Opinion

Paul Smalera

The platform problem in social media

Jun 22, 2012 14:27 UTC

The two speakers from Twitter — Ryan Sarver and Doug Williams — had just left the stage at Big Boulder, a data conference I’m attending in Colorado, when Twitter, the service, went down Thursday. Neither of them have anything to do with keeping the service up and running, but the restless audience probably still would’ve thrown the hotel-provided notepads and candies at them if they could’ve. Such was the level of dissatisfaction about the Twitter platform’s outage yesterday — and let’s face it, any day a service we rely on goes out, even when the crowd in question doesn’t consist of users and consumers of social big data, and the odd journalist.

The outage may have been poorly timed for Sarver and Williams, but the incident speaks to a larger problem the companies represented in this room are facing: building on top of social platforms.

Consider Zynga. The high flying gaming company, built primarily on top of Facebook’s Open Graph, has faced record lows in its stock as investors have lost some confidence in the company’s ability to continue growing. Or consider just about any other company, social or not, that is trying to reach its fans and customers in the social media world.

Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea walked me through the gently sloping path to hell many of these companies are facing:

“Marketers got [their companies or brands] a Twitter handle and a Facebook Fan Page. Then they went to their interactive digital agency to make the Fan Page look like the brand. Then they went to Buddy Media or Vitrue to run a contest to get fans or followers. Then they got Radian 6 and got a [social media] listening platform. Now they say, ‘I’m analyzing.’ Now what? There’s a huge gap to their in-house [customer database] system they spent $2 billion to create.”

Startups are big in Boulder, but where are the tech billionaires?

Jun 20, 2012 17:37 UTC

“I’m not interested in working on this unless it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar idea. If I thought this would be a hundred million dollar company — what’s the point?” – Anonymous entreprerneur discussing his startup. Overheard in front of Ozo Coffee, Boulder, CO.

I’m in Boulder, Colorado for a few days this week to attend Big Boulder, a conference devoted to the social side of “big data.” Gnip, the company hosting the conference, is one I’ve written about before. They’re doing the plumber’s work of connecting all the firehoses of raw, public user data from social media companies like Twitter and Tumblr up to clients that want to derive insights from the wisdom of these online crowds.

A quick note on the definition of “big data.” Generally speaking, it’s the sort of data set that’s so huge, even running a simple report on it won’t tell you anything interesting. For example, if you could ask the IRS for a list of all the 25-30 year olds in the U.S. that paid taxes last year, you’d get back a list, alright. But what would be useful about it? On the other hand, if you could filter that list by several other factors: did they pay capital gains, did they owe over six figures in taxes, what is their self-reported job title, and so on, you might end up with a list highly correlated to young, dot-com millionaires and billionaires, like Mark Zuckerberg. And you might cross reference that list against all the other data sets you can find on them: where they live, where they shop, where they travel, what they watch, eat and listen to. It’s all out there.

from MediaFile:

Facebook’s private experiment with democracy

Jun 7, 2012 15:45 UTC

Facebook is having a vote on changes to its privacy policy. Not that you'd know it.

Voter turnout has always been a problem for developed nations, but what about developed social networks? Facebook, with its 900 million users, is often written about as if it were the personal prelature of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. But Facebook itself prefers the term “ecosystem” – with good reason. Facebook’s engineers provide the basic conditions for life – the agar at the bottom of the social-media Petri dish. In turn, it's developers and users who really craft their own worlds, their own experiences of Facebook – not Facebook itself. And whatever world they craft, it can only exist in the laws that govern the Facebook universe. Who ultimately decides those laws? Facebook.

Given that reality, it’s amazing that most users don’t care a lick about the vote happening on the site, right now, today, over proposed changes to Facebook’s privacy policies. Nor did they care much about the last vote over the site’s Terms of Service, which happened in 2009. Of course, it’s hard to care about something you don’t know is happening. Even though the vote is making the news here and there, there’s no inkling of any promotion on Facebook itself about what sounds like a rather important site event.

from MediaFile:

Instagram’s Facebook filter

May 11, 2012 20:28 UTC

The startup had millions of users, but, from the beginning, just one customer.

The predominant way of interpreting Facebook’s billion-dollar purchase of Instagram, in light of the social-networking giant's forthcoming IPO, is that Mark Zuckerberg had to pick up the photo-sharing app to boost his company’s mobile engagement. That would allow him to guard the mobile flank against incursions from Google, Twitter, and whatever other social-media tools might next arise.

That may be true – and it may even be the way Zuck thought about the deal when he swallowed hard and ponied up the purchase price. But that way of analyzing Facebook’s pickup, and the pickup of dozens of other startups, not just by Facebook but by Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and others, is probably not telling the whole story. Here’s a different theory, one that better describes the tech world that we, the users of the Internet, now inhabit: Instagram may have had millions of us as its users, but it was really built for just one customer: Facebook.

Silicon Valley, for too long, has confused the issue of what it means to be a user of a website, service or app, and what it means to be a customer of the app. Intuitively, you’d think they would be one and the same: The person using the app is the person consuming the app. But increasingly, apps are being made to grab the attention of the hegemonic companies in tech. Whatever it takes to get bought.

All your Tumblr are belong to Them

Apr 18, 2012 18:43 UTC

Forget Instagram’s billion-dollar payday. Forget IPOs, past and future, from Facebook, Groupon, LinkedIn and the like. And ignore, please, the online ramblings of attention-hungry venture capitalists and narcissistic Silicon Valley journalists with the off-putting habit of making their inside-baseball sound like the World Series. Their stories, to paraphrase Shakespeare, are tales told by idiots, full of sound and fury, but signifying very little about the impact of technology on most of our lives. (Sure, some of their tales are about great fortunes, but those are only for a select few; to summon the Oracle of Omaha rather than the Bard of Avon, only a fool ever equated price with value.) Their one-in-a-million windfalls are just flashes in the pan. Or, actually, they are solitary data points, meaningless when devoid of context.

That context is here. It’s come, in part, because of the cunningly simple social and curatorial tools that media companies like Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest give away to their users. But making sense of our social world is only possible with the the tools and technology behind what we call Big Data. The massive information collections spawned by our digital world are too big to address directly, so smart scientists have used fast computers to carve the data into real knowledge. This is how Big Data is already changing the way the world works.

But Big Data is young; though there are hundreds of accessible data sets already, there are still many more chaotic stores of information its tools can tame. Take, for example, social media: Yesterday, social media API company Gnip announced that it is providing customers with all of Tumblr’s data, what in techspeak is called the firehose. What Gnip and competitors like DataSift are providing to customers are Social Big Data firehoses that can be perfectly filtered into gently babbling brooks lined with digital gold nuggets. When the tech media wonder out loud how social companies will ever make a buck – sifting the gold out of their user-generated content is a huge piece of the puzzle.

The recession killed journalism – and saved it

Apr 2, 2012 16:13 UTC

Over the last few years, thanks to the global economic crisis – encapsulating everything from the 2008 housing crash to today’s ongoing euro zone sovereign-debt debacle – much ink has been spilled about the reshaping of the world’s economy, especially about the domestic job market.

Actually, scratch part of that last sentence, because less ink has been spilled, at least according to the results of a recent report by LinkedIn. The media business has been in overdrive, especially during this 2012 election season, but it’s now pushing pixels, not paper.

According to the data studied by LinkedIn, the professional social network, the newspaper industry experienced a 28.4 percent shrink rate between 2007 and 2011. The death of newspapers is not exactly a new phenomenon, so I’ll spare you yet another detailed recap of the print and economic climate that led to this broadsheet apocalypse.

from MediaFile:

A new iPad, the same iEthics

Mar 9, 2012 19:54 UTC

Several days after the launch of the new iPad 3, HD, or whatever it’s called, we all know about it’s blazing 4G capabilities, including its ability to be a hotspot, carrier permitting, of course. We know about its Retina display, which makes the painful, insufferable scourge of image pixelization a thing of the past. We know about Infinity Blade. We know that to pack all this in, Apple’s designers had to let out the new iPad’s aluminum waist to accommodate some unfortunate but really quite microscopic weight gain. We know the iPad’s battery life is still amazing, and its price point is altogether unchanged. We know Apple has adopted a cunning new strategy of putting the previous-generation iPad, as it did with the iPhone 4, on a sort of permanent sale, to scoop up the low end of the high-end market. (We wonder if this was Steve Jobs’s last decree or Tim Cook’s first.) We know a lot about the iPad.

But what we don’t know: How many of Foxconn’s nearly 100,000 employees will harm themselves, intentionally or inadvertently -- or their families or loved ones -- in the manufacture of it? And will the developed world ever acknowledge the dark side of these truly transformative technologies, like the iPad, or will we continue to tell ourselves fables to explain away the havoc our addictions wreak on the developing world? Is a device really magic if to pull a rabbit out of a hat, you have to kill a disappearing dove?

Those of us who have been technology journalists have long been subjected to the cult of Steve Jobs’s Apple, and those of us who are fans of technology are mostly well aware of the stark elegance and extreme usability -- even the words seem inadequate -- that come with using, let alone experiencing, Apple products. But the rumblings about Apple’s manufacturing processes started years ago, and the recent New York Times series on the ignobility of Foxconn as an employer blew a hole in the side of that particular ship of willful ignorance. Few Apple consumers can claim not to understand the human sacrifice behind their glowing screens -- the death, diseases, exhaustion, mental and emotional stress, and superhuman expectations placed upon the workers who bring these magic devices to life. It’s not just in the papers -- Mike Daisey’s This American Life podcast exposé on Foxconn and Apple is a mere click away, and most mainstream media have given at least passing coverage to the working conditions reflected in the Gorilla Glass on our devices.

from MediaFile:

Content everywhere? More like content nowhere

Mar 2, 2012 22:10 UTC

Will Big Media and Big Tech companies ever stop punishing their biggest fans?

Like many people, I woke up yesterday and reached for my iPad for my morning hit of news, entertainment and information, so I could start my day. (And like many, I’m embarrassed to admit it.) Padding to the front door to get a newspaper still sounds more respectable, but my iPad gives me a far more current, rich and satisfying media experience than a still-warm printed Times could ever produce.

Except, lately, it doesn’t. Yesterday morning, I saw the exciting news that Bill Simmons, ESPN’s most popular, profane and controversial writer, had secured an interview with President Obama. Simmons published his interview in podcast, text and video form on Grantland, a longform sports journalism website he founded last year under the ESPN umbrella. I clicked over to the story from my Twitter feed and saw three YouTube excerpts of Simmons with Obama. And that’s all I saw. When I hit play on the videos, I discovered ESPN had set them to be “unavailable” on mobile devices.

Moving on, I tried to read a New York Post headline that also found its way into my Twitter feed. But when I tapped in, the Post webpage that loaded was not the story I wanted to read. Instead it was a notice, which I took as an admonition, that to read New York Post content on an iPad, I would have to download the app, which retails for $1.99.

What real Internet censorship looks like

Feb 27, 2012 18:44 UTC

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage — practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms — or lack thereof — Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” — the basic way we access the Web — into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point — your browser and the Web server you’re logging into — can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

Raiding the future of the Internet

Feb 17, 2012 18:31 UTC

Think right now about your home bookshelf. If yours looks like mine, it contains odds and ends, comic books you’ve saved for years, books mailed to you or bought on a street corner, your own collection of dog-eared titles, some old yearbooks. Now think about the privacy of your own home and the few legal ways in which that privacy can be violated: an emergency response, a crime, a public health crisis. Imagine if once a year you had to open your door to a copyright agent who could scan your library for content that you have not paid for, add up your violations, and send you a bill. Imagine if the agent came by once a week, or even once a day. Imagine that the agent found a picture of the nerdy kid from high school in your yearbook and explained that that kid copyrighted his likeness, so you’ll have to either pay up or destroy his high school photo.

This is the world that content companies want to create. Legislation they have proposed in the U.S. and around the world — SOPA, PIPA and ACTA — would open the Internet’s house to any agent.

Artists and big companies often warn us of the opposite of this problem — the idea that the Internet is a lawless space where content is pirated, stolen and shared recklessly, costing them billions of dollars in lost revenue and shrinking the incentives for artists to produce new works. After all, if they can’t be paid fairly for them, why bother?

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