Talking To The Machine

With the explosion of Social Media in the last couple of years, lead by Facebook‘s and Twitter‘s success, I’ve been hearing a lot of commotion from two opposing camps. On the one hand are people who don’t use social media. They are, by far, the majority (as Facebook has “only” 350 million users, and Twitter is still much-much smaller than that), but they are a quiet majority. The other, louder camp relies heavily on social media to pump a message of self importance. Most people writing in the blogosphere are early adopters, and as such tend to be ahead of the curve in adopting social media as well. There is no surprise, then, that the Internet is full of people calling anyone shunning from Facebook a Luddite.

“How can you say that social media is bad?” they ask the taxi driver who complains, that his son spends too much time in front of the computer and not enough time playing soccer with his friends. “He is playing with his friends. Honest. In fact,” they go on, “he has more friends now than ever.”

This is a big fat lie.

Talking To The Machine

I’ve been spending more time in Social Media lately. There’s a lot going on in there. Many funny YouTube videos. Links to new and exciting gadgets. Reviews of various books. Pictures of kittens.

What I found out is that when there is so much information, I have no time to engage in real conversation with real people. I comment on status messages, interacting with bits of information, not with people. It’s like a Turing test gone wrong, where I’m trying to separate human statuses from machine generated statuses.

One thing I can do is ask for help. A few weeks ago I needed an old computer, so I asked if anyone I’m connected to is going to throw away his or hers. Within a couple of weeks I’ve got me a brand-new old-but-respectable working computer. People ask for opinions about products. They ask for help finding a specific song. Social media is a great tool to dip into the knowledge of the many and find stuff where Google is completely broken.

This is useful, but it is not a replacement for the intimate connection you can only have with your best friends. This is you, using a service, to find information, interacting with information, and talking to the machine. If the Matrix ever existed, it would not have used people as a power source. It would have been an aggregate of human knowledge and computation. An intelligent being so complex, we couldn’t even comprehend its existence – the same way neurons in our brain don’t contemplate about our feeling of self.

Remember, there is no spoon.

Communication Is The Key

Communication is easier today, more than ever. This means couples keep in touch during the day. Children and parents know better what the other is doing. Close friends can stay closer. With the mobile phone, instant messaging, emails, Facebook and Twitter, I find it much easier to keep in touch with a select few. The advance of technology allows these few to be as far away from me physically as possible, it makes no differences.

But they are select, and they are few. At the end of the day, social media has not changed much in how we chose our friends. It only changed how we spend our time with them.

One Last Word Of Warning

A recent study discovered that watching television increases risks of heart attacks. This is no joke. The research discovered that:

Compared with those watching less than two hours of TV, people who sat in front of the box for more than four hours a day were 80% more likely to die for reasons linked to heart and artery disease.

Dunstan had this message for members of the public: “In addition to doing regular exercise, avoid sitting for prolonged periods and keep in mind to ‘move more, more often’. Too much sitting is bad for health.”

So, if you are a heavy user of social media, please, use it on the go from a mobile device. Don’t sit in front of the computer for the entire day.

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The Moment Of Fear

Whenever you meet someone who is more accomplished than you, there is a moment of fear.

At the job interview, the interviewer is more experienced than you are. At the test, the professor asking you questions has forgotten more than you ever knew. At the business meeting, the businessman across the table has a budget of millions. You fear you are not qualified for the job. You fear you are not smart enough. You fear you have no leverage.

You fear because you are looking to improve yourself, and you constantly try to chew a bit more than you can bite. You’ve prepared for this test. You have a good product. You’ve done what you can. Your life is changing right now, and your body wants to run away? This is too important to turn back.

Remember that if you don’t try, you have already failed. So, what is there to be afraid of? There’s nothing to lose, and only everything to gain.

Look for the moment, though. If there isn’t any, you are not trying hard enough.

How Google Wave can save Twitter from itself

A few months ago, Rob Diana posted on RegularGeek about the hazards of having only one Twitter or one Facebook. Whenever there’s a service that is important to us, and is without competition, consumers are in a disadvantage:

Unless you live under a rock, you have heard that there were massive DDOS attacks that affected Twitter, Facebook and a few other sites. The sites affected had varying degrees of success in staying functional, but Twitter seemed to be the hardest hit. Given that Twitter was having issues for most of the day, many people migrated to other services like FriendFeed. However, FriendFeed is not an alternative microblogging platform, it is a completely different type of site. So, what can we do if Twitter goes down?

If Twitter goes down, the blogosphere reacts as if the world is ending. It may be a bit much, but Twitter has become a mainstream application. When it goes down, a lot of people know about it. Can we avoid downtime? Probably not, but there are ways to work around this problem. First, Twitter could itself become distributed. Similar to software like email, why not have several Twitter installs around the world that all talk to each other?

Here’s the thing: Once you have a winner in social-networks such as Facebook, or in real-time web such as Twitter, it changes the economy in those markets. The network effects of these products makes them extremely hard to defeat. Today, instead of fighting with Facebook and creating a competing social-network, it makes much more sense to compete within the Facebook economy (this is the angle that Zynga and iLike are playing).

Facebook and Twitter, mainly because of their APIs, are becoming economies, and there’s no backup system in place. If Twitter decides to shut down third party clients, so only official Twitter client with official Twitter ads are used, they’ll can do it. Users have no-where to go.

Fail Whale

Fail Whale

Proprietary is Evil

The internet technology stack is built on openness and sharing. Packet routing is a basic pay-it-forward mechanism where each server does its best effort. Firefox and other open-source projects got a huge boost through the shared efforts of many, and they are creating much needed competition to some evil monopolies. Currently, the leading social companies are (quickly!) becoming monopolies.

And the web prefers good over evil:

Wave can fight Evil

Wave is coming with its own set of open protocols. If you want to create a Wave provider that competes with Google, you can. That’s good because (repeat with me): Where there’s competition, the consumers win.

Here’s a short difference by example between the Wave protocols and the old social media services:

  • Email is a protocol. If I don’t like my email service provider, I can switch. It’s a hassle, but not impossible. Technology allows for competition. Competition drives the market. We win. When Gmail announced they are giving 1GB of storage and a new interface, suddenly everybody was innovating their email clients.
  • Instant messaging is a service. When instant messaging just started, I was using ICQ. I hated ICQ, but I couldn’t move until my friends moved. I liked Messenger, but had to move when my friends started using Gtalk. I can’t chose.

We need to build many Wave servers. We need competing Wave providers. We need to hook Wave into the existing APIs of the social-media services. We need to allow consumers to move from the monolithic services to the distributed technologies, without losing their connections. Once we are on the Wave, no one will be able to keep us away from our real-time web and from our friends. You can’t Fail Whale email, you can only Fail an email provider.

By moving from services to protocols, we can turn the Fail Whale into a Prevail Whale.

Prevail Whale

Prevail Whale

All Marketers Are Liars

Seth Godin has written a book titled “All Marketers Are Liars“, meaning all marketers are storytellers. They do not tell the whole truth and nothing but. It isn’t their job. The job of a good marketer is to sell you a story that you can relate to. A story that will create a brand, a movement, a want. The marketer wants you to remember the product when you are looking for a solution to a problem, and wants to assure you you’ve made the right choice when you are having second thoughts about money spent.

The marketer’s job is to create perceived value, that is greater that the worth of the manufacturing.

Think of Zappos – Zappos created immense value to their customers through exceptional customer service. Zappos isn’t about the shoes. It is about happiness.

Think of McDonald’s – the king of fast food is not about the quality hamburgers. It is about very accessible burgers. Just look at how hard the marketers are working to change the perception of the company to understand how powerful your company’s image is.

Now think of the generic DVD player you bought from an unknown Chinese provider. Why did you buy it? Because it is cheaper, and you couldn’t find anything remarkable in any of the other products. Quality of picture is the same, they all display Divx movies, they all have a USB plug, they all break after six months. So you bought the cheapest one.

Without perceived value, you can only fight for price and the race to the bottom will kill a business.

All Marketers Are Storytellers

This week on TED, Rory Sutherland explained the job of a marketer with grace and a lot of humor. Also, he tells an unbelievable story of the branding of a morning cereals. A square turned into a diamond, becomes much tastier!

Don’t Lie To Me!

In Israel there are four Internet Service Providers, which are basically the same. They give the same crappy service, the same bandwidth offerings, and the same prices more or less. It’s hard to tell exactly, because your price depends quite a bit on how much you are willing to haggle with the sales person.

Yesterday I got the monthly bill from my ISP, and on the back of the envelope there was a poll result about who is the the most valuable (i.e. cheapest) ISP. In order to get an answer, they called many households and asked them who they percieve as the most valuable.

No facts were harmed doing the creation of this poll. And a shame it is, since this particular question (who is cheapest) is really easy to answer. The worst thing you can do is have your customers catch you, as you try to pull one out of a hat. If you are tainted as a liar, nothing you say will change that for a very long time.

How To Open-Source Data

Open-source has changed the world.

I’ve looked for a good definition of open-source and all I could find were references to open-source software. I like to define open-source in a broader manner. In this definition I refer to “a construct” as a target product of an open-source project. Today, most construct are pieces of software, but they can also be toasters, printers or even cars. Also, note that I will use a GNU-like approach to open-source. Obviously, there can be many flavors to it.

“Open-source” is an approach in design, development and distribution of a construct. Anything can be defined as open-source if it follows the following attributes:

  1. The design of the construct is available with any distribution of the construct. The design can be changed by any one, pending that the new design also be available with any distribution of the new construct.
  2. Development methods are available with the distribution of the construct. The development methods can be changed by any one, pending that the new methods also be available with any distribution of the new construct.
  3. Any one can distribute a construct based on the design and development methods stated above.
  4. Use of patents is prohibited, as patents conflict with the notions of free distribution (free as in free speech, not as in free beer).

The reason why software is the most open-sourced field is because it is easiest to open. Software is nothing more than information and information is easily copied, shared, changed and redeployed. Software developers needed a way to share their software, so they’ve developed it. We are lacking the frameworks to open-source pretty much anything else, because software developers don’t need it and the those who need it can’t build it.

We need open-source websites

A friend of mine started an open-source project to data-mine government data. The group of people attracted to this type of project is extremely diverse. Only a small minority of the people are real developers. Some of them will code a little, if they absolutely have to. Most of them just want to help organize the data, tag it, sort it, describe use cases and influence the development. But they can’t.

Here’s what you need to do to use the software: you need to download it, download and install python, django, MySQL, and a bunch of other open-source prerequisites. Then you need to configure everything to work on you computer. Then you need to run the program once to build the initial data sets. Once you have the data in your database, you can either query it directly or open a web server locally and browse it. Oh, and it only works on Linux, of course.

Without a centralized website where the data resides, changes to the data cannot be shared. Data cannot be tagged and it cannot be sorted. Observations about the data (oh, look, there are more environmental actions taken this year than the previous year. How interesting!) are not shared and are therefore lost.

The closest example I have to an open-source website is Wikipedia. The code is free, the site is online, you can change the data, you can change the code, you can download and distribute copies of the data and the code. Also, the community dictates the development of the site. The prominent users are not the developers.

Do it yourself (here’s a start-up idea for free):

An open-source website, unlike open-source software, is the best way to create a project that focuses on a combination of data and functionality.

  1. The project has a community. The community needs tools to collaborate. They need to discuss the current status of the project and describe its future. Today, the best tools we have are wikis. Open one.
  2. Host the data online. Have a centralized database that anyone can reach, take, query and change. The last part is tricky. How can you allow change while preventing damage to the data? Well, I never said it was easy (but nothing worth while ever is). The most important part is querying the data. The community will share information they found in the data on the wiki, but they’ll also share the queries (and improve them over time).
  3. Build a website. Most likely, this website will be similar to many crowd-sourcing websites out there, and for good reasons. This is where most people will look, and some will touch the data. However, your site will differ from others in one important aspect. It will be open. Developers will be able to add new features (a new button, a new page). Designers will be able to change the look and feel of the site, to make it better. People will add new queries to the data. I can’t think of any process or framework that can make this effortless. Can you?
  4. Open it up. Allow any one to take, change and redeploy the site and the data.

I have found one company who provides a platform for crowd sourcing. As far as I can see, the platform is not open-source, which, in my book, puts them under FAIL. Not that I’m against making a buck here and there, it’s just that you have to eat your own dog food.

Does anyone want to start an open-sourceĀ  project for building open-source projects?