There are times when I’m staring down at that facebook news feed I can’t help but feel like a bystander. Someone’s cooking dinner. Someone’s watching a movie. Someone’s posted a link to salon.com. Someone’s pregnant. Someone’s broken up. Someone else is howling to heavens at all the “haterz” in the world (seriously, who actually talks like that?).
I see this stuff and I want to know details. I want to know what they thought about the movie, how dinner went, the baby’s name, weight, and gender. But who am I to do that? I haven’t talked some of these people in over 10 years! If I started commenting or liking every status that held my attention, I’d turn into the Gilbert Gottfried of social media. I’d be as ubiquitous as farmville and twice as annoying!
Or would I? Do I get annoyed when someone comments on my status? Do I feel invaded when someone actually wants to know what’s going in my life? I could avoid social media if I really wanted to. We all could. We’re not looking for our 15 minutes of fame here, but I think we all need just a little acknowledgement. Just a little ping to remind us that we exist, and that someone has noticed. For however long that is.
The technology community is making much ado about the personal information land-grab that Facebook orchestrated recently. Basically, information that was formerly protected by your account’s privacy settings was now linked to public pages. This would make it easier for marketers to target users and possibly allow Mark Zuckerberg to finally make a profit. Those who were attracted to Facebook for its privacy features had been officially stabbed in the back.
Is anybody surprised by this development? Facebook has rallied almost half a billion users under service that charged absolutely nothing. Consider to time and money it takes to manage a user base of that size. The interface complaints alone could fill an entire rack server. Clearly, something had to give. Facebook needed money to survive, and that user info was the only way to get it. This leaves us with a question: Can free web software be trusted?
It’s the same trap that foiled many internet start-ups in the 90′s. Computers made the transit and storage of information literally too cheap to meter. It doesn’t make sense charging for a service that you put no effort into providing. Your competitors will just undercut you. However, just because one aspect of your business is plentiful enough to be free, that doesn’t mean the whole thing should be. Websites still need hardware and active management to provide any services at all. Free web software should only be a platform for other paid services that can support the free stuff.
Facebook’s example underlines the need for day-one monetization, if not profitability of any web service. Google, Craigslist, Flickr and Livejournal all have paid components which support stellar free services. There will always be free open source alternatives for the Facebooks of the world, but the time it takes to have software that is easy to use and Just Works™ will always require some kind of cash. So if you have website and you put a price tag on some of its features, don’t think of it as selling out to the man. That money is a symbol of trust and reliance on your expertise. If you can fulfill the promise of that symbol, then the world will beat a path to your door.
If you happen to own your own website, you may have installed google analytics to track your web stats. You might write a kickass post that’s been dugg, retweeted, or otherwise talked about on your favorite social media site and thought to yourself, “I know there’s a spike happening in my traffic, but I want to see it nooooow!”
Well, whine no longer, my friends. It’s Woopra to the rescue!
You know who you are, but trust me, you’re not alone. That is why I’m writing.
So you say you don’t have TV?
Then why are you filling me in on Lost, Heroes or Doctor Who?
Those are television shows, of which you would have no knowledge unless you (gasp!) watched TV!
You start to stammer and sweat. A TV? N-no, no I would never let one of THOSE in my house.
Oh really? Then what is this strange device you are reading this post on? Is it capable of transmitting visions over great distances of time and space? Then you have what could be called a television.
Why do we still wear that derisive murmur of “I don’t watch TV” as some kind of intellectual badge of honor? How does being out of touch with one form of media make us smarter? Do we aspire to be like my wife’s English professor who walked into his lecture on September 11, 2001 and asked what was with all the long faces? That means we’ve bought into all those crazy myths our parents told about the “Boob Tube”, that it will make your eyes fall out or turn your imagination to cottage cheese. I know that TV has traditionally been a scary thing. It was a constant stream of lies pumped through colored lights, told by an arcane heirarchy of network executives that sacrifice animals to the FCC during their nightly meetings. To control what went on the TV screen required letter writing campaigns and petitions, most of which went un-noticed. Now that computers and DVRs are here, we seem to be determined to erase that unfortunate point in our media history. Just because we choose which show we want to watch doesn’t mean we get to project this facade of mental purity. Unless you are willing to completely unhook from the whole digital superhighway, call that AVI file or youtube video what it is and has been for the past 50 years. TELEVISION.
I’ve ranted before about overshare. I’ve disparaged people like Penelope Trunk because they employ the entire internet as an amateur therapist. I try to keep this blog free and clear of any of the drama that goes on in my life. Lately though, I’ve been having second thoughts.
When oversharers make the decision to start opening their life up to internet, something unexpected happens. They are not ostracized or passed by like a raving street preacher. People start to trust them because of this volunteered information. There are still detractors and critics, but they either remain silent or can be silenced by a draconic comment moderation policy. You might say that the oversharers only surround themselves with yes-men and sycophants, that this is only hollow tribalism, but consider this: Your only other option is to be invisible, a mere statistic on google analytics. By keeping guarded about our personal lives, and by extension our very individuality, we are ignored, we are downsized, and we are passed over.
I am trying very hard to convince myself that this isn’t true. My hardships are my own, I have no right to burden others with them. But I notice that rapport that forms around bloggers that offer their very bodily functions for public debate. Can we afford to remain aloof in such a society?
If you’ve ever felt like your job isn’t future-proof, that you are only running a losing race with Moore’s Law, I urge you to watch this video produced by Penguin Publishing. It starts out a little grim, but like most problems in the world, if you rearrange the facts just so, the answer becomes crystal clear.
“Mommyblogging” (one word) was the recent topic of choice for Heather Lyn Fleming’s Master of Communications Thesis at SFU. Through a myriad of collective blog posts, Fleming wanted to know if she could delve deeper into the story behind the tweets. What were these writings telling us about modern-day mothers?
When the Mommybloggers in question saw the findings of the thesis, enough of them were horrified that the hash tag #creepythesis came to be. It’s not that Fleming was accusing them of locking their children in pet carriers or anything like that, it’s that the assumptions, gleaned from their publicly available writings, were incorrect. Fleming tried to paint a picture of these bloggers’ households that they had no control over, and this was simply unacceptable.
I can see how some people see the internet as this world-wide private journal. Look at my infinitesimal website stats if you don’t believe me. But if irrelevance is your only defense against scrutiny, you might be expressing yourself in the wrong medium. If we want the internet to fulfill its true potential, we need to accept that it is the most public and accessible form of communication there is. If people misunderstand you or if they don’t like your message, they are now able to tell you and the only thing you can do about it is write them a sternly worded note. This kind of criticism is no reason to abandon blogging all together. The greater good of any debate is served by more voices, not fewer. Just be prepared to take part in the debates that you start.
The nature of knowledge has become an interesting question lately. Knowledge used to take up space in the form of printed books. Now, a simple thumb drive can hold an entire library inside its RAM chips. MIT now posts course notes online for free, whereas before students would have to pay thousands just for the privilege of taking such notes. Many of the world’s websites are powered by Linux, an operating system that is free to download and completely open to anyone brave enough take a look inside its inner workings. If you want to be a knowledge worker, it’s not enough to have specialized knowledge. You must demonstrate that knowledge through blogs or collaborative websites like github.
If you ask me, I think that trade secrets are about to become obsolete. The idea that information can be controlled by legislation or ill-conceived software protection will soon be considered nonsense. Fortunately, this will not put an end to knowledge workers. While the human brain can never store as much data as a computer can, the ability to combine that data and use it to solve a problem is still the sole province of the good old wet noodle. It doesn’t matter that any knowledge, be it legal, medical, or mechanical, can be accessed from any computer anywhere in the world. It still takes time to learn the information well enough for it to be useful. Humans can also categorize and prioritize all the right observations that correlate to the right kind of knowledge. Computers can only work with the data they are given. Even as computers get more complex, humans are still necessary to make sure the computer is solving the right kinds of problems. If or when human-like AI is invented, hopefully we’ll have a whole different set of problems to work with, like the coming robot revolution.
Fast Company posted an article on some revealing statistics about facebook users. While the total number of links, videos, and content are going up, the number of users actually sharing that content is going down. This should come as no surprise, since many online communities go through these kinds of usage curves (see The 90-9-1 Rule).
So once again, a social network has been taken over by a core contingent of oversharers. And farmville. Don’t forget farmville. If this is a stage that all web 2.0 sites go through, why do we bother with them in the first place? With the price of hosting going down every year, what’s to stop people who want to share links with their numerous friends from taking market share from these social media giants with sites of their own?