Thursday, September 29, 2011

Overwhelming personal data volumes

Under European data protection legislation it's possible to request a copy of the information held about you on any given service. Yesterday I saw reports that one such request to Facebook yielded more than 800 pages of information!

The detailed report showed that Facebook stores
  • Name, address, date of birth, friends
  • Messages you have deleted and private messages
  • Which events you decided not to attend as well as those you did
  • The last location you accessed Facebook from
  • A list of every single machine you ever logged into Facebook from
  • Who has poked you
  • Political and religious, and much more...
Of course, this is pretty much just the information that the user has entered into Facebook; it's just a bit odd when you see it all collated nicely together! For what it's worth, I heard someone describe how the equivalent information from Amazon ran to a similar length, including what passages they'd highlighted in the Kindle books they'd read, and the notes they'd made.
Get more like this

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Selfishness and greed reduce privacy; or transparency yields personalisation

Here's a thought as to why personal privacy is mostly given up freely:
  • "I want" (or think I want) to be treated as an individual. I want stuff to be personalised for me.
  • But you can't personalise stuff for me unless I reveal who I am, and what my likes, wants and needs are.
  • So my demand for personalisation leads inevitably to greater transparency or, looked at the other way, less privacy.
There's almost a sliding scale, a trade-off, between the amount of privacy I have and the degree of custom experience I get. To get the most tailored, custom, service I need to let an all-seeing butler into my life. Alternatively, the higher my privacy, the more my experience is generic - the same as everyone else's - because there's no information with which to differentiate between us.

And just why do I want this personalisation that demands transparency? Because, in common with every other human being, I'm both greedy and intensely selfish: I want it all, my way, and now.

Internet users are not stupid. As an economist, I think they make rational choices between alternatives. They know they are not the customer but the product that's being sold; and they're happy to pay the price because their wants are being met. They've decided to agree with the famous Gordon Gekko line from the Wall Street movie that 'Greed is good.'

So users will continue to reveal more of their life to Facebook and Google because by doing so they'll get more stuff how and when they want it. Those motivations of greed and selfishness are more powerful than the pull of privacy, until an unexpected straw breaks the camel's back when suddenly it's too late.
Get more like this

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Facebook "Likes" to know all about us

Facebook seems to have a track record of stealthily launching new features that work massively in the company's advantage, then doing some sort of back track if the outcry becomes too loud.

One of the latest difficulties is the revelation in the last few days that the "Like" buttons that have been springing up on most major sites over the last few months reveal information about us, even if we are not logged in to Facebook. Even if we have never registered at Facebook, our computer's IP address is still recorded along with the information about the web pages we're visiting, when and for how long ...

Last week's announcement of the Open Graph technology allows third-party websites to tell Facebook what people are doing. It extends Facebook's "Like" button to include any action that the site owners think might be interesting to Facebook. As a Facebook user you can opt not to have that information published (don't allow this publishing to start with); but you can't stop those sites you visit implementing Open Graph and sending the information to Facebook in the first place!

Over time this information can build up to be quite a large dossier on each Internet user. Something Adrian Short describes as 'silent total surveillance.' We can't opt out because the information is automatically shipped to Facebook the moment we land on a web page that's included the "Like" button.

Web site owners who implement "Like" are selling their users' web surfing information in the hope of a few more page views. Now I know, I've removed the "Like" feature from the web properties I own.

Here's how it works: Facebook gets web publishers to insert an iframe or JavaScript in the HTML for their Web pages. As soon as the page is loaded, the code invokes a PHP script at that records information including the URL for the Web page, your IP address, and your Facebook ID (if you're authenticated).
Get more like this

Monday, September 26, 2011

Facebook tracking and auto-sharing

This weekend there's been a report that Facebook can track where you go on the web, even if you are not logged in to Facebook.

It's all about how Facebook tracking cookies stored on the user's computer can be read by the 'Like' buttons scattered over a million or more web sites, picking up the details of those who browse by.

Today a Facebook engineer has poured water, trying to put out the firestorm, claiming 'We don't track logged-out users.'

But, the point is that Facebook can use this technique. And so can other dominant Internet players (Google). And that user trust in Facebook is slipping: anecdotally, I know of a number of people gradually dis-engaging from Facebook, reading and not posting ... Surprisingly, friends who have just had a baby have decided not to publish the child's photos online. Is this a growing trend in the Friends generation who are becoming more aware of how their data is shared without their control?

Last week Facebook revealed more plans to introduce 'frictionless sharing:' it sounds great, amidst the hoopla and bright lights of announcements, until the penny drops that this implies that news about the books and articles I read, or music and films I enjoy, or applications I use, and more might be published automatically without my intervention to an activity stream.

Combine that with the fact that random individuals can now 'Subscribe' to my Facebook feed without me first agreeing that they are a 'Friend.' No wonder that renowned pundit and 'protoblogger' Dave Winer declared last Saturday that 'Facebook is scaring me.'
Get more like this

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How's it for you, Truman?

We were talking today about how life in social media is like starring in our very own The Truman Show. It's not just Facebook, but Twitter and the rest also ... We publish our photos, feelings, thoughts, plans and schedules; many of us find our mood swings depending on how many 'Likes' our stuff gets ... And it's similar to starring in our own reality show where we make the 'cameras' follow us pretty much everywhere.

What will it take for us, like the character Truman Burbank in the movie, to get uncomfortable and feel that there's some reality somehow 'out there' that we're not in touch with?
Get more like this

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mobile application vulnerabilities

Mobile devices outnumber traditional computers at a ratio of about 3:1 and, by 2015, it's estimated that 30% of them will be 'smart phone' devices, including tablets. That's just too tempting a target for bad guys for users not to be vigilant. This is especially true of users with commercially sensitive information to process, especially in industries such as financial services.

Already, the Skype application on the iOS (iPhone and iPad) is open to abuse: the bad guys can get at data on your phone, including its address book.

And, for regular computer users, there's a report today by the BBC that a UK firm is accused of supplying surveillance technology to the pre-revolution Egyptian authorities. The firm denies it, but the interesting piece in the report is that their technology allows monitoring of Skype calls, together with popular services such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and Gmail.
Get more like this

Friday, September 16, 2011

Help when you get stuck

I like the insight from visionary Elon Musk (really) that a teacher's role should be to help you when you get stuck.

It reminded me of my conversation yesterday with @patrickjpr where he described Twitter as his "virtual watercooler" where conversations can range from philosophy or last night's TV/sports through to the practical and technical ...

We're moving so rapidly to a world where collaboration and mutual help and support is what's valued and valuable.

When I was taught at school, working with others was considered cheating and university teaching was mostly through quite gladiatorial tutorials where we took it in turns each week to defend an essay in front of the tutor while the other student would spar and score points ...

Against this background, training in IBM was such a shock where the only thing that got rewarded was team work. This is the right approach: we all need others around us to help us when we get stuck; and the best way to build that support base is to begin by giving help freely to others. In a world developing the need for portfolio careers instead of lifelong wage slavery, we have to learn to give our expertise away freely, at first, in order to develop reputation and contacts and, eventually, the monetary - and other - rewards.
Get more like this

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Power of serendipity

There really isn't just one way to use social media tools: there are many potential benefits and, like the shifting tides and weather patterns, you experience different things on different days.

Today, my 11:30 meeting in London got pushed back to late afternoon, leaving me free until my 2pm meeting.

From my public transport into the city I wrote a Tweet about it, with the hash-tag #bored.

By the time I'd arrived in town, just a few minutes later, I had a Tweet back from @patrickjpr who suggested that we meet for a coffee. Patrick runs a PR agency and is currently setting up and it was great to share some business start-up stories and begin to figure out how we might help each other succeed.

As an added bonus, he introduced me to #LikeMinds, a social co-working space designed to make physical connections from virtual conversations located in the heart of London’s West End. It's got WiFi, the ever-necessary power sockets, and a quiet, comfortable ambience where one can get business done, individually or in small meeting spaces. I may well join myself after such a positive experience.

And as a further added bonus, I briefly met a second Patrick Smith, this one the editor and chief analyst of He's a London-based journalist who has covered the changing nature of the media industry since 2005.

Much more use out of my hour or so of unexpected free time than wondering the streets of London, sitting in a park or taking in a museum or gallery ... and I got my phone charged at the same time ... and all down to a spontaneous Tweet and someone who took the trouble to notice and respond.
Get more like this

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

No one makes a list of web sites to visit before they die

Remember that it's so important to focus on the value that end users will receive, whatever your product - even if it's "only" a web site.

A contemporary example of getting things the wrong way round is QR Codes: they are useful in tracking items through a supply chain, especially in situations where RFID tags are not appropriate, and the barrier to entry is really low: you can get started with a black and white printer and a free or cheap smartphone app.

But when they're offered to end users as part of a brand's marketing campaign, they're solving a problem for the marketer, not the end user.

Do we really expect a user to download an app; start it; scan a code; then wait for some random content to be pushed to them? If the code links only to a regular website then it's not likely to be a great browsing experience on the smartphone; and if they've scanned the code from an ad on the subway or London Tube then they won't have Internet access to reach the content anyway. When they do get the content, will they be glad they did? If it's just another ad then probably not.

There are just so many more intuitive and easy ways for users to get the content that they want. Meanwhile, the QR Code in this scenario is really only benefiting the campaign manager who wants to track real time viewing statistics; and users are tired of giving up measurement info for such small reward.

So, focus on what users want, and will benefit from. They're not sitting around compiling a list of websites they want to visit and ads they want to 'experience' before they die. Build and deliver something that helps your users to live better instead.
Get more like this

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Young firms create jobs

I lived for more than three years in Kansas City where the renowned Kauffman Foundation is based so my eye was drawn to the quotation as part of the special report on the 'Future of Jobs' in this week's edition of The Economist.

"Research funded by the Kauffman Foundation shows that between 1980 and 2005 all net new private-sector jobs in America were created by companies less than five years old." Take note of that little word, 'All.'

The crude explanation is given by Carl Schramm, the Foundation's president, saying, 'Big firms destroy jobs to become more productive. Small firms need people to find opportunities to scale. That is why they create jobs.'

Certainly this chimes with my own experience. I had seven years with IBM and saw how (at that time) those of us on 'Permanent' headcount were semi-safe because the company could manage its demand for overall employment by changing its demand level for temporary contract workers.

Since then I've mostly worked in small business, including a couple of brand new startups, and know how everyone involved has to roll up their sleeves to get the job done, learning lots of additional skills, until such time as a co-worker can be brought on to the team.

The challenge remains, especially in these straightened times, funding the working capital to make confident investment decisions. We've got a great product, and great demand building in the marketplace, but it's hard to make those investment calls when the economic outlook is so challenging.
Get more like this

Monday, September 12, 2011

Privacy is good business

We often hear the naive - and wrong - assertion that you don't need privacy unless you're guilty of doing something that you need to hide. Google it - there are a lot of articles, including some excellent thinking by renowned guru Bruce Schneier, that prove this false.

But there's a much more fundamental set of reasons: privacy is vital to help business work.

  • We've been approached by someone who wants an exclusive agreement to distribute our software in an industry vertical; 
  • Prior to our public beta launch, we had a number of sensitive commercial conversations with a different company, in a different industry;
  • As I work with a management accountant and other business advisers, we need to transfer financial and other information between us - and we recognise the need to keep the conversations between us, rather than utterly public!
If privacy were not needed to help business transactions develop then we wouldn't have the proliferation of confidentiality and non-compete agreements signed between business parties.

By making it harder for companies to use encryption technologies to protect their information as it travels, Pakistan and other countries banning the technology can only harm their economic life: outside investors will be more wary of trading with companies in those countries; and companies in those jurisdictions will be tempted - or forced - to ignore the ban.

Get more like this

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reliability of cloud computing - #LaptopFriday

It's often interesting to plan some 'light' work that I can do in the coffee shop context where fellow digital professionals gather each week for Cheltenham's #LaptopFriday.

Today, part of the general conversation was from someone lamenting that he'd attended a 'cloud computing' event where - amazingly - there was no WiFi provision. So the delegates could hear about cloud, but not actually use it from their mobile devices!

And then I turn to today's BBC News where there's a report of Microsoft's Hotmail, Office 365 and Skydrive and other services taken offline, preventing millions of users from accessing their stored files and emails and other services. The BBC notes, 'Such a major problem is likely to raise questions about the reliability of cloud computing versus local storage.'

Such problems don't just affect Microsoft. Much of the cloud infrastructure runs on services provided by Amazon and they've had several major outages this year, taking services that use them off line. And well-publicised breaches of security, such as the hacking of Sony Playstation user account details earlier this year, cause thoughtful users to question the services we're being sold.

The bottom line is that it's not all about the cloud. But cloud is far from over. It's appropriate for some - but, critically, not all - scenarios. Expect users to become more sophisticated and to demand greater control of their privacy and their ability to trust service suppliers.
Get more like this

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

No clothes on GeoSocial location services?

Remember the little boy who cried out that the emperor had no clothes on? It seems the same may be true of location-based services like Foursquare, Gowalla and the now defunct Facebook Places.

With only 12% of adult smart phone users using a geolocation service like Foursquare or Gowalla, checking in is the least popular activity in the table published by Mashable yesterday. Why?
  • Privacy and safety concerns - folk are worried that in broadcasting their location they're advertising where they are not, and that the stuff they care about might be left unattended.
  • There just aren't enough users to make it useful: even a few million users worldwide translates to just a very few locally and, outside the geek circle, not many mainstream users. There just aren't enough users to make a consistent appreciable difference to the revenue of any one business.
  • Although many small businesses have been experimenting with deals and offers, it seems that users don't feel there are enough rewards to justify the cost of their time and privacy. My own experience is that checking in was fun for the first month or so, but my use rapidly fell from being active several times each day to a few times each week, then less - and now I've deleted Foursquare from my phone completely. Seems I'm not the only one with this pattern.
So, it's too early to claim that Foursquare is the next MySpace; or that Gowalla is dead already. But it's not quite the Internet gold rush that people were predicting a few months back.
Get more like this

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Starfish beating Spiders in the Arab Spring

Watch it quickly on BBC iPlayer before it expires, if you're in the UK. Monday's episode of How Facebook Changed the World: The Arab Spring: Episode 1 contains a great quote 28 minutes in:

The programme interviews Nawara Negm who says, 'The problem with the old school thinking of the Mubarak regime is that it thought that only factions that had a pyramid structure were dangerous. That is why it was confronting parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic factions, because they were traditional organizations with a hierarchical structure. He thought that because the Internet had no structure and leadership that it wasn't a threat.'

The counter-argument is put by Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion and, back in January this year when the events unfolded so rapidly, hour by hour, it was difficult to get a perspective on what was happening. But the argument in the BBC programme is that the protesters, at least in Egypt, were very aware that everything they wrote on the Internet was monitored by government forces; and they claim to have used that to their advantage quite deliberately.

Now this BBC production gives a perfect, pretty much contemporary, further illustration of the thesis put out by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.

In the book, they give examples of the battles between centralized music labels and file sharing networks; they draw illustrations from Skype, eBay, Craig's List, Amazon and others. But it's their contrast between the ease with which Cortez wiped out the centralized Aztec society and the difficulty faced by those trying to 'tame' the Apache Indian society which was organized much more loosely that comes most close to helping us to understand what's gone in this year's Arab Spring revolutions across North Africa.

See also
More at

Greed, or fear?

You know the famous quote from the character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street that 'Greed is good' ... and the follow-on quote in the successor movie of 2010 that 'Someone reminded me I once said "Greed is good". Now it seems it's legal...'

Robert Peston makes a similar claim in the final chapter of Who runs Britain? that 'It may not be pretty but, on the whole, greed is good.'

It's an appeal to greed, dressed up in the language of features and benefits, that underpins most of the marketing industry. The thesis goes that, as a marketer, I need to work out what will appeal to my prospects' wants so that they desire my offering enough to part with money for it. Of course, we don't present their wants as anything other than legitimate - even necessary - because to imply that wants fuel greed is a negative judgment, and no one gets anywhere by insulting customers or talking quite so baldly.

However, there's an equally powerful motivator, that of fear. It's less frequently talked about, but it's the flip side of the deodorant ad that subtly promises I'll get the girls swooning over me if I spray this brand ... Alongside the implicit promise to resolve greed (and sex!) is the fear that I'll not get the girls if I don't use this brand to smell this way!

I'm interested in the growing fear around the Internet world, particularly in the world of social media and online networking tools. Not only are we seeing a limited rise of celebrity voices questioning whether Facebook and the like are good or "dangerous," but there's an increasing flurry of articles questioning whether social media is 'eroding our privacy' and offering some how-to responses.

Rather than marketing on the basis of benefits (greed) or on the basis of fear, I prefer that powerful insight from Drucker that marketing is, in fact, all about listening to what the market wants and then innovating a solution in response to it.

Expect canny operators who are listening to what people want to respond to the greed/fear around the under-served themes of privacy and trust. Increasingly, as the world seems to get less stable, it seems that these are things people want and solutions like Starfish are making a response.
Get more like this

Monday, September 5, 2011

Is Facebook "dangerous"?

According to The Drum today, the Queen's eldest granddaughter, Zara Phillips, has declared, “I think Facebook’s dangerous. So many people I know get into trouble with Facebook...I’d rather just pick up the phone. Or Skype.”

Beyond the somewhat elusive claim "so many people I know get into trouble" there are not many clues here. I want to know what kind of trouble, exactly?!

So, from a bit of Google searching today (thanks, Google, for the Freddie Mercury 65th birthday Doodle!)
  • Like email, it's all too easy for others to interpret my Facebook status updates in a way I didn't intend: there's no "tone of voice" (hence the proliferation of emoticon smiley faces ;)
  • It can all get a bit false as we self-consciously promote what we want others to think of us, editing out the photos and updates that don't support our desired image.
  • The "Like" button has become an immediate gauge of my popularity: "Why have I only got 2 likes for that...?" is the insecure response of many a kid nervously isolated online.
  • Who exactly are the people on that large "friends" list? Many names just slip my memory, or are friends of friends and random, one-off or temporary, acquaintances.
  • It's all a bit of a treadmill because there is such a constant barrage of updates that it's hard to keep up, yet we can feel socially isolated if we've not got the latest news. Someone I know Tweeted today that after two weeks' holiday in France he'd got out of the whole social media scene. I wonder, was his life richer or poorer because of it? (I rather hope the holiday was better than the treadmill!)
  • It certainly soaks up a huge amount of time; an average hour a day according to some claims. For many, it's the first thing they do (from their phone, in bed, on waking) and the last thing they do at night!
  • The constantly-shifting privacy rules mean that I can enjoy "stalking" others and peering into their life; while conveniently forgetting that random others are seeing me back.
  • Of course, we've been alarmed by tales of cyber-bullying - even leading to suicides; and there are cases every now and then of those who have lost a job or a promotion because of their online presentation. These things don't only happen on Facebook, but they are the down-side of the world's largest social media platform.
  • And then we've got to face the fact that there's huge monetary value in all that Facebook data. If there weren't then Mr Zuckerberg and his company wouldn't have such stratospheric valuations. But we also have to acknowledge that they are the ones making money off our data, paying us with a "free" service that increasingly feels like an expensive deal.
I wonder what sort of impact an un-endorsement from a Royal will have? Expect some reactions: there are already some claims that Facebook usage is reaching saturation point, possibly even tailing off in some key markets, especially in USA and UK, the early-adopter nations.
Get more like this

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Response to a friend's encouragement

Having sat on a sofa for the last twenty years I have actually played two games of badminton one afternoon when bullied by some friends. And this week Cathy and I have together accomplished Week One of the NHS "Couch to 5k" programme.

Have you come across it? We think it's brilliant: thirteen podcasts, and some great encouragement to accompany music that we are choosing to regard as catchy instead of cheesy. Of course, we have only done the three runs of the first week so far; but we have done it without a call to 999 or an oxygen infusion. (We are concerned, though, that we may be the ones responsible for the Japanese earth tremors this week.)

Anyway, we are doing the programme together, to the mild surprise of the kids, and convincing ourselves that we don't look ridiculous. (I only have bright blue swim shorts to run in at present as my pairs of Crew and Eddie Bauer canvas shorts are too heavy!)

The best bit, of course, are the rest days in between. I really look forward to those.

But Cathy tells me I'm becoming a bit of a bore now I've found out I'd have to run for over an hour to lose the calories from the Twix I ate the other day. At least I was able to put a pair of work trousers on the other day without cutting off the blood supply to my most precious parts.

So, cheer us on: and hope you won't recognise me when you see us next!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Concentrated power

The web promised a level playing field, a democratic free-for-all where all voices were equal.

Despite the proliferation of web sites and Internet broadcast channels, most web users regularly visit just a handful of sites. I met a client recently who just didn't "get" that his customers aren't interested enough in a regular "relationship" that they're unlikely to keep returning to his website, or remember their login credentials when they do... (He needs to innovate ways to reach them, but that's another story that we are working on with him.)

But there's a more insidious problem: there's a hunger for power that concentrates information in the hands of just a few key players on the Internet. Google, Facebook and Apple dominate, though there are others. They're battling to know all about us, to own those relationships and control the revenue flows.

The latest move is from The Financial Times, withdrawing their apps for iPhone and iPad from Apple's store. The company lived with giving 30% of gross revenue to Apple; but changed Apple Terms and Conditions required the subscription process - and hence the customer data and relationship - to be mediated through Apple, too.

This would enhance Apple's cash-cow with increasingly valuable customer relationship data, strengthening it in the battle with Facebook and Google.

Most players in the Market just have to live with Apple's changed demands. The FT has just declared that enough is enough.