Dueling social networks: Google+ and Facebook

Although I’m using Google+ I know absolutely nothing about it. And I’ve yet to find the time to really explore it. The comforting thing is knowing that no one else knows anything about it.

Everything is speculation. People using it now are early adopters — and that is worrisome.

Early adopters tend to be more tech oriented than the general population. When you combine that with Google, which has never been the most “general audience” friendly company (read that as rather tech oriented), it risks evolving into something that is difficult for many average users to understand, at least without some learning curve. Of course, Facebook is like that too. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have asked me, regarding Facebook, “How does this work? What am I supposed to do?”

Google compounds the “What does this mean?” issue in the same way they obfuscated Google Docs when they decided to refer to collections rather than folders. “Collections” does make a logical sense but when dealing with people that isn’t always the best route to take.

In a world where a general population is use to Microsoft (folders) and Facebook (friends and groups), changing terminology is risky because it is confusing. In other words, when you bring something new into the world you can do any kind of naming you want because nothing is established. When you bring in something new and there is something else already established, you have to change the way people think. That’s not the easiest thing to do especially when you are dealing with fierce competition that doesn’t want that to happen.

So Google+ has some problems with their “circles” (I’m still not sure what they mean by that). Friends and acquaintances I like – that is simple and understandable because it’s based on how people actually think. It also adds something necessary to what Facebook has established, something that was missing. Of course all those hundreds we have aren’t friends; most are acquaintances — some aren’t even that.

That is a plus on the Google+ side of things. There are many other pluses but at this stage they are all potential. Everything people are currently writing about it boils down to speculation, some far better informed than others.

One of the Google+ pluses is that so many people want it to succeed. This has less to do with a love for Google than an annoyance with, and distrust of, Facebook. Still, it’s a plus. The caveat is that wanting something to succeed is not the same as success, so we need to be careful to separate what we wish for from reality.

Part of that reality has to do with numbers. I’ve seen a lot of people writing along the lines of, “Will Google dethrone Facebook?” as if it matters. Actually, I don’t think it does. Realistically, size only matters so far, at least in business terms. What really matters are demographics.

You can have 100 users but if they can only spend $1 each, you can only make a potential $100. With 10 users that can spend $100 each you can potentially make $1000. I’ll take the ten users.

The problem with having everybody (read Facebook) is that you have everybody. Your numbers may be large but how many of them actually represent real revenue potential? I know many people that are on Facebook “just because.” They represent zero dollars, however. They are so seldom on and are so disinclined to do anything Internet related (as far as spending money goes), they are irrelevant. They are still geared to print and traditional media.

My sense of Google, however, is that beyond their search product (which is like Facebook, reaching everybody), they reach a higher end audience with all their other products, as in one much more geared toward things Internet. I suspect on average there is a greater disposal income available there — but that is speculation, of course.

I think Facebook may be great for selling potato chips but when it comes to selling homes, technology, cars and other upper end products and services, those representing much more money, a smaller Google audience is worth a great deal more.

That too, however, is guesswork. But everything related to Google+ at this early stage is guesswork.



Nothing is secure; no one is anonymous

No matter how sophisticated technology is, it always has one big hurtle it can’t overcome: us. How we use something — how we behave — will always condition technology, either by how it is designed or how it is used.

Not five minutes after talking with some friends about security on the Internet, a number of them pointing out their Facebook pages aren’t public, “just friends see them”, I go online and see this story: Facebook, Paypal accounts released by hackers.

In that story, and many other hacker stories, when I look at the comments I see they are peppered with variations of, “We should thank the hackers for revealing the security holes in these companies’ security measures.” I seldom see mention of details like, “the most common password is 123456”. (That is like putting a “Do not enter” sign on an open door and believing it is enough to prevent someone from breaking in.)

Vancouver skyline as rioting takes place.

In the aftermath of Vancouver’s rioting following the Stanley Cup Final, I’ve seen loads of video on TV of rioters, including a woman proudly displaying the purse she stole in the looting. I’ve seen video online and seen Facebook and Twitter updates with people preening about their role in the rioting. The pictures, and often the names of the people in them, are all over the Internet.

Yet the technological world that gives them a sense of anonymity is also the world that will get them caught.

In both cases, security and anonymity, there is a wildly wrong faith in technology. Nothing is private online. Some thing’s are more difficult to access than others, but everything is out there for someone with the patience and knowledge to eventually get into, if so inclined.

No one is anonymous. With cameras, smartphones, shared posts and links everywhere, the only thing between being unknown and known is time. If anything, we are more public than ever. If don’t draw a great deal of attention it is only because we are not interesting enough.

Where does this blind faith come from?

"All my friends will now see where I was on the night of the riot and no one else in the world will ever know."

I think it’s a variation of Mooer’s law, which roughly says, “Ease trumps authority every time.” The law concerns information systems and tells us that a source’s authority is less important than how easy it is to access. A hard cover book at the library may be the authority, but it is a lot easier to just Google it and go with whatever source comes up.

How does that relate to our blind faith in technology? It is simply this: it is too easy and, frankly, fun to believe we are secure and anonymous than to admit otherwise.

If we didn’t believe we’re secure and can remain unknown, we might have to be more thoughtful in what we do and post; we might have less fun; in some cases, we may even have to refrain from using technology for some things.

"This is just like that time in Rome you got a shot of me sitting on those steps outside the Vatican."

The worst of it is, we might have to sacrifice our popularity. (Note the contradiction: faith in anonymity as we do our best to be popular.)

As the critical comments about some companies and their security suggest (and often the criticisms are warranted), we’ll continue to desperately focus on more technology to solve a problem that isn’t, at its core, a technical problem. It is a human behaviour problem.

I don’t think technology can change that one. Or maybe it can? Our “fight or flight” response appears to have been amended to, “Fight or flight or take a photo?”



Curation the first trend of 2011

We are only a week into the new year and already it has its Internet trend: curation. I’m particularly struck by this trend for both positive and negative reasons. I’ll get the negative one out of the way first.

It’s a personal thing, the negative reason, because there is a certain irony in it. I worked as an editor at large site. We would look at the news feeds and choose what stories to highlight. This was important, I thought, because every day there were (and are) oodles of news stories coming through the feeds and finding relevant ones was a crapshoot.

RSS was so much cheaper, however. So let’s save money and lose the editors. The problem with that is that at any given moment something like 9/11 could have the world galvanized but your site is highlighting the most recently received story, maybe “Old woman loses shoes at Walmart” or something like that.

Now curation has come along, a variation on the editor role. Actually, it isn’t even a variation. It is the editor role. So something that was eliminated because it wasn’t needed recurs because it is needed. Only the name has changed.

On the positive side, it really is needed. There is so much “stuff” flowing through the web, and constantly, that it is impossible to keep up with it all. When someone curates a topic, however, it becomes manageable because the wheat is separated from the chaff. You can go to one place, once only, and have many of the stories significant to you aggregated in one place.

Of course, it is another Internet trend and who knows where it will go, if anywhere. But it seems to me it has identified a need. I don’t think the average person has the time or inclination to scour the web looking for what may be of interest to them. They can, however, identify topics and find a curation resource that fills it. And inevitably, the talk will come around to revenue models …

Two of the curation platforms I’ve come across are paper.li and scoop.it both of which I’m using. I have the Writelife Daily and also Classic Movies, each on a different platform. Paper.li builds a page based on what people I follow on Twitter tweet. I find this one very useful for me though I’m not sure anyone else would find it worthwhile. It really is designed for me, not others.

My Classic Movies is, I think, different. Yes, it’s of interest to me but I think if someone else was interested in old movies they would get something from it too. Of course, its worth is dependent on what material I find online and it’s really just in the initial stages.

Where all this goes … who knows? But I am amused by the irony of it all.

Our Misinformation Age

In our digital age we have buckets of information and much of it is easily accessible. I can go online and with a bit of hunting find out all kinds of things about my neighbours, friends, strangers, and you.

Many of us have written essays, published books, lectured, and made careers out of simply talking about all this information. We speculate about it, we connect it, and we harvest it like wheat. We’re busy being busy with information.

We don’t often ask if the information we’re working with is actually accurate. It’s there; it must be true.

Well, it ain’t. Not always. I wonder how often it is not accurate.

Two Bucks Is Two Bucks

I’ve spent the last two days getting information about my personal credit. (This is what our information age has become. We now have information about information. Soon, we’ll have information about that too. We’re so crazy for it, I’ve used the word five times in this paragraph.)

I’ll try to be short. This all began with the discovery that my credit report had a “derogatory” on it. (Derogatory means negative information on a credit report.) This isn’t a good thing so I tried to track down what it was that had produced frowns over my credit report.

It turns out it had to do with a couple of things. Or not, depending on who I spoke to. The first had to do with a very late payment from about four years ago, an outstanding bill I had been unaware of. I had paid off the entire balance of an account. To me, the account was closed.

It turns out that when I had paid the balance some additional interest had accrued. I wasn’t aware of it so it was never paid. When, several months later, I did become aware of it I paid it off (about two or more years ago). This is one of the derogatories on my credit report. The amount of that bill? Roughly $2.00, give or take a few quarters.

It appears those $2.00 still haunt me even though they were paid ages ago. They are on my credit report saying I am someone not to be trusted. It gets better.

Who Is Mr. Wan?

When speaking to the credit reporting company I discovered I am an Asian gentleman with a name the Internet tells me is the 86th most popular surname in China. I am the mysterious William Wan.

In order to have them correct their mistake, I have to mail a signed letter with several pieces of photocopied identification. Until such time, I am William Wan.

It could be worse. On Facebook, a friend tells me her husband found out through his credit report that he had been dead for the last several years. At least Mr. Wan is alive.

One of those other derogatories on my report may or may not exist. When speaking to one person, I was told a derogatory regarding a certain company was on it. I called back to clarify the company name and it turns out there was no such derogatory on my account. Like Mr. Wan, it is mysterious.

Time, Information, and Value

It uses up my time and work to get this information and try to correct it, time and work as a result of data entry errors and indifference to updating information. I’m considering invoicing the credit report company for these billable hours.

The real and worrying upshot to all of this, however, is the awareness of just how dubious quality of all our ubiquitous information. We have access to just about everything. But what happens when everything is bullshit?

Just what do we have access to?

Breadth, depth and brains

I’ve always liked Nicholas Carr for his skepticism. Unlike contrarians, who take opposing views for their own sake, Carr as a skeptic asks questions, the kinds that challenge assumptions. Challenging assumptions is good for the brain.

I’ve just picked up his latest book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and I’m pretty sure I’ll like this one for the very reason I mention – challenging assumptions.

It’s a bit ironic that the book I had been reading recently, Exuberance, is about a topic that often characterizes views of technology: enthusiasm (or exuberance). Exuberance fuels a great deal of creativity. The downside of it, however, is it can also make us cranky when someone challenges what we’re enthused about. I find this a lot in the responses to Carr. “What kind of fool would question the benefits of the Internet?” That kind of thing.

Carr doesn’t question the benefits of the technology and the Internet, however. What he asks is, “What is the cost?” Benefits are usually accompanied by deficits. As Neil Young put it, “They give you this but you pay for that.”

Carr asks, is there an impact on our brains when we devote so much time to Internet technology? His book, The Shallows, examines that.

Though I haven’t read his book yet (beyond the prologue), from his online writing I think the question could be put this way: while we gain so much in breadth, does it come at a cost of depth? An incredible amount of information is available to us but is the medium by which we access it doing it at the cost of being able to understand and process that information in more than a superficial manner?

In his prologue, Carr has a great quote from Marshall McLuhan: “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot.” Carr points out that with new media, the debate is usually about content. On the pro side, there are claims to bounty and democratization; on the anti side, there are claims of mediocrity taking over the world. McLuhan, however, says content is irrelevant. It’s the technology that is important. “The medium is the message.”

I’m not sure of what I think about all of this but I’m pretty sure I’ll have an idea by the time I finish The Shallows.

And I know I’m going to like this read.

(By the way, for some sense of where Carr is coming from, I suggest reading is rebuttal post, Steven Pinker and the Internet.)

‘Emotions are contagious’

I wrote a review of a book I’m currently rereading, Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison. (You’ll find it over at Thoughtwrestling.) This morning, I was looking over a chapter titled “Throwing up rockets,” a phrase from P.T. Barnum and it started me thinking about a few other things, like school murals in Arizona and the popularity of social media.

In the chapter, Jamison says, “Emotions are contagious,” which is what the chapter is about. She continues to say, “Emotions are part of the social glue of our immensely social species, elemental to the reverberating emotional circuitry that compels us at times to pull together and at others disperse.”

I believe this is true. As a joke, I sometimes say of myself, “I’m a parasite; I feed off the energy of others.” It’s accurate, however. Even something as basic as cleaning the house is affected. On my own, it’s a slow drudge. With someone else, a someone with the kind of energy to “just get it done,” I’m a completely different person. I’m engaged and determined to “just get it done.”

One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of Thoughtwrestling was the community aspect: of the contributors but also of the readers and participants who engage with the site. It’s self-serving in a sense. The enthusiasm of others fuels my own.

Schools and murals and social media

So what has this to do with the brouhaha over a mural in Arizona? From my perspective, it is an example of public lunacy. It’s destructive and contrary to want the United States promotes itself as being about. Roger Ebert asks, How do they get to be that way? He wonders how people get caught up in the anger and hate that informs this issue.

Emotions are contagious. It isn’t just positive emotions that infect us; negative ones do too, particularly anger when it is loud and animated and appears to echo some fear or insecurity we share. It spreads and it amplifies. The next thing you know, you get a public debacle over a mural.

I think the contagious nature of emotions also explains much of the Internet’s history, and social media in particular. It explains the popular term, “crowdsourcing.” The reward/pleasure area of our brain is stimulated with every new comment, every new follower, every retweet, every new Facebook friend.

We go to blogs and discussion forums and meet like-minded people, people who share our interests and enthusiasms. And those enthusiasms are amplified and spread. Quite often, too, there is one person or group of people leading those larger discussions – moderators, editors, blog owners — and they exhibit some level of emotion that we pick up.

Seth Godin and his blog is a great example. He’s very enthusiastic; very positive; often very emotional. And it spreads. It’s communicated and infects others.

This is the social media equation: emotion plus people equals social media.

And that’s why it is so big.