Thursday, May 28, 2009

Online Classifieds: The Real Newspaper Killer...

A ton of media exposure has been given lately to the decline of the American newspaper industry. Virtually all of the coverage has focused on how free internet content is destroying the newspapers' advertising-based business model. There's definite truth to this, however the newspapers have plenty of other problems besides just advertising.

A new Pew Research study suggests that an equally monumental challenge is being brought by the decline in classified ads - which is traditionally newspapers' real bread-and-butter.

The number of online adults who have used online classified ad websites, like Craigslist, has more than doubled in the past four years. Almost half (49%) of internet users say they have used online classified sites, compared with 22% of online adults who had done so in 2005.

Furthermore, on any given day about a tenth of internet users (9%) visit online classified sites, up from 4% in 2005. This rise in online use coincides with a steep revenue decline for newspapers.

This data seems to mesh with reality, and the report is right to point out both the growing social role of online classified ads as well as the change in attitudes towards them - both from the perspectives of those who place the ads and those who make purchases. For anecdotal evidence, if any of you have done a job search or apartment search in the past few years, did you spend more time browsing on Craiglist or reading print newspapers?

My intent is not to make any value judgment, but only to highlight that when you read journalistic accounts about the newspaper industry's demise, remember that there's more to the story than often gets reported. Beware oversimplifications and narratives that turn the internet into a boogeyman.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Is Online Digital Culture a Form of Socialism?

Think, for a second, about Facebook, Wikipedia, blogs, and YouTube. Most of you probably use these Web 2.0 services because they're entertaining, informational, or you just have some time to kill. But have you ever thought of these websites in terms of the economics of labor?

What all of these websites share in common is that they are based on user-generated content - meaning that ordinary people "contribute" to the collective. For example, on Facebook, people upload their photos and videos, post links, and leave comments everyday. They're not being paid to do so; yet they are making Facebook itself more valuable through their contributions.

I bring this up because Kevin Kelly wrote a terrific article in Wired yesterday describing this phenomenon as "The New Socialism". Is that a fair statement? If so, is there anything wrong with it?

He calls these websites based on user-generated content socialist because, when you look at them in terms of labor, millions of people are contributing to "global collectives" without any monetary compensation. There is no profit motive. Throngs of millions are being motivated by something other than the capitalist incentive.

We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now...

Unlike those older strains of red-flag socialism, the new socialism runs over a borderless Internet, through a tightly integrated global economy. It is designed to heighten individual autonomy and thwart centralization. It is decentralization extreme.

Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods...

When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism.

Of course, when most of us are posting photos on Facebook, we're not feeling like subjugated drones in a communist society. We just like to SHARE! As individuals, we think nothing of it; but collectively, all of this non-profit-seeking crowd activity is challenging our traditional capitalist institutions. Blogs are threatening the business model of newspapers, Wikipedia has already forced Encyclopedia Brittanica and its brethren to extinction, and peer-to-peer file-sharing software, like BitTorrent, still poses an existential threat to the music industry.

How do we capitalists explain the tremendous amounts of time, effort, and labor that millions of people are contributing to producing content when there is no profit-motive? It's certainly uncharted waters, at least on such a mass scale. Yochai Benkler has referred to these developments as "The Economics of Non-Market Social Production", and concludes that, despite not being strictly capitalist, it nevertheless enhances individual freedom.

Capitalism and freedom not necessarily linked together? Milton Friedman is turning in his grave.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Debating the Merits of Most-Popular Lists...

Last week I performed some maintenance on this blog's template design - mostly just cosmetic tweaks, but I also added a new section on the right-side navigation bar, creating a "Most Popular Posts" section to highlight the best of The Nerfherder.

Apparently, the Wall Street Journal is stalking me. This morning, Carl Bialik has a fascinating article about the rising trend of websites creating "Most Popular" lists. He describes how these lists are proliferating everywhere in cyberspace, and argues that this isn't necessarily a positive development.

Are "Most-Popular" lists good or bad things? It depends on your perspective. Website developers tend to think they're wonderful because they keep visitors on their sites for longer amounts of time, reading more articles and thereby cultivating their brand and audience. However, some sociologists take a more critical view, noting how these lists create positive-feedback loops resulting from a type of peer pressure. One Princeton scholar, Matthew Salganik, observes that "deducing merit from popularity can lead to self-reinforcing snowballs of popularity, which can become decoupled from the underlying reality". It's essentially a form of peer pressure, like when a crowd gathers on the street to stare at a car accident; the larger the crowd, the more additional people will flock to see what they're seeing. As the Journal article points out, research has shown this to also be a significant problem early in the presidential election campaigns. The end-result is that the "most popular" news items are not necessarily those that are the best quality or the most important.

There's some definite truth to this idea, and, for evidence, one need look no further than see which "news" items are the most popular on Digg and Reddit. The data suggests that the vast majority of web surfers rarely glance at any news stories other than those which are already popular and found on the front page.

But so what? Ivy league scholars bemoaning the crass tastes of the public is hardly a new occurrence. People like what they like, even if that is influenced by what others are doing, and while, yes, it may be a travesty that Britney Spears articles are more popular than journalistic accounts of what's happening in Darfur, the best that a for-profit website can be expected to do is strike a balance between what's popular and what's important. In fact, the media has been struggling to strike that balance for decades. Nobody wants to run a high-school-style popularity contest, but no one wants to be C-SPAN either.

I, for one, plan to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. So while I'm going to keep this blog's "Most-Popular" section in existence, I'll also list a more newsworthy section, titled "Vital Posts", adjacent to it. The Nerfherder takes pride in being a beacon of actual thought amongst all of the cyber-sludge that is out there in the blogosphere, and regardless of the quest for eyeballs and website traffic, you won't find Britney Spears too prominent here anytime soon.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Death of Craigslist's 'Erotic Services' Section...

Here's something you can tell your grandkids that will really date you, "I remember back when Craigslist still showed ads for prostitutes". Well, this is true no more. Bowing to legal pressure, Craigslist has finally decided to get rid of the "Erotic Services" section of its website.

The decision was made voluntarily, although the recent media attention about the "Craigslist Killer" and several state attorneys-general threatening criminal charges certainly had a strong motivating influence.

It should also be noted that Craigslist is not exactly shutting the section down completely. Instead, it will be reborn as a new "Adult Services" section - the key difference being that now all posts will be reviewed before they are published on the site (to ensure that they are from "legal adult service providers"). New ads will cost $10, and can be reposted for $5.

Well, it's about time. As I've argued before, there was no good reason for Craigslist to keep the section up-and-running. It helped facilitate prostitution, illicit activities with minors, and generally put people in harm's way, as demonstrated with the "Craigslist Killer" case. The erotic services section really served no purpose whatsoever - the website didn't even earn a profit from it, choosing to donate 100% of net revenue from "erotic services" ads to charity - and the website's previous justification that the section "enabled stronger law enforcement" by centralizing possible illicit activities in one place was always pretty lame. So what advantage was there in keeping the controversial section going?

In fact, the only real question to ask is, what on earth took them so long?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Day Google Stood Still...

Websites occasionally go down, and we simply recognize that as a natural part of life. But earlier today, when Google, of all sites, went down for a considerable amount of time, it had quite the traumatizing effect.

Around 11am EST, every Google service was either wiped off the internet or was running extremely slow for a large number of users. Even the basic Google home page - the search engine - was only creeping along slowly, and the list of other Google services affected included YouTube, Gmail, Google Reader, Blogger, Google Analytics, Google Maps, and Google Apps.

Personally, when my Gmail account was suddenly unavailable, the feeling of panic was largely indescribable. We've all become so dependent on Google, far more than any other website, that many people reacted either by becoming paralyzed like a deer in headlights not knowing what to do with themselves from shock, or else freaked out and expressed their rage all over Twitter and, really, whatever other outlet was available to them. That guy you heard a few cubicles down from you screaming and cursing his head off... well, now you know.

Rest assured, Google finally got their act together and the site is now up-and-running again. The dangers of significant downtime have always been apparent for cloud computing, but today's crash was truly an eye-opening experience for a public that has grown rather complacent and probably takes the reliability of most web services for granted.

Regardless, the planet is now free to let out a collective sigh of relief.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Scambaiting Those Nigerian Emailers...

We've all, at some point, received that famous email from a Nigerian scammer asking us to electronically wire a few thousand dollars to him in order to process our previously undiscovered inheritance, or some such nonsense. While most of us just shake our heads and laugh with incredulity at these attempts, a huge number of people do, still, actually fall for such scams.

Well, now people are fighting back.

"Scambaiting" is all the rage. It's the new practice of actually responding to the Nigerian scammers and their brethren (collectively known as "419 scammers") with the express purpose of misleading them into believing that you're willing to send them money. The goal, of course, is to set them out on a wild goose chase, ultimately wasting their time that would have been spent on scamming real victims, and even frustrating them to the point of quitting.

As Ars Technica explains, "flourishing communities of scambaiters [have arisen] who help each other do everything they can to waste scammers' time, including enticing them to get ridiculous tattoos and sending them on treks across Africa for nonexistent cash".

[One baiter named] 'blah' had fun with a scammer and airport security in London, resulting in his being detained for several hours. "He was waiting for me to arrive on a flight that I wasn't actually on. I told him to show up with a black backpack and hold it very very close to his chest (that's how I would know that it was him). Airport security didn't find it amusing, apparently, and thought he was acting suspicious," blah said. "My plane fictitiously arrived after he had been detained and I ended up chewing the scammer out for being so inconsiderate as to get detained and leave me waiting for an hour until I finally just hailed a cab and went to my hotel. When airport security finally released him, he went and waited in the lobby-bar of the hotel for four additional hours while I 'freshened-up' in my room."

Successfully baiting a scammer has become a badge of honor in these communities. Their stories, along with strategic advice and even a mentoring program, are shared on websites like The 419 Eater and ScamWarners.

While the ethical merits of scambaiters can be debated, it is nevertheless a fascinating development. Just think that, after all these years, perhaps the best way to get rid of online scammers and spammers was to actually give them the very responses that they were soliciting. If one person replies, they are a victim; but if everyone replies as a form of collective action, they are protecting themselves.

It's counter-intuitive, and it's also nothing short of a new type of cyberwarfare. And, of course, one can't help but relish the irony of those Nigerian scammers getting all upset over being misled.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why Is Facebook Tolerating Holocaust-Denial Groups?

We all know that practically everything under the sun, no matter how objectionable, can be found on the internet. However, that's why, when certain materials find their way onto websites that are privately owned and operated, it is the responsibility of those websites to assert basic previously-agreed-upon forms of editorial controls.

Keep this in mind because, as Pete Cashmore of Mashable is reporting, there are several Facebook groups that have formed with the sole intention of denying the Holocaust. Some of the groups in question include "Holocaust: A Series of Lies," and "Holocaust is a Holohoax".

Despite formal letters that have been sent to Facebook requesting that the groups be removed from the website, "Facebook's current position is that they will only block access to the groups from countries (such as Germany) where Holocaust Denial is illegal - they will not be removed in the US".

Let's clarify something. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of our modern society, and you will find no stronger advocate of it anywhere else. However, the First Amendment is not the issue here. For starters, the First Amendment is a guarantee that the government will not strip away your free speech rights, but this says nothing of private entities stipulating what form of speech is allowed and what is not within its own private confines. In other words, Facebook is completely at liberty to regulate the content of its own private website.

Second, the Facebook Terms of Service explicitly forbids the posting of "hateful" content. There is precedent to suggest the enforcement of this principle - Facebook recently used this ban on hateful speech as justification for removing a Ku Klux Klan group from the site. So if the company could do that, what excuse is there for not doing the same for a Holocaust-denial group?

(And to anyone who doubts whether the existence of these groups alone constitutes hate speech, take a quick glance at the groups' pages themselves. As Cashmore notes, there are enough threatening racist and anti-semitic comments to make the decision to remove them an easy one.)

My guess is that with enough public pressure asserted on Facebook, they will eventually relent and remove the groups in question. But it's inconceivable why Facebook would have fought this in the first place.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

"Rest In Peace, RSS"... Really?

An incendiary blog post is lighting up cyberspace this morning. Steve Gillmor of TechCrunch has written an article titled, "Rest in Peace, RSS", in which he says that "it's time to get completely off RSS and switch to Twitter".

To you non-computer geeks out there, RSS is a technology that, over the past few years, has revolutionized how people get information on the Web. Before RSS, people had to type in the URL of every website they wanted to visit just to see if there was any new material posted. What RSS did was retrieve the headlines on your favorite sites for you, allowing people to harness all of their Web headlines automatically, and then organize them in one central place. In other words, it offered a way to "stop looking and switch to receiving".

To see working examples of this, check out The Nerfherder's Technology Blogroll and Political Blogroll - which are RSS pages I created long ago on Netvibes.

So, to RSS devotees such as myself, Gillmor's requiem is quite a shock to the system. I imagine this is what it felt like for our parents' generation after they had spent years assembling beloved record collections, only to hear that now everything was about to shift to cassettes or CDs.

Can it be true? Is RSS really on death's doorstep?

The answer, it's hard to admit, might indeed be yes. For starters, and as I've written about before, RSS never quite caught on with the mainstream public. Why that's the case is a matter of debate, but one thing is clear - it doesn't exactly help in preventing RSS's extinction. Meanwhile, Twitter, by contrast, seems on the verge of breaking through into the mainstream consciousness.

But perhaps the most thought-provoking assessment that Gillmor provides is his framing of recent Web evolution. He conceptualizes it by tracing the historical path from partial RSS feeds --> fulltexters --> the added value of comments and "the Statusphere" --> the need for social management of the ecosystem --> Twitter, Facebook, and Friendfeed. As a result, he argues that RSS has become "a shell of its former self, casually subsumed" into the social stream.

This narrative is a fascinating interpretation on recent history, and the blogosphere has been firing on all cylinders today debating its merits. I, for one, believe it to be fairly accurate, as my own experience seems to mirror Gillmor's (although I have some lingering skepticism as to whether Twitter can be a viable replacement). However, does my continued use of RSS suddenly make me a backwards-looking technologist? That seems, somehow, awfully disturbing.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The iPhone Jailbreaking Showdown...

Prepare yourself. Over the next few months you are going to be bombarded with conversations about the iPhone.

Specifically, there are two gigantic stories looming on the horizon... 1) Will Apple re-up its deal with AT&T, or will it start allowing other companies to offer phone service for the iPhone as well? 2) If the Apple-AT&T agreement remains in place, is jailbreaking the iPhone going to be an accepted form of behavior, or one with criminal penalties?

In answer to the first question, rumors have been circulating all over the place lately that Apple is going to drop AT&T and start allowing other phone companies to start offering service for the iPhone. Don't believe them. AT&T's cellular business has become completely dependent on iPhone sales, as demonstrated by a whopping 73 percent of its new subscribers being directly attributed to sales of the iPhone.

What's actually happening is that the rumors are being circulated intentionally because they give Apple more leverage in their negotiations with AT&T. Expect AT&T to throw ridiculous gobs of money in Apple's direction in order to extend the exclusivity deal.

As to the second question, the U.S. Copyright Office is currently reviewing whether or not it ought to be illegal for people to "jailbreak" their iPhones (meaning, hacking their iPhones in order to use other cell phone service providers, and also to install applications that were not necessarily authorized by Apple).

As this Wired article explains, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has vigorously urged the Copyright Office to authorize jailbreaking, which in this case is hacking the phone’s OS, and hence allowing consumers to run any app on the phone they want. The EFF argues that it's the same as owning a car. Once you've bought it, it's then your right as a consumer to change what's under the hood.

On the other side of the debate, however, is the familiar alliance of the big record labels, movie studios, and Apple. They argue that when a person jailbreaks their iPhone, they are "creating a venue for [copyright] infringing activity". Apple, specifically, has argued that allowing any app on the iPhone could be detrimental to the phone’s functionality and that Apple "will be overrun by service calls from angry customers".

The real issue in this matter is an old one - at least in internet terms... To what extent can copyright owners protect their works without violating established consumer rights? Also, in business terms, does an open or a closed business model have a better chance of prevailing in the Digital Age?

Such questions have been fought over and debated ever since the original Napster rolled out ten years ago, and, since the U.S. Copyright Office is not set to reveal its decision until later this year, we can safely assume that they won't make a final determination on these digital copyright issues at that time either. If history is any guide, you can expect the legal system to keep muddling through while, ultimately, people with an enterprising spirit inevitably rise up to meet an obvious market demand.

Monday, May 04, 2009

How to Use Twitter (Once you've already learned the basics)...

Because my previous article, "How to Use Twitter (a Beginner's Guide)", generated so much positive feedback, I wanted to follow it up with an article for readers on what they should do next.

Once you've already learned the basics, meaning that you've created an account and have set up a rudimentary network of followers, there are a few additional things you'll probably want to do in order to really enhance your experience and participate in the Twitter community.

First, the place to start is unquestionably the Twitter search engine. It's pretty self-explanatory. By searching for keywords or phrases, not only will you discover what people are currently talking about on a given topic, like swine flu, but you'll also find more people to follow who are writing about topics that you find interesting.

For example, the next time American Idol is on television, search for "American Idol" in the Twitter search engine and see what everybody is saying about it. There's no need to wait until tomorrow morning for analysis, or even until the broadcast is over. Read and leave comments as the show is still happening.

Try this activity with any other topic as well. Yankees games, Phish concerts, Obama's televised addresses to the nation, etc. More than anything else, using the search engine will demonstrate to you the public fascination with Twitter.

Second, and by request, might I also make a few personal recommendations for people to follow. This is not an authoritative list by any means, but rather they are just a few of my personal favorites...

Which brings us to a third fundamental element in the Twitter experience... hashtags. Basically, anytime you see a hashtag sign (#) in front of a word, it means that there's an entire conversation happening around that specific topic. It helps organize Twitter into more meaningful dialogues, and people use the hashtag to make sure that their post is part of that larger conversation. For example, someone's Twitter post might read, "The thought of Taylor Hicks gives me shivers... #americanidol". (actual message)

Hashtags have also become a cyber phenomenon whereby people use them to organize Twitter events in a viral manner. Some of the more interesting ones include...

By understanding and making use of hashtags and the search engine, you'll be well on your way. The whole point of Twitter is to cultivate meaningful conversations on the Web, and the way it will become most meaningful for you personally is if you use these tools to shape your twitstream into conversations that you find most interesting.

Build a quality network of people, know what's being discussed, and engage with people about those topics. Doing all of this might not make you a power Twitter user yet, but at least you'll start to see what all of the fuss is about.