Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Gentrification of MySpace vs. Facebook...

Talk about a generation gap. The phenomena of social-networking websites, particularly MySpace and Facebook, has reached epic proportions. According to this Forbes article, three quarters of American teenagers now have profiles on such websites (while many over the age of 30 are still largely unaware of their existence), but what's even more fascinating is that they're not all the same. Increasingly, MySpace and Facebook have been splintering along economic class lines.

Two weeks ago, my cousin Julie created me a Facebook page, just as the Nerfherder Gal created me a MySpace one several months ago. Both are a web designer's nightmare - poorly designed, extremely limited, and without the capacity to let the user alter the content outside of far too narrow guidelines. My one sentence review is that Facebook clearly beats MySpace because it lets you create groups, join and promote causes, and add a wide range of software applications. But I digress.

Forbes and a host of recent articles have been chronicling the suddenly obvious gentrification of social networking sites. MySpace stakes claim to far more users and ad revenue, however Facebook is used by a more affluent, educated class. To put it simply, despite both sites being open to the public to join, blue-collar working-class people are naturally gravitating toward MySpace while college students, graduates, and wannabes are shifting towards Facebook.

And it's amazing how if you mention this cyber-gentrification to any teenager, the response is usually "Duh, everyone knows that!". It's common sense to them; a secret that everybody's in on. There must be some sociology doctoral student out there who can help explain how this is occurring in a virtual realm where there are absolutely no barriers to entry. It's as if there were a rich neighborhood and a poor neighborhood within the same town, and even though anyone could move into the rich area and its better amenities, nobody does. By choice.

So how can we explain the splintering of MySpace and Facebook along economic class lines? One can make the historical argument and point out that Facebook was created by and for college students, and until recently that was their only membership. But that's no longer the case, having opened up the gates several months ago. One might also make the argument that the social networks of the real world have simply been transplanted into cyberspace; that individuals join a particular site based on which one their friends have already joined. But that logic seems to fly in the face of more than a decade's worth of evidence from chat rooms, discussion boards, etc.

Perhaps the reason for this gentrification is simply based on the fact that it is, after all, voluntary - that people choose to be where they feel most comfortable, and while we'd like to believe that online associations are based on hobbies, interests, and other tangible preferences based on choice, the sad truth is that the economic baggage that exists in the real world may have already formed a beachhead in the borderless and egalitarian cyberspace realm as well.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why the CNN YouTube Debate Failed America...

Elitism is alive and well in the United States. Earlier this week, Democratic candidates running for president all gathered for a YouTube debate. Different than typical presidential debates, this one was touted as pioneering and unique, or as the New York Times called it, "the first so-called 'user-generated' video debate for a presidential campaign".

What a crock! After watching the debate, I was stunned at how anyone could possibly consider this a more democratized forum than the standard debating format. Sure, ordinary people were asking the questions, but it was CNN, YouTube, and god-only-knows-who-else who chose which questions would actually be televised. I'm not naive enough to think that questions should just be selected at random - surely, there are some serious crazies out there and some type of filter is necessary - however, this YouTube debate did a serious disservice to America by touting itself as more democratic. Make no mistake, a small handful of media elites still controlled everything that was asked.

Now according to this NY Times piece, Republican candidates are shying away from the same YouTube format for their debate in September. They're citing the silliness of questions from certain people which CNN televised this week - "the Snowman" and "Crazy Gun Guy" among them - but in reality, those questions, which, to put it mildly, strain credibility, are the more the result of CNN's poor decision-making selections, than they are a statement against user-generated content.

Almost every review has observed that most questions presented during the debate were standard material that candidates have been answering on the campaign trail for months about the same subset of issues which the mainstream media has deemed most politically relevant - gay marriage, health care, Iraq, etc. However, the YouTube debate failed America by not opening the debate to questions which were submitted by people on less-covered issues like net neutrality, the space program, or funding science and the arts.

If CNN wanted to truly create a "user-generated" debate format, two ideas immediately come to mind. First, make people's video submissions public. This will add badly needed transparency and accountability to the question selection process. Second, make the questions actually presented to the candidates be the result of which videos people voted on as the most relevant and wanted to be asked. This would take the question selection process out of the hands of the media elite and into those of the American people.

This week's debate can best be described as ordinary people asking the questions that the media wanted answered. Creating a transparent, voting-based system would enable ordinary people to ask the questions that ordinary people decide for themselves they want answered. And that is how democracy will be best served.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Harry Potter Leak - Piracy or Protest?

In case you're living in a cave, you've heard by now that the new Harry Potter book, set to be released in bookstores this Friday, was leaked onto the internet. Is this a case of anarchism and piracy, or hacktivism and protest?

Here's the rub. Author J.K. Rowling decided ahead of time to go against the trend of the publishing industry and not to release an e-book version of the novel, fearing piracy. However, not only did that action fail to prevent rampant piracy, it actually made loyal Pottermaniacs angry at not being able to buy a copy legally. Here were scores of people anxious to drop down their hard-earned money to buy the e-book legally, but told they could not. They consequently "scanned in, [ran] through optical character recognition software, proofread and posted" the book, having coordinated anonymously through IRC channels.

Now the big question is how do we classify such actions? Is it outright illegal piracy, or is it a form of protest action? The answer is both. Publishing scanned pages of the original book is a clear violation of copyright law, yet people doing so despite the law is a clear case of electronic civil disobedience in direct response to the official e-book not being made available. Just as with other forms of protest, certain individuals are willing to break the law to make a symbolic statement about their perceived mistreatment. But make no mistake, they broke the law.

Bruce Schneier makes a great point that "anyone fan-crazed enough to read digital photographs of the pages a few days before the real copy comes out is also someone who is going to buy a real copy". I don't think any reasonable person could suggest that leaking this book on the internet two days before its release is going to greatly affect sales. If anything, it will only add to the pre-release hype. That may be the most significant lesson lost in all of this: "piracy" (a.k.a - "file sharing", depending on who's framing the issue) is actually an extremely beneficial marketing tool that should be embraced, rather than feared, by copyright owners.

And how many people are reading 600 page novels on electronic devices anyway?

The Divide Over GPLv3...

While this may not have an abundance of sex appeal to the general public, a heated dialogue has been ensuing in the computer programming world over the issue of the GNU GPL (General Public License). The latest release, GPLv3, became official on June 29th, and has since sparked a debate over how restrictive licenses should be regulating the use of free software.

To put this in plain English, when someone creates a piece of software they can license others to use it and can describe in what ways it can be used. For example, when Microsoft sells you a copy of Windows, it comes with a license stating that you cannot pirate copies and sell them on the street. Likewise, some programmers choose to make their source code available for others to build upon, and quite often they use the GPL license to state that others can change or modify the source code however they wish, so long as they agree (via accepting the terms of the license) to make that altered source code available as well.

So think of it as a legal license, just like any other legal license. However, this one affects the software world, and particularly the open source and free software communities.

So what's all the buzz about? Well, not everyone is happy with the changes to the GNU GPL from version 2 to version 3, and have pro-actively decided not to make the switch. A quick look at this comparison between the two highlights the changes in language, and to the quick observer they don't seem very substantial. GPLv3 was designed to address perceived weaknesses from v2 that have arisen over the years - including the handling of software patent issues, free software license compatibility, the definition of "source code", and tivoization. However, GPLv3 is being criticized, by Linus Torvalds and others, for being overly restrictive and preoccupied with "retaliatory" software patent issues.

It's fascinating how a deep divide has suddenly appeared within these communities of passionate advocates. It's even pitting such icons as Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux, supporting v2) and Richard Stallman (creator of the Free Software Foundation, supporting v3) and their ilk against each other. And while some may view this narrowly as a legal issue, and others more generally as affecting the entire free software and open source social movements, the bottom line is that the debate over the GPL license (of all things!) has become a microcosm of the rest of the world - one in which different perspectives exist, opinions are strongly voiced, and choices over what to use are ultimately made.

Cheers to intellectual debate, pluralism, and the idea of expanded choice.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Obama Girl and YouTube Politics...

Two of the most circulated videos recently are political entertainment pieces created by "Obama Girl", and distributed via YouTube by BarelyPolitical.com. The first is a music video about one woman's crush on presidential candidate Barrack Obama, and the second is a follow-up video (slightly funnier, IMHO) comparing Obama to Rudy Guiliani, complete with dance-offs and pillow fights. While very amusing, do videos like this ultimately have any real impact on election outcomes?

Of course, we won't be able to adequately answer that question until next year, since this is the first election cycle to include this new Web 2.0 dynamic. However, according to a BarelyPolitical.com poll, apparently 63% of people believe the videos are helping the Obama campaign, while only 15% see them as hurting the campaign, and 22% seeing it as having no impact.

Never before has a candidate's image mattered more than their substance - but contrary to what many pundits are saying, this may not be so terrible after all. By turning the presidential election into an MTV battle, where imagery from music videos might potentially have a greater effect than debates, speeches, and even soundbites emanating from the candidates, it's looking more and more like we don't really need the candidates or an official campaign at all. Why not just just strap a webcam on each of the candidate's foreheads and make a reality TV show in place of endless speeches and grassroots efforts, where maybe each week another "candidate" gets voted off the trail? Sure would be more entertaining for the rest of us.

What you've got to love is that these music videos are being made by amateurs acting completely independent of their candidates' official campaigns. Barrack Obama has no control whatsoever about what types of messages are being put out there on behalf of his supporters - and the good money is on him not being thrilled with having scantily clothed women dancing for him in "support". The jury is still out on whether such tactics by his supporters will wind up garnering him more votes, or losing him some. This is the "Swift Boat" problem revisited, only with YouTube providing even less barriers to entry than network television and its associated prohibitive costs of running paid advertisements.

Whether these videos wind up having an effect on the election or not, perhaps that is ultimately what is most significant about this election cycle: the candidates have officially lost control over their message.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Free the iPhone!

A new movement is underway to "Free the iPhone". The organization, Free Press, has launched a campaign to make the iPhone free - that's free as in "free speech", not free as in "free beer". Their aim is to have the FCC mandate that any company using the 700MHz wireless spectrum be required to keep it an open network. Is this unreasonable?

To clarify, right now if you want an iPhone the only way to get one is by switching to AT&T for your cellular phone service. Even once you do that, AT&T and Apple restrict what you can do and what sites you're able to visit on the web. As a result, customers become the big losers - not only do they receive limited service and censored internet access, but the exclusivity deal between AT&T and Apple means that they also have no market alternative.

In response, Free Press is calling for the FCC and our elected officials to take action and give people 1) the freedom to use whatever whatever device they want on any network, 2) the freedom to choose among many providers in a competitive wholesale marketplace, and 3) the freedom to access any content or services they want through their devices.

Not only does this seem reasonable, but it's also socially desirable. Nobody is saying Apple or AT&T needs to give their services or products away at no cost. This is indeed a capitalist market, and the companies have every right to pursue their profits as they see fit. However, what is central to this issue is the fact that, according to U.S. law, the public owns the airwaves. The FCC and the federal government, acting as the agents of "the public", have been regulating the wireless spectrum for decades in order to serve "the public interest, convenience, or necessity". It is therefore extremely justified for the FCC to require firms using the publicly owned network to keep it open to all comers in exchange for using that public network towards their own private monetary goals. In fact, not only is it justified, but considering the enormous public benefits of keeping the network open, the FCC would actually be doing its job and serving "the public interest" to maintain something so beneficial to consumers, markets, and freedom.

Again, let Apple and AT&T make their profits. But if they want to use something the public owns, then they must agree to standards set by the public's elected officials. Free the iPhone, free the market.

The petition and details about the campaign can be found here.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Geico Cancels a Transformer's Insurance Policy...

This letter comes courtesy of real-life insurance agent, dog lover, and "Theo's" regular, Adam Overmyer...




- - - -

Dear Mr. Prime,

We have received your accident-claim reports for the month of June — they total 27. I regret to inform you that GEICO will not be able to reimburse you for any of those repairs. I feel that I have sent the same letter to you once a month for the last six months, and I am now sending it again.

Since becoming a GEICO customer in January of this year, you have reported 131 accidents, requesting reimbursement for repairs necessitated by each one. You have claimed not to be responsible in any of them, usually listing the cause of the accident as either "Sneak attack by Decepticons" or "Unavoidable damage caused by protecting freedom for all sentient beings."

The only repairs for which you were reimbursed were the replacement of a cracked fender and a headlight, required after a Mr. I. Ron Hide backed his van into your truck; these cost $1,286.63. Our own investigation concluded that you were not at fault and that Mr. Hide had been drinking prior to the accident. Though police were unable to test his blood-alcohol level — Mr. Hide claimed that it would be impossible for police to examine his blood-alcohol content with a Breathalyzer, because he "doesn't breathe" — under Washington-state law, refusal to take a Breathalyzer test is equivalent to returning a result above the legal level.

But, I repeat, those were the only repairs for which you have been reimbursed, and it was a very minor accident in comparison to your other claims. I mention a few to illustrate the larger trend:

$379,431.34 requested reimbursement for repairs to your truck cabin. You claimed the damage was caused by attacking fighter jets.

$665,789.11 requested reimbursement for repairs to your trailer. You claimed the damage was caused by a giant mechanical scorpion, which I can only assume is some amusement-park ride, although I question the wisdom of bringing your mobile home so close to such dangerous equipment.

$6,564,239.44 requested reimbursement for repairs to a truck part called the "Autobot Matrix of Leadership." You stated this occurred in "an ultimate confrontation between good and evil," with a Ms. Meg Atron and a Mr. U. Nicron causing the damage in question. Mr. Prime, I have checked every known car- and truck-part catalog published in the United States and have found nothing even resembling that part, never mind any part so expensive. Whatever disagreements you had with Ms. Atron and Mr. Nicron, I suggest that next time you either settle things peaceably or leave your Autobot Matrix of Leadership at home so it doesn't break. GEICO does not cover Autobot Matrix of Leaderships.

And the list goes on. Mr. Prime, I am going to remind you again: Your policy with GEICO only reimburses you for accidents that occur while you are engaged in the reasonable use of your truck and trailer. As I told you when you originally purchased the policy, GEICO does not offer Megatron coverage, Starscream coverage, Soundwave coverage, Decepticon coverage, or Energon-blast coverage. Those are just not the types of damages we would expect from reasonable use.

To sum up, GEICO has been unable to reimburse you for any repairs, but due to the high number of accidents you have been a party to this month, combined with the many accidents you have had in the preceding five months, your premium has increased to $235,567.50 per month. While that may seem like a lot, I remind you that it is a savings of $137 over Progressive and $98 over State Farm. Please have your check into our main office by the end of July.


Simon Furman


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Crowdsourcing and the Value of Expertise...

Wired and Assignment Zero have posted several articles this week all related to one central theme... crowdsourcing. For those of you not "in the know", crowdsourcing refers to an emerging business model where a company's problems are posted publicly on the internet, encouraging the masses to contribute ideas for them, rather than hiring experts for huge sums of money. It is the open source model familiar to programmers, but practiced in a non-technical environment. But as volunteer collaborators increasingly shape decision-making, what becomes of the value of expertise in the Internet Society?

To clarify, think of the Wikipedia example - an online encyclopedia where the public has voluntarily contributed all the entries, references, and other content, and it has basically run the expert-driven traditional encyclopedias into extinction. In the past, companies may have hired a team of consultants for strategic advice in, say, telecommunications deployment. Now, however, that same firm might choose instead to post a Wikipedia entry on the topic and let the results pour in. There are plenty more examples along the same lines in the fields of journalism, book writing, art, and photography, to name just a few.

But while this trend in the business community towards crowdsourcing is a fascinating development, do crowds really produce better results than experts?

I know what you're saying at this point, and this really does seem so counter-intuitive to most of our understandings of the world. To put this in perspective, crowdsourcing logic would suggest that baseball teams should no longer hire managers, but just allow the daily lineups be set according to what the internet voting public recommends - AND that the public would more often be right than the managers!

However, one thing that crowdsourcing supporters don't often mention is that many of their volunteer contributors tend to actually be either experts or well-versed hobbyists with strong interests in that field already. While a company's problem might be put out there to the public to answer, typically it's only a tiny fragment of the public with expertise (or pretty near to it) that ultimately respond. As a result, statements of how the mass public and "the wisdom of crowds" can drive business decision-making are somewhat misleading, and ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

No, crowds do not produce better results than experts. However, if the question relates to value, then yes, crowds will often produce results that are of good enough quality to justify using them instead of high priced experts and consulting firms.

In the end, there remains a strong role for expertise in our society that is not so easily replaced. And for those of you who simply like to play with the idea, here's something to chew on: Would you feel more comfortable leaving decision-making responsibilities in the hands of "the crowd" (a.k.a, the mob), or non-feeling but also non-biased and more objective computer systems?

Hasta la vista.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The Failures of Digg and Self-Regulatory Governance...

This blog, like thousands of others, has a small link below each posting giving the reader an opportunity to "Digg It!", signifying whether they enjoyed the post or not. The most revolutionary aspect of Digg.com is its claim to be self-regulating. People cast their "diggs", or votes, not only on whether they enjoy a posting or not, but also on the comments other readers have left on the site. Digg self-regulates because 1) people choose which stories warrant public attention (as opposed to a newspaper editor acting as a gatekeeper), and 2) people decide which comments should remain visible on the site in response to each posting.

This promise of self-regulating governance has worked in two important senses. Whether Thomas Friedman of the NY Times or an anonymous 8th grader writes a blog article, people get to vote and choose which they think is better and recommended reading for others. The content trumps the reputation of the author. Also, Digg further democratizes the media because, even though the front page of the NY Times or the leading stories on CNN might focus on Iraq, the Scooter Libby trial, or the most recent Supreme Court ruling, ordinary people might view different stories as more relevant or interesting. As I write this, one of the top stories that people are "digging" is a recent survey on the sorry state of Americans' scientific literacy titled, "20% of All Americans Believe the Sun Revolves around the Earth", which was buried in the back pages of the NY Times.

That all sounds great and wonderful... but does it work, and are we actually better off as a result of this self-regulatory style of media? Here a a few reasons why people still should NOT use Digg as their source for actual news.

First, who exactly are Digg users and how does that affect their selection of stories? The majority are highly-educated, tech-savvy, white, male, high-income-earners. As a result, the most "dugg" stories are not exactly representative of what the general population might find important. Right now, there are a plethora of stories about the iPhone, Net Neutrality, and Linux tutorials, and relatively very few covering international politics.

Second, the basis for users "digging" certain comments and hiding/censoring others is far too often a matter of personal taste more than any sort of objective journalistic standard. Someone who writes a very well-written and insightful article or comment supporting President Bush's strategy in Iraq is likely to get voted down so that no one can see it, whereas mindless lunatic rantings that espouse a more popular position fare much better.

Third, the social-networking feature creates the possibility of Digg Mafias. Last year, organized efforts were discovered among Digg users who had made agreements to "digg" each others' stories and, thus, artificially boost their rankings. This type of things happens all the time in cyberspace (see Search Engine Optimization), however on Digg it is more of a concern since rankings are not purported to be based on a computer algorithm, but on the votes of people.

Such concerns only serve to undermine the credibility of Digg as a viable alternative to the traditional news media. Self-regulation has worked, but we are not better off for it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Life As a Computer Geeks Girlfriend, Part 2

The following is a post submitted by contributing author, The Nerfherder Gal...

Recently, I watched my boyfriend and his father (both members of the computer programming world) try to video chat online. At the prospect of chatting with his father "live" my boyfriend was more then a bit excited. He practically dragged me out into the living room so that I could partake in this exhilarating event. As I sat on the couch watching them set their computers up I was in awe of the absurdity of these two grown men. Nerfherder Dad was sitting in front of his video cam, waving like a fool while his picture came in upside down. He couldn’t hear or see The Nerfherder, however he continued to wave and speak into his microphone. As my boyfriend typed to his father (because obviously his microphone was not working), his father read slowly outloud each of his messages. "I- a-m -u-p-s-i-d-e d-o-w-n", "Oh", "I – a-m – s-t-i-l-l u-p-s-i-d-e d-o-w-n".

I watched them for about 45 minutes while The Nerfherder tried to "fix" his web cam, so they could actually conference, and Nerfherder Dad tried make himself right side up. I watched his father sign on, and off, and on, and off. Meanwhile the The Nerfherder was playing with the applications on his computer trying to figure out what went wrong. After watching this commotion for a while, I finally suggested checking to see if the camera was plugged in, and low and behold it was not. These are two men, one with his PHD in computer science, the other in the process of getting his, sitting in front of their computers loving the fact that they can send their picture across the internet for all to see, while Nerfherder Mom and I roll our eyes in the background.

Until next time!

Nerfherder Gal

Monday, July 02, 2007

Liberating Internet Domain Names...

As this Boing Boing article describes, Wendy Seltzer has written an essay calling for ICANN - the organization that controls the entire domain name system for the internet - to let go its tight control and liberate the DNS system. Right now, the top-level domains are limited to only a few in number, including .COM, .EDU, .ORG, and nation-specific suffixes. Seltzer is arguing that restricting these in such a way is counter-productive and unnecessary, and that freeing the system to let market forces determine the most applicable domains will prevent "aging the internet prematurely".

To make this readable for those of you not so tech-savvy, here's a super-brief primer. In order to get a domain name like www.yahoo.com, you have to register it with ICANN, who makes sure that no one else already has the name you want. This is the prime example of how the internet can be, and already is being, governed. But as with any system of control there are drawbacks. For instance, a debate has been going on within ICANN for years about how to expand the domain names available. Should there be a .SEX or .XXX to signify adult content? If there are currently nation-specific suffixes like .AU for Australia and .IL for Israel, then should there also be city and locality suffixes like .BERLIN? What possible justification could there be for not allowing me to create http://robert.domanski other than control simply for control's sake?

Thus far, ICANN has been extremely conservative in its willingness to expand the list of domain name suffixes available, and this is what Seltzer is proposing needs to be changed. On the surface, this has all the characteristics of the classic internet battle... Would cyberspace be better off with more control or less? How would the internet experience be enhanced by the trade-off between freedom vs. control?

Seltzer (who, by the way, is on the ICANN board of directors) argues convincingly that in the domain name policy environment, letting go of the reigns of control and letting market forces decide will ultimately be a trade off worth making. Prohibitive restrictions that only serve to protect entrenched interests work against the ethos by which the internet was created and flourished, and should be done away with. This is a lesson which applies not only to the narrow issue of domain names, but also to many other facets of internet governance and policymaking as well.