Facebook probably doesn’t know what’s been deposited in by its 1 billion members. Suddenly there is a way to find out. 

For all its popularity, Facebook has lacked something that could be described as “purpose.” For co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, sharing isn’t a platitude ‑ it’s world-altering. As he once said: “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.” Yet Facebook is, for the most part, fun and games. It’s also, in the opinion of some, including me, a Faustian bargain that gives the company valuable information with which to make money, and its members the ability to do things they can do any number of other ways. 

For all the information Facebook members share with one another — pictures, opinions, “likes,” preferences, the companies and celebrities they follow — none of it has been searchable. So if you have friends who like science fiction and live nearby, you wouldn’t have known it (unless you, you know, knew it), and that Avatar movie night wouldn’t have happened – or, worse, would have happened alone, like always.

Facebook may yet learn that power does not ensure immortality

Facebook wasted no time acting with impunity by (once again) diluting member privacy protections this week. But it needn’t have hurried. Any semblance of democracy was washed away at noon Pacific Time Tuesday, when a vote to have votes on policy changes went down in flames. It solidified the world’s largest social network’s rule by fiat. This may be good for business now, but in the long-run it could backfire.

On Tuesday not enough Facebook members weighed in on whether they should keep their right to vote down policy changes. The vote didn’t count unless 30 percent of the service’s 1 billion members bothered to vote.

The vote to keep the vote failed to meet the arbitrary threshold — by 299 million votes.

The Facebook Doctrine

Instagram, the mobile photo sharing app that Facebook bought for about $700 million, has been doing something new over the past few weeks. Up until now, one couldn’t see all of a user’s Instagrams online, the way you could, say, see all of a Twitter users’ tweets. But in recent weeks, users’ collections have been uploaded to the Internet automatically (see my profile page as an example). Instagram never bothered to ask for permission. Don’t want people to be able to easily access all your pictures from your Web browser? Too bad.

Between the Instagram change and other more substantive and complex alterations to Facebook’s user-feedback policy this week, the world’s largest social network has a clear modus operandi: What’s good for Facebook is good for you. This is the Facebook Doctrine.

Along with relatively innocuous Instagram changes came word that Facebook intends to eliminate its very modest experiment with democracy. It was a scheme by which members could undo changes (but still not stop them from happening before they took place). The rules Facebook put in place established a transparent process: A policy could be reversed if it received more than 7,000 comments, more than 30 percent of people on Facebook participated in a vote, and if that plurality voted against it.

Facebook’s billion: Are you being served?

Facebook has reached an almost unimaginable milestone: 1 billion people are active users. It is hard to get your head around that number, which represents one-seventh of the world’s population (and not every one of us even has Internet access). It’s almost half the total number of people estimated to be on the Web at the beginning of this year.

Even CEO Mark Zuckerberg can’t quite seem to comprehend it: “It’s really humbling to get a billion people to do anything.”

But despite gangbuster growth, Facebook is based on a tricky business model: The more they use members’ shared information to target them for advertisers and marketers, the less members are likely to go along, and the more they’ll realize the bargain they’ve struck. Just as Facebook effectively redefined “Friend,” it is pushing the boundaries of the public-private divide.

Will Twitter’s uncanny luck ever run out?

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published at PandoDaily.com

This past week I heard two rational arguments on the fate of Twitter from two smart investors.

One was an argument that it’ll likely fail in its bid to become a public company. The logic went like this: Facebook, Groupon and Zynga have proven the private markets are fundamentally horrible at valuing companies. In the early stages, that doesn’t particularly matter. But when you get into pre-IPO secondary shares being bought and sold, it does. Just ask the people who bought pre-IPO shares of all three of those companies.

Twitter – with its relative lack of a business – was always a more dubious growth bet than those other three, buoyed by the sheer strength of its product. And now, there’s just no way it’s worth anything close to the $8 billion it was valued at at the last round, this person argued. If Facebook, Groupon and Zynga have all had a greater than 50 percent haircut – Twitter can’t even dream of going public now.

Facebook needs a new CEO

Facebook has now gone through its first trial by fire as a public company, slightly exceeding revenue expectations (with $1.18 billion) but showing a big loss in its first reported quarter ($157 million). Facebook shares were pummeled in after-hours trading; the company’s market cap has been slashed in half in just 10 weeks.

This is a bad, bad situation for Facebook’s early shareholders, 97% of whom are individual, retail investors – unlike those at the other big tech titans, which are majority-held by institutions: Google (68%) and Apple (67%). That Facebook’s percentage is so high suggests that Facebook is a stock for the masses. The masses need a hero.

That hero is not Mark Zuckerberg. He needs to get out of the way – not because we can judge him a disaster based on a single’s earnings period, but because he isn’t playing to his strength. He’s letting down the average folks who saw something shiny and new, but are now seeing shades of overhyped tech redux.

50 shades of like

We are losing our faith in TV news as fast as those high-speed chases it’s so happy to show us. At the same time, we’re driving like maniacs on the social-media highway, letting it all hang out with the top down.

What do they have to do with each other? Both are advertiser-supported media. One prints money, the other not so much, at least not yet. And yet one is on the downswing, the other ascendant. What does this say about human nature and tapping into elusive and guilty pleasures?

In its annual poll, Gallup Politics found that only 21 percent of respondents expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in TV news – less than half what it was when the poll was first conducted in 1993, but down only a point from last year.