The Myth of Online Transparency

A few years ago, an eternity in internet years, there was a lot of chatter about “lifestreaming,” which basically meant providing a non-stop voyeuristic window into the minutiae of your daily life. People could “subscribe” to you and see whatever you were doing. Some folks took it to extremes and even filmed themselves while asleep.

Mercifully, the concept petered out under the weight of its own stupidity, but in some ways it is still with us in the form of twitter, facebook and location-based services. A recent change to facebook enabled users to broadcast the news articles they were reading, the music they were listening to via Spotify and, of course, the places they visited. In my personal facebook stream, I notice that only a few friends are doing this (see how I avoided saying “taking advantage of” just there?) and it got me wondering why.

One of the oft-spouted tenets of social media-dom is the importance of  transparency in all interactions, whether on the personal level or among businesses. For individuals, tending to one’s “personal brand” has become a cottage industry online. But what does that really imply? A brand, as I define it, is what surrounds a sales pitch and differentiates you from the other guy. Companies go to great lengths to define their brands in the minds of consumers using vivid language, imagery and experiences, all in the service of selling you something. Positive attributes are emphasized and negative ones are never even contemplated. Coca Cola might have a tough time squaring the immeasurable enjoyment and life-altering experiences contained inside one of their cans with all that pesky teeth rotting and onset of diabetes.

So, then, the same must be true of one’s personal brand, right? Which, of course, gives the lie to transparency online. Everyone’s streamed online life is full of glamourous trips, sunset photos, magical dinners, songs from obscure Norwegian bands and moments of clarity elucidated in some Paulo Coehlo quote. No arguments with spouses, frustration with the kids’ poor behavior or disappointment at being passed over for that work promotion by the kiss ass who goofs off all day.

We live in a start-up culture where we put on our sales face all the time since we never know who might be watching. Woe to he who slips up and posts the drunken rant. There is no delete button on the internet, as we all know. Those of us who choose to live some portion of our lives online are all selling ourselves to some unknown potential client. All of which, I suppose, reinforces the point I have been making on this blog and in public speaking events since I got into this game: there is about an eye dropper’s amount of difference between our online lives and our offline ones.

I recently asked someone I have never actually met, but “know” on Facebook, (another weird by-product of the internet, but maybe just an updated version of the pen pal) what had motivated her to stream her Spotify selections. She confessed to me that she self-edits and doesn’t share EVERYTHING she’s listening to in her news feed. She leaves out songs that might be seen as offensive or “trashy.” Of course she does. No one will ADMIT to listening to Air Supply. (I have no idea if she does or not, but it was the lamest thing that occurred to me as I write this. Hey, I know what you’re thinking but I don’t listen to Air Supply, either.)

I hear many rail against the TMI culture of the internet using the tired argument that no one really cares about every detail of your life. I might argue that the REAL problem is not too much candor, but not enough.

Would love to hear what you think. Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

Many parents help their kids lie to get on facebook. No big deal, right?

In the past couple of weeks, two very rich studies focusing on the online behavior of young people have been released. One of them is entitled “Why parents help their children lie to Facebook about age,” co-authored by four of the leading thinkers on online privacy, access and the roles kids play on the internet.

 

The other is from the Pew Internet and American Life Project and is entitled “Teens, kindness and cruelty on social network sites.”

I want to focus a bit more on the first study first, and leave the second study for another blog post. I would urge you to click on both links and peruse each of them, as they are rich in substance and fact.

 

Children under 13 are supposedly protected by COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) a Clinton-era law passed in 1998 meant to keep marketers from targeting or collecting information about kids. The law went into effect in 2000, when the internet was a very different place before the explosion of social networking sites, Skype or even GMail. Not that anyone has probably read them, but all of these services have lengthy terms of service agreements which, among lots of other things, are supposed to prevent kids from signing up for them if they’re under 13.

 

In reality what is happening is the very thing that COPPA was meant to prevent: kids are signing up for facebook and other services in droves, very often with their parents’ consent and, in many cases, their explicit help. Many parents are either unaware of COPPA or, worse yet, think that the 13-year old ban is more of a guideline and not a hard and fast regulation. A typical parental response to helping their kids get around the ban goes something like, “My child is mature enough to handle it.” To a large degree, parents feel that they should be the ones to decide how their kids participate online.

 

Fair enough. But the real takeaway from the report for me was the one I suspect is doing the most long-term damage. When parents help their kids get around these restrictions, they are normalizing lying. As danah boyd, one of the authors of the study, recently revealed on NPR’s On the Media, “I was aghast to watch how often law enforcement comes in during assemblies and tells kids that in order to be safe online, they should actually lie about their location. So kids are hearing messages all around them that lying is both the way to get access and the way to be safe online.”

 

Clearly the COPPA mandated requirements are inadequate for today’s online landscape. So, then, what is the solution to keeping kids from being marketed to or otherwise tracked online by advertisers or others? What are some of the consequences to lying either to get online or lying once you’re already there?

 

boyd further notes that “…a huge number of kids actually say they’re from Afghanistan or Zimbabwe, which are the countries alphabetically at the top and the bottom of the possible countries you could be from.” It’s kind of a funny anecdote, but one that, I think,  has far-reaching implications.

 

What do you think of all this? Have you helped your kids circumvent any ToS agreements like the ones on Facebook, GMail or Skype? Is it really no big deal? Please leave a comment in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

Can online video survive?

The comparisons between traditional TV and online video never stop. Some common comparisons are:

 

Online will disrupt and eventually kill TV.

 

TV will never die because of viewer habits, the user experience and their entrenched business model.

 

Blah blah blah…on it goes. Who cares? Not the point of this post.

 

 It seems to me that a major handicap for the long term financial viability of online video is that shows cannot easily be syndicated.

 

What is syndication? In a nutshell, it is where the real money is in TV. As a general rule, when a half-hour show produces 100 episodes, roughly 5 seasons, it can then be sold into syndication and shown off-network.

 

For example, Seinfeld aired as a first run show on NBC. Now it airs off network on hundreds of local stations around the country. That’s an example of syndication. But Seinfeld was always popular and made a lot of people associated with it extremely rich. A better example of the money-making power of syndication success might be a show like Star Trek, which only aired for 3 seasons in the mid-1960s and was not all that popular at the time. Nearly 50 years later, however, we’re still following the same bold voyages of the starship Enterprise.

 

Star Trek might be the original example of the “long tail.”

 

All this occurred to me when I read about the demise of “Diggnation.” Online video is often about immediacy and is often unscripted. (I am generalizing to make a larger point.) Online video shows also seldom adhere to a strict 30-minute length. Yet at its peak in around 2006, Diggnation was arguably the most popular show online and as of this writing, they have produced over 300 episodes. (They will cease production in December 2011.)

 

So, what happens to all that inventory? Who is going to go back and watch an episode from 2007 speculating on the launch of this new device called an iPhone? From a business standpoint, these episodes have no more value than a CNN half hour about a snowstorm in Tennessee in 1987. Archival? Sure. Revenue generating? Nope.

 

When I think about the long term viability and the business model for online video, this strikes me as a major issue that needs to be sorted out. If the “real” money in television is in syndication, where will it come from in online video? I don’t have the answer, but I also don’t really hear the question being asked.

 

What do you think? Is this an insurmountable block for online video producers and other content creators?

Facebook, Foursquare, Groupon and… Joni Mitchell???

In the world of social networking, Facebook continues to be the dominant player, but two things happened rather quietly last week that show that the media coverage surrounding online is remarkably similar to the hysterical media that covers politics.

The advent of 24-hour television news has created a gaping maw that must be filled. Whether it gets filled by accurate information is not always a primary consideration. The competition for attention, and ratings, is vicious and the press that covers online and social media trends is no different. The clamor to be first can sometimes trump the responsibility to be right or, in this case, trump any inclination for trend analysis.

 

So, what am I talking about? About a year ago, Facebook went head-to-head with foursquare in the location-based  “check-in” space. The media spin was that foursquare, the scrappy start-up, would be eaten alive by the Facebook monster, especially considering fb had a gargantuan user base of 600 million subscribers. Funny thing- it didn’t happen that way. Facebook has scrapped the “Check in” feed from its mobile apps and interface.

 

Man bites dog.

 

Groupon, and other daily deals services that continue to pollute the Internet, was also in the crosshairs of the Facebook assassin when they rolled out “Facebook Deals” a little over four months ago in a few select cities. The media take was the same, and so was the outcome. “After testing Deals for four months, we’ve decided to end our Deals product in the coming weeks,” quoth the unnamed Facebook spokesperson.

 

Not exactly steamrolling the competition.

 

I have seen similar media hyperventilating over Google Plus in recent weeks, with the obligatory “Facebook killer” headlines all over the place. I am willing to bet that if you asked 100 non-tech people what Google Plus is, 99 of them would stare back at you blankly.

 

This post is not to critique facebook’s marketing choices or whether Google Plus will make Facebook look like Friendster in a few months (but their marketing sucks and Google Plus won’t). No, my real point is to counsel temperance when every shiny new things comes along. The online world is fueled by innovation and there are winners and losers, but it takes some time to shake out.

 

I’m reminded of the lyrics to “Black Crow” by Joni Mitchell:

 “Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing

Just like that black crow flying in a blue sky.”

The iPad 2 and why I’ll never cancel my NY Times subscription

I finally got around to getting an iPad2 about a month ago and it has replaced my laptop, for all intents and purposes. My workflow is centered around my desktop, and the laptop had become a big, clunky travel workstation that I realized I was mostly using for email and reading.

Ahhh, reading.

As many have already written about at length, the iPad is a wonderful consumption device, maybe not so much for content creation. For someone who travels a lot, it’s a great thing to not have to lug a bunch of different books around, or perhaps make an impulse buy based on a conversation or a quick browse through a Hudson News.

But how about newspapers?

Reading the morning newspaper is lifelong habit critical to my sanity. No matter where I travel, I will always read the NY Times as well as a copy of, as my father used to call it, the local blat. To their credit, the Times has worked as hard, if not harder, than any other old media outlet to try and keep their offering current, relevant and, above all, profitable to a new generation of readers or an old generation, like me, who might consume the paper in a different way.

Lots of virtual ink has been spilled over whether the Times app is any good or whether their paywall idea is sustainable or not. I don’t review apps and I don’t know if the paywall gag will work or not. For me, I don’t use the app for two simple reasons:

1- Holding an actual newspaper in your hands is not incidental to the absorption of its contents and,

2- I simply cannot shake the nagging feeling that I am missing something when I read the paper via the app versus the actual paper. And after a side-by-side comparison, it turns out I think I’m right.

Taking the above points in order: With any web interface, so much development time is devoted to UI and UX (user interface and user experience). You may have a great product, but if one or both of those elements are lacking, you’re kind of dead in the water. I have never ONCE heard anyone talk about the UI or UX of a newspaper, so let me be the first. Well laid out newspapers, like the Times, Washington Post or WSJ, will guide the readers’ eyes to the most important stories. Over time, you “learn how to read” a newspaper, and you figure out the best way to scan the content. But perhaps more importantly, during this process of scanning, every once in awhile you will come across something that you might not ordinarily have read. The physical act of holding a paper, however, offers the reader the chance to see the paper in its totality, something apps cannot really match. I cannot prove this, but I believe that being exposed to two facing pages of text and photos has an affect on the way readers take in the information. To me, it’s like the difference between information and knowledge.

With regard to point 2 above, I spent four days in Boston last week reading the Times app in bed upon waking up, and then buying a copy and reading it over coffee. I don’t know if its for editorial reasons or for reasons of space, but there is a lot missing from the app that you can find in the paper. Despite the categories that attempt to mirror the analog reading experience (Top News, Opinion, Sports, Arts, etc.), the app takes some getting used to, particularly the way a story from yesterday’s paper might hang around in the app for two days or more. While it is indisputable that a printed paper has no chance keeping up with fast moving events in other time zones like the Middle East revolutions, there is a sense with the app that I have only experienced with certain cable channels: “Is this new, or is this just new to me?” It seems like a hedge for a news app to tout its immediacy, but also keep old bananas on the shelf.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am no Luddite. But I’m keeping my newspaper subscriptions for as long as they’re still around.

What do you think? Are apps just as good as the printed paper or magazine? Am I just being stubborn?

 

Not another facebook privacy rant. Actually, no.

Facebook is everywhere. If it’s not a story about its gargantuan user base, it’s Oscar buzz about the film “The Social Network.” Recently the talk has been about its pending, or not pending, IPO and the massive influx of cash it recently received. Through it all runs the ever present discomfort over facebook’s often cavalier attitude towards privacy that makes some users blanch and might be the factor that keeps non-users from becoming users.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I am beginning to have an issue with the ubiquity of facebook for a slightly different reason. facebook’s strongest selling point might be its ease of use. Its basic features are drop dead simple, and once you have mastered the basics, there are only a few nuances that catapult you into the elite echelon of “power user.” Let’s face it: technology is scary to many people and an impediment to the success of scores of great ideas down through the ages. But technology, and I am using the term broadly to include everything from running water to the printing press to space travel, has been the catalyst for every significant social, cultural and economic shift in human history. But there will always be a segment of society which finds technology daunting enough to reject it outright. (From those with clocks perpetually flashing 12:00am on their VCRs to touchtone phone holdouts, Luddites unite!)

Enter facebook and, more specifically, facebook Pages for businesses. With a few clicks, you can have your business up and running on facebook and in front of their 500-million strong user base. And, why not? The opportunity to reach your customers directly, generate leads to attract new ones, address customer service concerns, improve your Google ranking, etc etc etc. And all without having to know about writing code or hiring someone to maintain your website. Sounds pretty good, right?

But, at what cost?

I return to the privacy and, more broadly, control issues touched on above and in other posts here and here. All facebook pages look, feel and function pretty much the same, which makes it harder to separate your business from the pack. Access to the social web was supposed to be the great playing field leveler, theoretically allowing a local soda producer to compete with Coca-Cola. If all websites begin to look, feel and function the same and are controlled by the same gate keeper, well, I think you see where it might lead.

I recognize that for some businesses having a facebook page might be their only point of access to the world wide web, and for them a presence on facebook is likely an invaluable boon to their business. After all, there’s no dollar cost to set one up, although the cost in time and effort can be significant. I think that making your business more social should be one more arrow in your marketing quiver, if possible, not the whole marketing/customer service arsenal.

Facebook has a history of making arbitrary changes to its terms of service, it has shut down Pages and their customer service is virtually non-existent. For a small business, setting yourself apart from the rest is the key to success. Controlling your presence online is critical, too.

Trust. Relevance. Search.

What is the connection between these three words? Search  improves in relevance when results come from trusted sources. I have long maintained that there ain’t much “new” about new media or social media. Gathering in groups and sharing stories and experiences are among our most primal human instincts. The Internet just enables those things to happen remotely. Now I can write on my facebook wall, instead of the wall in my cave.

What’s this got to do with search? Google is great for finding out facts, locations, baseball scores and settling bar bets. But what about where to eat? What movie to go see? Which book to read? Well, in those cases, the trend online is to rely on our network of friends. See what I mean? Everything old is new again. Once upon a time you picked up the phone. Now you can connect your facebook and Amazon accounts to see what your friends are reading or watching. There are even ways to watch TV together separately.

But there are two problems, as I see it, that get worse the larger your network gets.

1- Signal to noise ratio. One of the biggest problems with sites like Yelp.com, Trip Advisor and others is you don’t really know WHO is leaving these reviews, what ax they may have to grind and whether or not the reviews are authentic.

2- If you’re a serial “friender” on facebook and find yourself with 1000+ friends, at what point do their recommendations lose value? This kind of brings you back to problem number 1, which is not really knowing your “friends” and what their tastes are. Curation is key but, alas, it may be too late if your network has spiraled out of control. And un-friending people is so gauche. (Now HERE is a case where I wish offline life more closely resembled online. Imagine if you could un-friend someone with the click of a button. But, alas, that is fodder for another post.)

Nevertheless, the trend still holds: we still ask our friends and family what they think of stuff and social networking just makes that possible at all hours of the day and night from your computer or phone.

So, what’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?

Social networks as focus groups- The future of live TV

A couple of months back I wrote about how social networking was making inroads  connecting people while they watched TV.

Liveprogramming, such as awards shows, were benefitting disproportionately from this type of community building with some estimates showing the Golden Globes, Grammys and Oscars with 14%, 35% and 14% bumps in viewership, respectively. Can it ALL be attributed to social media chatter and participation? I doubt it. But these events consciously make social media a part of their promotional campaigns by leveraging the conversations that are already taking place on twitter and facebook. (Here is what the Grammys did in 2010.)

 

During the interminable World Cup and the almost-as-boring NBA Finals, twitter said that there were over 3000 tweets per second referencing these events. Normal twitter traffic is about 750 tweets per second, evidently.

So what? Well, here’s what: TV is losing viewers, but is in no danger of disappearing. Partially because instead of fighting against social networking as a threat to their hegemony, they have decided to co-opt it to their benefit. (“They” being the faceless, nameless “them” that decides what goes on the air.) With laptops and iPads and smart phones at full throttle as people sit on the couch watching whatever, the Mystery Science Theater 3000-ization of TV is complete. Every tag for every promo on every sports channel and reality show implore us to follow them on twitter and friend them on facebook. The real time feedback from viewers coupled with the demographic information we all gladly provide as payment for joining these networks is a data gold mine for programmers, advertisers, producers and folks wanting to target a specific sector of the populace.

We’re making it easier for them to make TV that better resonates with us that we can chatter about in an endless, self-referential loop. The focus group has reached its zenith.

KCRW- Your one stop shop for finding great music online

I am going to take a break from the usual social media trend analysis to share with you all a fantastic iPhone/iPod Touch app I discovered over the weekend. Don’t have an iPhone/iPod? It’s also a website, so no worries.

Ever since radio officially stopped caring about you and me, finding good music has become a real chore. Like mining for gold, hours spent searching often results in a few nuggets that lose their luster in short order.

Enter KCRW.com and the KCRW iPhone app. For those who do not live in the Los Angeles area, KCRW is the NPR station for Southern California which has become renowned for their excellent music, public affairs and political programming.

The app does so many things perfectly, it ought to be shown to all app developers as the “how-to” use case. Like other radio station apps, you can listen live, or filter by “news” or “music.” The “On demand” feature, however,  is where this app really shines. There you will find 25 different shows/DJs and the option to play back either their latest show or a past one. A playlist pops up in real time that allows you to then take the songs you like and create your own playlist, buy the song in iTunes or share the show you’re listening to with friends. But here’s the real kicker. As we know, Apple does not allow apps to work in the background. This non-feature becomes particularly annoying with a music app such as this one. Well, fear not, music seeker- the “Play in Background” feature is what separates the men from the boys here. AND, the music streams over WiFi or 3G, and I have not had any problems with the hand off. (In other words if you start listening at home over WiFi and then get in your car and switch to 3G. The music keeps right on playing.)

OK, so whatever- all these features are cool. But what about the music? You’ll find KCRW’s signature daily music program “Morning Becomes Eclectic” as well as world music, jazz, indie pop, trance, hip hop, remixes, soul, and on it goes. The DJs themselves are all excellent and, unlike on hit radio, they don’t blather on endlessly. They play the music and stay out of the way. (Special shout out to Tom Schnabel, who was my favorite DJ to listen to when I lived in LA. I probably learned about more music through him than anyone else. Nice to hear you again, Tom.)

So, look, all the time you’ve spent reading this post, you could have spent the .99 cents and downloaded the app already and gotten as much pleasure from it as I have. Ever since I left Los Angeles, I have missed listening to KCRW. Now I don’t have to miss it anymore, and you can have a great LA experience, without all the freeways.

At last, a great way to find great music.

facebook and the losing battle over privacy

So facebook doesn’t seem to care about your privacy. Until they do. Or, do they? Kind of hard to tell. The people who run the service that was pitched to all of us a few years back as a semi-private club where we would have control of who saw our photos, status updates and hackneyed inspirational quotes have now, for the fourth or fifth time, moved the goal posts on what constitutes “privacy.”

Finally, on May 26, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to address the frenzy whipped up online and off over what many perceived as a sneaky attempt to manipulate people’s information. Past attempts have stirred up a storm among the digerati and have been mostly confined to blog posts and tweets. This time, however, it landed on the front page of the New York Times which for an internet business can only mean two things: you have stopped being cool because the stodgy Times found out about you OR because you did something bad/stupid/illegal or some combination of the three.

This is not the first time they have done this, nor the first time I have written about it. But for some reason, THIS time it is really freaking people out, and not just the techie geekerati. So what is at the heart of the problem, and what can be done?

facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg firmly believes two things:  1)  the web is making us all more open and that privacy is an illusion and 2) facebook is on a mission to transform they way we all interact with the web. Facebook wants to be the center of our digital lives, the starting point of our engagement with the internet. facebook believes that “By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more empathetic place.” Oh, brother.

The hue and cry was so intense about their ham-handed changes, that Zuckerberg was forced to acknowledge their mistakes and offer up different settings options for users. The previous privacy settings had 50 pages of clicking and over 170 possible permutations. Who the hell is going to go to all that trouble? That, of course, is EXACTLY what they were counting on- that few of us would.

So, is facebook evil, stupid or crazy like a fox? The truth is, there is not as much of a business for them in only being a place for you to upload your photos and provide status updates as there is in collecting massive amounts of data about their users which can then be used to earn advertising income by more effectively targeting those ads based on your online activities and expressed interests.

If you believe their  numbers, facebook has over 400 million active users, two thirds of whom live outside of the US, but the privacy features are explained in ENGLISH ONLY. So many users have invested so much of themselves (ourselves) into the service that simply quitting facebook is not really a viable option. And even if we did, what would become of all those pictures, videos, intellectual ramblings, etc.? facebook would tell you that they are simply reflecting the change in people’s attitudes about privacy. I have seen no evidence of that. Rather, I would suggest that they are forcing change in order to be able to better target advertising and make more money. The truth is, given the choice, human beings typically opt for convenience over privacy.

(Side note: the implication here is that young people don’t care about their privacy. Zuckerberg himself is only 26, and that may very well be his personal ethos. Yet a Pew Reserch Center study released on May 26, 2010 about reputation management and social media found that 71% of social network users aged 18-29 have changed their privacy setting on their profile to limit what they share with others online. “Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young.” Here’s a link to the survey.)

For those who were freaked out by this latest breach, I think the main reason is that  our privacy has been under assault from so many quarters, and that is a real concern for many of us. From illegal wire tapping and circumvention of FISA to self-inflicted revelations in public fora, many of us face a constant push-pull over how much to reveal and the harm it may inflict. When I say “harm,” I don’t necessarily mean physical harm, although there are many heartbreaking stories of physical harm. It could be embarrassment, getting caught in a lie, or just forgetting that you are sometimes speaking to a broader audience. But these missteps feel manageable because we realize that WE were the ones that made a mistake by revealing too much. It’s quite a different, and creepy, feeling when someone ELSE reveals our personal information without our informed consent. Betrayal is tough to come back from. Unless you’re facebook and no one seems to give a damn.

For all intents and purposes, facebook has no competition and, as danah boyd points out, the deeper a relationship, the higher the cost of ending it. So what can be done? Not much, I’m afraid. Stay on top of the changes (because this WILL happen again. And again.), and remain ever mindful of what your goals and objectives are when you join an online club.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

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