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.”

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.

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.

The piracy of online privacy

Feb 10, 2012 18:28 UTC

Online privacy doesn’t exist. It was lost years ago. And not only was it taken, we’ve all already gotten used to it. Loss of privacy is a fundamental tradeoff at the very core of social networking. Our privacy has been taken in service of the social tools we so crave and suddenly cannot live without. If not for the piracy of privacy, Facebook wouldn’t exist. Nor would Twitter. Nor even would Gmail, Foursquare, Groupon, Zynga, etc.

And yet people keep fretting about losing what’s already gone. This week, like most others of the past decade, has brought fresh new outrages for privacy advocates. Google, which a few weeks ago changed its privacy policy to allow the company to share your personal data across as many as 60 of its products, was again castigated this week for the changes. Except this time, the shouts came in the form of a lawsuit. The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the FTC to compel it to block Google’s changes, saying they violated a privacy agreement Google signed less than a year ago.

Elsewhere, social photography app Path was caught storing users’ entire iPhone address books on their servers and have issued a red-faced apology. (The lesser-known app Hipster committed the same sin and also offered a mea culpa.) And Facebook’s IPO has brought fresh concerns that Mark Zuckerberg will find creative new ways to leverage user data into ever more desirable revenue-generating products.

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Jan 29, 2012 01:09 UTC

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be… well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

  •