Friday, February 20, 2009


Occasionally, I get invited to review new products or companies in exchange for posting a write-up. Typically, I ignore such requests (most of them are spam). However, I was recently offered the opportunity to become an Expert Reviewer for one site that is actually worth reviewing... a new website called

Chubbybrain is a database of new business startups, where people can leave feedback as to what they think of companies' products, services, or even business models. For a point of reference, think of how not only lists thousands of books, but also allows users to write reviews about what they thought of each of those books. Chubbybrain does the same thing for startup companies.

The site has a lot of promise. The central idea behind Chubbybrain is relatively unique (at least I don't know of anyone else trying to do what they're doing). There also seems to be a niche market opportunity for providing such a service to the business community - which has been slower to adopt Web 2.0 services than has the mainstream public.

Chubbybrain's mission, then, is twofold: 1) Becoming the best database of private, innovative startups, and 2) delivering expert insights into emerging business models, technologies and companies.

The site is well-designed and it's utility quickly becomes apparent. From a usability standpoint, it only took me a few minutes to create a profile and start writing reviews. From there, it was fairly easy to navigate among different companies where I could get an honest sense of what people thought of them. Some of the reviews were insightful, others were more entertaining, but reading them was surely addictive. It doesn't require a stretch of the imagination to envision this thing succeeding.

Of course, there are still a few things Chubbybrain might look to improve upon. The feature that allows users to graduate up in "Levels of Expertise" is sure to be a great way of providing incentives for people to contribute user-generated content, but it would be helpful to know more details about the specific criteria required for graduating up from one level to the next. Also, they might want to consider integrating OpenID technology as a way for users to more easily create accounts and bring their existing online social-networks of friends along with them to Chubbybrain. Finally, wouldn't it be great, when someone posts a new review, to have it automatically appear on that person's blog or in their Facebook news feed? Developers need widgets :-)

Despite all of this, the most basic question remains, 'How does Chubbybrain plan on actually making money'? What's the business model? Because the content on the site is user-generated and freely visible to the public, the website plans on generating its revenue from 1) sponsorships and 2) offering advanced reporting and analytics on the data they have in their database to power-users. In other words, creating a premium, pay-for service. Apparently, some other large information services companies already do this in their field, but Chubbybrain would do so at a fraction of the price, and promise their reports to be more "transparent and flexible". Right now, as is the case with most Web 2.0 sites, the company is appropriately focused on growing its network.

As someone who has researched Web 2.0 startups in-depth, the question I am most curious about is that which is common to all sites based on user-generated content. What mechanisms are in place for filtering content? In other words, what are their policies towards removing user reviews? It's not hard to imagine a situation where paying sponsors request that unfavorable reviews be deleted, or where employees of a startup company flood Chubbybrain with positive reviews, or where they might do the same with negative reviews about their business rivals. How will Chubbybrain strike that delicate balance between encouraging users to contribute thoughtful and informative reviews and still manage not to filter content to the point where they become perceived as mere promotional or propagandist vehicles for various websites. What it always boils down to on such sites is whether credibility means being comprised mostly of intelligent, informative material, or if credibility, from the users' perspective, means not having their opinions filtered by the company.

Ultimately, for a site that only launched in beta a week ago, Chubbybrain is filled with a lot of promise and potential. Its impressive rollout warrants the attention that the site is sure to get. And, from the looks of things, it ought to get it pretty soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Summarizing the Latest Facebook TOS Scandal...

It's been in the news all week, but it's nevertheless worth reviewing the controversy over Facebook's new Terms of Service in order to draw some lessons moving forward.

On February 4, Facebook made a subtle change to its Terms of Service (TOS), probably figuring it would go unnoticed because who reads those things anyway? The new TOS included the following phrase...

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

Well, this change to the TOS did not go unnoticed. A popular blog, The Consumerist, informed the world about it, running a headline, "Facebook's New Terms Of Service: 'We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Content. Forever.'"

Facebook's terms of service (TOS) used to say that when you closed an account on their network, any rights they claimed to the original content you uploaded would expire. Not anymore.

Now, anything you upload to Facebook can be used by Facebook in any way they deem fit, forever, no matter what you do later. Want to close your account? Good for you, but Facebook still has the right to do whatever it wants with your old content. They can even sublicense it if they want.

And, thus, the story snowballed and spread in such a viral manner that would make every dot-com hopeful drool. The Consumerist post received hundreds of comments, thousands of Diggs, and half a million page views. Meanwhile, outraged Facebook users created several groups on the site itself with names like "People Against the New Terms of Service (TOS)", each one quickly recruiting tens of thousands of members. Finally, the mainstream media caught on, with the story reported on Fox News and in the New York Times, to name only two.

In response to this public pressure - both from media critics as well as from its own users - Facebook ultimately decided to withdraw the changes to its TOS.

So what can we learn from all of this?

First of all, Facebook is scary. We're all aware of how privacy is becoming a very tentative thing in cyberspace, but our fears are more focused on what other users may do with sensitive information about us. But here was a case where the company itself decided to store and use our posted material long after we would have deleted our accounts, even sublicensing (a.k.a - selling) it to third parties, and doing so as a matter of official company policy. I'm not a Big Brother conspiracy-theorist, but that remains shocking nonetheless.

Second, the mass mobilization of users protesting the company's policy was not as effective as was the negative press coverage in the mainstream media. Protest advocates are surely slapping themselves on the backs today with an apparent victory, however, they were not deciding factor leading to Facebook's decision to ultimately relent. Despite all of the page hits and Diggs on The Consumerist blog, the 200,000 or so people who joined the Facebook protest groups - while impressive - still pales in comparison to the roughly 150 million people on Facebook. By my calculations, 1/10th of 1% is not exactly strong evidence that a revolution is about to take place. The truth is that Facebook fears negative media coverage in the New York Times and on the Nightly News more than they do such a small percentage of its users in revolt (most of whom weren't going to delete their accounts anyway). That's a meaningful lesson to remember moving forward.

Third, people remain fairly ignorant as to ownership rights in cyberspace. Let me clear this up for everyone... anytime you post something on someone else's website, it is no longer yours. The only legal question is to what degree you might still retain some rights. Anytime you write a comment on someone's blog, the blog owner now owns your comment. Have you chosen to share a song you wrote on MySpace? Most likely, MySpace now owns at least a partial copyright on your song (So much for getting a record deal). The same is true with any photos or videos that you post on YouTube, Flickr, or, yes, Facebook.

The fundamental problem is that too many people believe that, somehow, their Facebook profile belongs to them; that they own it; that they can decide what happens to its content. But, as this week's drama illustrates, that is certainly not the case. The bottom line is that you are still using the services of a private, commercial website, and, through Terms of Service agreements - which are quickly becoming the de facto law of the Web's various walled gardens, - you are clearly at their mercy.

In other words, it is someone else's.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Can Self-Regulation Work for Social-Networking?

It's a tried and true pattern in politics. When a problem has been defined, and the government is about to get involved, the industry that's under scrutiny attempts to preempt government interference through self-regulation. Such has been the case in the newspaper, radio, television, and software industries, among numerous others.

Now, apparently, the online social-networking industry is stepping up its own efforts at self-regulation as well. In a prelude to what's just over the horizon here in the United States, Europeans have been clamoring for more stringent protections on their social-networking sites, and as a result, the European Union has signed on major private industry players like Google to support a document called "Safer Social Networking Principles".

So let's analyze this thing. Foremost, because this is still the stage just before direct government regulation, the Statement of Principles is voluntary in nature. Think of it as the EU's way of saying, "take steps on your own to meet these general guidelines, or else pretty soon we'll force you to do so anyway, and in whichever manner we deem fit".

The document defines the problem of safety on social networking sites by breaking down the threats into the following categories:

  • Illegal content - such as images of child abuse and unlawful hate speech.

  • Age-inappropriate content - such as pornography or sexual content, violence, or other content with adult themes which may be inappropriate for young people.

  • Contact - which relates to inappropriate contact from adults with a sexual interest in children or by young people who solicit other young people.

  • Conduct - which relates to how young people behave online.

In assigning stakeholders on this issue, the document suggests that there is a role to be played by parents and teachers, governments, law enforcement agencies, civil society, and, of course, users themselves. Only through a collaborative effort involving all of these stakeholders, with the social-networking sites taking a leading role, can a safe environment be achieved.

So far, so good. These all seem like a reasonable set of assumptions from which to start addressing the problem. But, to many of us active users, they also appear to be common sense. The devil lies in what types of solutions ought to be pursued.

Thus, the guiding principles the document proposes as solutions include the following...

  1. Raise awareness of safety education messages and acceptable use policies in a prominent, clear and age-appropriate manner.

  2. Work towards ensuring that services are age-appropriate for the intended audience - primarily through acquiring users' ages, and posting notifications about content accordingly.

  3. Empower users through tools and technology - mainly by making it easier for users to make their profiles "private" and non-searchable by default.

  4. Provide easy-to-use mechanisms to report conduct or content that violates the Terms of Service

  5. Respond to notifications of illegal content or conduct - and have processes in place to review and remove content immediately.

  6. Enable and encourage users to employ a safe approach to personal information and privacy - mostly by providing a range of privacy setting options, and making those options prominent and accessible at all times.

  7. Assess the means for reviewing illegal or prohibited content/conduct - or, in other words, remaining vigilant of new threats and dangers that constantly arise.

Again, much of this seems like common sense. For example, having a wide range of privacy setting options is atop the list of features that users of social-networking sites have been demanding for years. We all know that making those privacy options easier to use would better protect us. The problem is that the Facebooks and MySpaces of the world have viewed such protections as a threat to their business. Spokesmen for these companies have, for years, publicly issued statements about how such measures "reduce the functionality" of the website; that, somehow, more privacy options would be akin to building up virtual walls around each individual, and the social-networking sites believe that the user experience will suffer as a result, followed shortly by their business.

Hogwash! Most social-networking users see privacy protection as a feature that would enhance their experience, not harm it. The strategy of these websites has, for far too long, been simply to do the minimal amount necessary in order not to send people away in droves; basically, doing just enough to be able to say that they're making an effort.

But that's not going to cut it forever, particularly as the public clamors ever more loudly, and as governments scrutinize them more closely. Though not exactly inspiring or revelatory, the EU's "Safer Social Networking Principles" document, and future ones like it, may prove useful in instigating these websites into action.

Goodness knows, they haven't been doing much on their own.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

This Thing Called the Internet (classic videos)...

Aside from hosting a collection of poor-quality amateur videos of wannabe karakoe artists, YouTube is getting a second incarnation as an... historian.

The following two videos have been gaining in popularity recently, both showing, with a mix of nostalgia and retrospective humor, how one day in the future we would have this thing called the internet.

This clip from 1981 shows how it's possible to read a free copy of the newspaper on a computer... for only $5/hour. Notice how Richard Halloran is simply labeled, "Owns a computer".

Likewise, this 1967 clip depicts a future where women will be able to engage in "fingertip shopping". "What the wife selects on her console," says the narrator, "the husband will pay for on his counterpart console."

YouTube is proving its worth to society, yet again :-)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hitchhiking on Twitter; Like Jack Kerouac on WiFi...

File this one in the "fun and fascinating" category. There is a new experiment being carried out on Twitter that tests if the website can be a tool for... hitchhiking around the world.

A user named Twitchhiker is planning on traveling around the world using no resources other than what his Twitter followers are willing to provide for him. His odyssey begins March 1st and the proceeds from any sponsorships he receives will go to Charity:Water.

The Twitchhiker has laid out the rules of this experiment on his website. He's basically asking his followers to help him out with car rides, ferry tickets, plane tickets, couches to crash on, a few meals, and some other basics of survival. What makes this fun is that he's not procuring these necessities before leaving home in a way that would plan the entire trip out for him ahead of time. His 72-hour rule means that, depending where in the world he happens to be on a given day, his next destination will be shaped by whatever offers he gets through Twitter right then and there. In other words, he can't make any plans more than 72 hours in advance.

As he describes, he's completely relying on the "goodwill" of the Twitter community. Hopefully he won't find himself "dead in a ditch or under a patio" or "sleeping rough" too often.

How much fun is this?! It's Jack Kerouac on WiFi. Doesn't it make you want to drop your life and leave your fate up to the mercy and the random whims of the folks in cyberspace?

Well, maybe not, especially when you put it that way. But, nevertheless, I can't wait to read more about someone else giving it a try.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The End of the Identity Wars? I'm Going to Take Advantage of This...

On Friday, cyberspace was abuzz with news that Facebook finally decided to join the OpenID Foundation.

The internet's so-called "identity wars" have been waging for quite some time, and this news may signal their end. As I've previously explained, the fight has been over who will primarily house people's online social networks and let users bring those networks with them across the Web; Facebook, the world's largest social network, has been on one side; MySpace, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other members of the OpenID coalition have been united on the other.

For those less geek-oriented Nerfherder readers out there, what Friday's announcement really means is that soon you won't need to remember 30 different username/password combinations for all of your favorite websites, and you also may not need to create new ones in the future. You'll be able to use just one username/password combo to login to everything... and will be able to "bring" your online social network with you to all of those sites without needing to rediscover all of your friends again.

How am I going to take advantage of this? Let me count the ways. For starters, I'm going to devote an upcoming rainy day to consolidating all of my various website accounts. Using my Facebook username/password, I'll make sure that that's the only one I'll almost ever have to use - I'll use it to login to my accounts on Google, Hotmail, Yahoo, Digg, StumbleUpon,, AIM instant messenger, and all the rest. Talk about life simplification.

I'll also take advantage of much-touted feature that lets me "bring" my online social network with me everywhere I go in cyberspace. What does that mean? I'm not exactly sure, but it sounds great, doesn't it? Seriously, while data portability is a marvelous idea (and, yes, I really am a big supporter of it), so far there just aren't many real-world practical benefits of which I can take advantage - although one day in the future I'll be much better off for "owning" my social network versus leaving it at the mercy of one vendor to whom my network is forever locked-in.

All of which ultimately means that this news may not be nearly as consequential as bloggingheads are making it out to be. In the short term, the end of the identity wars simply translates into minimizing the number of passwords we need to remember - which is certainly nice in an apple-pie-kind-of-way, but hardly earth-shattering. In the long term, being in control of my online social network might actually prove to be extremely significant, as it fundamentally changes the ownership dynamic that increasingly defines our cyberspatial existences.

It just doesn't let me do anything special right now.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Managing Your Information Footprint...

What information is available about you in cyberspace? What risks does it present and what, if anything, can you do to protect yourself?

These are the pressing questions raised in a terrific article by Computerworld's Robert Mitchell. After weeks of building a digital dossier on himself - or, in other words, investigating what private information about himself was publicly available online - his results are indicative of how real the problem of information privacy has become, and only serve to reinforce digital citizens' most paranoid fears.

Information discovered online:

  • Full legal name
  • Date of birth
  • Social Security number
  • Current property addresses
  • Personal phone numbers
  • Business phone numbers
  • Previous addresses and phone numbers dating back to 1975 (except for cell phone numbers)
  • Real estate property deed descriptions and addresses
  • Property tax record from 2004
  • Assessed value of home from 1997
  • Identifying photographs
  • Digital image of signature
  • Mortgage documents (current and previous) and a legal agreement
  • Computerworld affiliation, stories and blog posts
  • Employment history
  • Resume with educational background going back to high school
  • Sex offender status (negative)
  • Affiliations with several nonprofits
  • Editorial award
  • Spouse's name, age and Social Security number
  • Names of friends and coworkers
  • Names, addresses, phone numbers and first six digits of Social Security numbers for neighbors past and present
  • Parents' names, address, phone and first five digits of Social Security numbers

What I haven't found ... yet:

  • Driver's license number
  • Vehicle registrations
  • Banking records
  • Medical records
  • Detailed demographic data from marketing databases
  • Insurance claims history
  • Vehicle registrations
  • Property records for land in Florida
  • Voter registration record/political affiliation
  • Mother's maiden name
  • City and state of birth

Surely, with all of that information available, if your ex-girlfriend, rival co-worker, or disgruntled student (ahem) wanted to wreak havoc on your life then they'd have a pretty strong fighting chance of doing it. And that's nothing to say of total strangers who go the route of blackmail, extortion, or sexual predation.

Yes, there is hope, but even more important is the fact that if you want to manage your information footprint, then you have to be pro-active. It will not come about naturally by itself.

Mitchell provides a few tips for how to do this - that is, manage your information footprint. And "manage" is the proper term because it will take constant and persistent effort, and nothing is going to be 100% effective.

Unfortunately, many of Mitchell's suggestions are of the standard, run-of-the-mill variety that don't really offer any novel insights - like not giving out your social security number, obtaining a copy of your credit report, and avoiding signing up for retail store loyalty cards. But the reality is that most of us want to buy things from Amazon and iTunes, and that requires giving out our social security number. Many of us get a free copy of our credit report once a year, but then let it sit in a filing cabinet collecting dust, not knowing what else to do with it. And most of us, despite being forewarned about the privacy risks, ultimately find that immediate 10% discount at Target too irresistible when we sign up for their "loyalty" card.

In contrast, most people who I know are more concerned on a day-to-day basis with preventing embarrassing photos of ourselves getting posted to Facebook, or that some guy on the subway with a cell phone camera doesn't make us the next unwitting YouTube star.

The one truly helpful tip that Mitchell provides is that the best way to protect your online information is to get an idea of what information about you is already available online in the first place. Google yourself to see what comes up. Actually tinker with the privacy controls on your Facebook account. Create Google Alerts to continually search the Web and inform you of new instances of personally identifying information such as your name, address, phone number, Social Security number, and so on.

Think of these steps as putting a basic padlock on your high school locker. It won't prevent the most determined people from breaking in, but it ought to be enough to deter 99% of casual passers-by.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The Online Generational Divide...

The stereotype of the American teenager running rampant on the internet while their oblivious, dinosaur-like parents still don't "get" Facebook may have officially become a myth.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project has just released a new research study on internet demographics. It finds that larger percentages of older Americans are not only getting online, but participating in more activities once they're logged on.

Contrary to the image of Generation Y as the "Net Generation," internet users in their 20s do not dominate every aspect of online life. Generation X is the most likely group to bank, shop, and look for health information online. Boomers are just as likely as Generation Y to make travel reservations online. And even Silent Generation internet users are competitive when it comes to email (although teens might point out that this is proof that email is for old people).

As with other Pew studies, many of the results aren't all that surprising. This particular project found that:

  1. Teens and Generation Y find entertainment and use social networks online more than any other demographic group.

  2. Older generations use the internet more as a tool for research, shopping and banking, and less for socializing and entertainment.

  3. Video downloads, online travel reservations, and work-related research are now pursued more equally by young and old.

What's interesting about some of these statistics is that, as each generation is using the internet primarily for different activities, their perceptions as to what the internet IS begin to differ as well. For example, Gen X professionals not only use the Web primarily as a research and information-gathering tool, but perceive it as such. To them, the internet is simply an engine of efficiency. Meanwhile, teens and Gen Y'ers who use it primarily for entertainment and social networking will actually perceive the internet as an integral component of their personal lives, and a venue in its own right for behavior and personal interactions.

Believe it or not, there will be serious policy consequences down the road based on how Americans - specifically, blocs of voting Americans - fundamentally conceive of the internet. These perceptions definitely matter. As time rolls along, it will be interesting to see if the younger generations of today adapt their views as they get older and enter the workforce, or whether they will bring their potentially transformative views along with them.