Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yelp Class-Action Lawsuit Highlights the Best and Worst of Web 2.0...

If you've never used the website Yelp before, you've not only missed out on the thoughtful, often-times addictive, reviews, but you've also apparently been oblivious to their highly visible PR campaign. I've personally seen Yelp reps promoting the site at least half a dozen bars around New York City.

Well, it is those reviews - the heart and soul of the website - which lie at the center of a new class-action lawsuit against the company.

According to TechCrunch, Yelp was the target of a scathing exposé last week that accused the company of "promoting or even fabricating negative reviews in order to get businesses to pay to have them hidden or removed". Basically, Yelp employees would write negative reviews of businesses, then call up those businesses and say that for $300/month they could "buy an advertising contract" and have the reviews buried.

Yelp spokesmen have already rushed to call the accusations "demonstrably false" and plan on fighting the lawsuit.

This story highlights both the best and worst of Web 2.0. On the one hand, you've got a company that encourages people to contribute original content to the site, then seeks to manipulate that user-generated content to its own advantages, leveraging the fear of negative bias by the crowd into extortion. And fabricating reviews... this is the nightmare that detracts from the credibility of the entire Web 2.0 concept.

On the other hand, look at the reaction to this story. Ever since East Bay Express published their expose, the blogosphere has clearly been circling the wagons. So much attention has been given to the Yelp lawsuit that 1) it'll be hard for Yelp's users not to read their reviews anymore without a healthy dose of scepticism, and that could spell the death-knell for a business model that fundamentally relies on having a strong reputation, and 2) as that occurs, Yelp becomes a cautionary tale to other websites and even individual users who might consider similar actions. Bloggers have proven adept, in this instance, at regulating the space, and the lesson is clear... If you choose to take certain actions that are shady and corrupt, you will be held accountable.

Of course, the accusations against Yelp are still simply that... accusations, which may or may not ultimately be proven true. If they turn out to be false, bloggers would be wise to preserve their own reputations and shed light on that development with an equal effort.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Foursquare and the Location-Sharing Trend...

Social media is rapidly evolving into its next phase... location-sharing. The idea is that, more and more frequently, people are sharing their whereabouts on Twitter and in their Facebook status messages - simple posts like "On my way to the Bahamas for two weeks and very excited!". While relatively harmless on the surface, enough people are doing it that, when taken in aggregate, the information is starting to attract attention; some of it good, some of it bad.

Companies like Foursquare are trying to capitalize on location-sharing. Foursquare hopes that people will download their mobile app and then "check-in" wherever they go. In other words, if you go to a restaurant, you can "check-in" to Foursquare with a few clicks on your cell phone, and consequently receive recommendations, friends' comments, lists of other highly rated places nearby, etc., all based on your location. As the website explains it...

Think of foursquare as an "urban mix tape." We'll help you make lists of your favorite things to do and let you share them with friends. Think beyond your standard review - we're looking less for "The food here is top notch" and more for "Go to Dumont Burger and try the most amazing Mac and Cheese ever." Foursquare will keep track of the things you've done, help you create To-Do lists and even suggest new experiences to seek out.

As you check-in around the city, you'll start finding tips that other users have left behind. After checking-in at a restaurant, it's not uncommon to unlock a tip suggesting the best thing on the menu. Checking-in at a bar will often offer advice on what your next stop should be. Every tip you create is discoverable by other users just by checking-in.

The problem with location-sharing is that you're exposing information that could potentially put you at risk. Mashable describes how stories about status updates leading to burglaries are becoming commonplace. One video podcaster was robbed after tweeting that he was out of town, and there’s even some evidence to suggest that burglars are turning to social media to find their targets.

A clever new website called highlights some of these dangers. All it does is aggregate publicly shared "check-ins", yet when you view the live stream of "Recent Empty Homes", it paints a shocking picture. In one memorable line, the creators write...

The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not... home. So here we are; on one end we’re leaving lights on when we’re going on a holiday, and on the other we’re telling everybody on the Internet we’re not home.

It's a great point. There's been some awareness-building that people should be careful of what they post on Facebook and other websites for fear of it coming back to haunt you. Location-sharing seems to be right up there in terms of danger. It may eventually pan out as the next Big Thing and shouldn't necessarily be avoided, but before creating your Foursquare account and "checking-in" everywhere you go, put some thought into exactly what you're sharing.

As you should with everything :-)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NSF Launches Open Government Website...

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) recently launched a new website designed to encourage participation and collaboration between the agency and the citizens it serves.

Following a Web 2.0 model of harnessing ideas through user-generated input, the Obama Administration's Open Government Initiative has led agencies across the government to establish Open Government web pages to collect ideas and suggestions from the public. The hope is that the public will submit ideas, comment, and vote for proposed ways of improving government transparency, among other objectives.

The NSF specifically wants input on access to large data sets and collaborations that aim to facilitate transformative research. In plain English, this means they'd like proposals for people to analyze statistics on the Freedom of Information Act, research grant and fellowship funding, spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and more. [Full list of data sets can be found here]

Take a look for yourselves at the website to see how this works. Reading user submissions is an interesting exercise, if nothing else, and being able to comment and vote on each idea is the modern popular pastime for cubicle workers already. It's like Digg for government. As of the time of this writing, some of the most popular ideas submitted thus far include that the NSF should live webcast all meetings, create a next-generation Opensource/Opensocial portal, and require all taxpayer-funded research to be freely available.

The NSF will publish an official Open Government Plan on April 7th, which will incorporate the submitted ideas and will serve as a roadmap for its efforts to improve transparency. Let's see what the public can come up with...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Internet Censorship in Australia...

Australia has made headlines over the past few months for its legislative attempts at filtering websites for its citizens. The harshest of critics view this as outright censorship, while others perceive it as less nefarious.

The question was raised on an academic email distribution list... How do Australia's attempts at filtering compare to China's internet censorship policies?"

Morgan Leigh from the University of Tasmania responded with a comprehensive set of links that collectively make a fabulous primer on the subject. These are crucial for serious readers on the subject.

The filtering being proposed here in Australia is not much of a threat at all to freedom on the internet. Firstly it is only for web sites; P2P and VPNs won't be filtered, for the very simple reason that it is not technically feasible, and the web filter will be implemented by means of a list of prohibited sites. Obviously it takes about two minutes thought to realize the limitations of this method.

Here are some links: -

An very extensive overview of info regarding net filtering in Australia -

A link to the site of the politician responsible for the latest attempt
to filter the net in Australia -

A piece by the Sydney Morning Herald re filtering here - "Conroy will not be censoring the internet. He'll be censoring people who do not know much about the internet."

(And another) Internet filter will not stop child porn peddlers -

Conroy Releases Internet Filter Trial Report, Dooms Us All - "How can you seriously consider blocking 100 per cent of the ACMA blacklist a success if one ISP only had 15 customers opt in?"

The actual report -

Grassroots political movement against filtering -

Conroy actually cites net filters in China in support of his plan!

Here is what happened to Google's 'decision' to not filter the net in China in response to its being hacked -

[Reprinted with permission]

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Web Video Money Pit...

Online video, practically since its inception, always touted its promise as "the future of the Web". Then came YouTube, which, of course, was based on an innovative new business model centered on user-generated content, and the hype surrounding online video hit the stratosphere.

Well, a few years in, let's take a moment to observe that online video is a total money pit. As GigaOm reports, no single company is turning a profit and only a small handful like and Brightcove have even managed to grow in significant value. Yes, even YouTube has failed to turn a single penny of profit.

Yesterday came news of another leading online video company, Veoh, calling it quits.

And all of this is in spite of the fact that, as this chart demonstrates, hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital have been invested. (Or flushed down the toilet, depending on one's perspective.)

Not to sound like a complete and utter Debbie Downer. To be sure, observers still consider it to have plenty of upside and it can stake claim to a few major accomplishments...

Online video has largely succeeded at many of its goals: It is democratizing media and encouraging a culture of sharing and participation. It’s pushing the television industry to modernize and become more interactive. It’s freeing content from time schedules and repressive windows. It’s driving cable companies to at least consider the true value of the loyalty of their subscribers.

But let’s be honest, it’s done more displacing and destabilizing than it has created wealth.

The big question is how to monetize online video effectively.

YouTube is experimenting with trying to bring in revenues through a lot of different means. Obviously, it relies heavily on advertising dollars, but has recently attempted to drastically increase the number of videos it monetizes. Additionally, at the Sundance Film Festival this year, it dipped its toes into the movie rental business. Also, in the fourth quarter of last year, it sold out the highly prominent and sought-after space on its front page almost every day.

But YouTube is really pinning its hopes on larger macro trends than it is on day-to-day operational strategies for generating revenue. Nikesh Arora, president of global sales operations and business development, is quoted as saying that YouTube is becoming increasingly important to brands and agencies. "There’s been a big shift... [YouTube] has gone from being ‘nice to have’ to an essential part of the media mix”.

As always, time will tell. It's just shocking that, in 2010, friends who invest a ton of time and effort in producing online video content - like the web series, "Concierge" - have a harder time earning money than schmucky blogs this one which are text-only.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

New York's Do-It-Yourself Social Movement...

It's always hard to recognise when new trends are sprouting up. Lots of times what we think are new trends tend to only be isolated instances that never quite catch on with a larger audience. The question for sociologists is how to tell the difference.

In New York recently, one new trend can definitely be observed... more and more people have adopted a do-it-yourself approach to technology. At the center of this movement is Make Magazine - "The first magazine devoted entirely to DIY technology projects, MAKE Magazine unites, inspires and informs a growing community of resourceful people who undertake amazing projects in their backyards, basements, and garages". It's a popular guide for how to single-handedly create everything from computer hardware to cigar box guitars to electric bicycles, and much, much more.

Of course, there are plenty of niche magazines that cover unusual topics. That alone does not a social movement make.

What's interesting is how it appears there really is a broader movement taking place. The Do-It-Yourselfers come in many forms. The New York Times ran a piece several months ago about "urban farming" taking place in the tiny backyards of Brooklyn. Also, some friends of mine recently constructed a hydroponic vegetable garden in their Upper West Side apartment, complete with a homemade computerized system for regulating water flows.

And, naturally, being in the computer science world, do-it-yourself projects are everywhere. Linux clubs have proliferated for several years and seek to recruit people to take more control over their computer systems so that they're less dependent on the big corporations. Open source projects clearly embody the DIY attitude. And no computer programmer worth their bones hasn't tried to build their own PC from scratch. In fact, it's become a right of passage.

While much of this has always existed, the novelty is in its mass revival. It's become trendy again, especially among non-technophiles.

New York City-based communities have recently arisen around the DIY movement. Blogs like Hack-A-Day continue to grow in audience, and groups like the NYC Resistor Collective actually hold regular meetings "to share knowledge, hack on projects together, and build community".

I'm not sure whether it's ironic or whether it actually makes sense that a back-to-basics mentality is taking root in New York City, the global hub of modernity, of all places.

Regardless, only time will tell if the Do-It-Yourselfers will have the staying power to transform themselves into a true social movement. In the meantime, the crazy array of innovations that they've got brewing are sure to lead to some badly-needed new enterprises in this economy.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The 3D Printing Phenomenon...

It's always a confidence-boost to feel like you're "in the loop". Well, among technophiles these days, there is a recurring theme that everybody's buzzing about... 3D printing.

Here's the idea in a nutshell. 3D printers are like regular computer printers except that instead of just printing text or images on a piece of paper, they create actual objects made of plastic.

The technology has actually been around for a number of years, however the immense cost of the hardware has always been prohibitive for all but the biggest corporations.

That's all changing. The reason for all the buzz these days is that costs have gone down considerably. It's now possible for the individual hobbyist to buy a 3D printer for as little as $750, and there are build-it-yourself kits that can be purchased on the cheap as well.

But forget all this descriptive info. What's so fascinating about 3D printing is the idea itself. Think about it... what we're really talking about is a cheap, mainstream method of manufacturing. Right now, 3D printers are being used mainly to create prototypes of new products. In other words, people with ideas for inventions develop them on their PC and then simply "print" out physical prototypes of the product. However, looking forward, there is no reason to think that, as the technology matures, larger scale manufacturing won't take place as well.

This holds the potential to be nothing short of a democratization of manufacturing to the masses.

I'm also reminded of the replicator from Star Trek. Need a copy of your car key? Short some silverware for your dinner party? Thinking your kid might enjoy playing with Legos this afternoon? Just click "Print".

Hewlett-Packard is among the large companies starting to see this potential and is getting in on the action. It recently signed a branding deal with 3D printing leader, Stratasys Inc.

And if all this wasn't enough, get ready to have your mind blown. There is a new open-source 3D printer that copies itself! Several variations have been developed of the RepRap (Replicating Rapid-prototyper) printer that can replicate and update itself. It can print its own parts, including updates.

Machines that can self-replicate? The Terminator movies are starting to seem prophetic.


Thursday, February 04, 2010

Technology Subverts Democracy? Um, no.

Free speech and the First Amendment are the focus of a lot of controversy lately. First came the Supreme Court's decision two weeks ago that political spending by corporations leading up to elections is indeed a type of free speech that the government could not regulate. Then, in a story far less consequential but nevertheless gaining lots of attention, the popular blog Engadget turned off comments, raising heated debate in the blogosphere about whether anonymous speech is a more positive or negative thing in open debates.

If free speech is indeed coming under renewed scrutiny, Robert Wright of the New York Times has the answer as to why. In a mind-blowing opinion piece, Wright argues that technology, and the internet in particular, is the culprit for Washington's inability to get things done.

It’s no exaggeration to say that technology has subverted the original idea of America. The founders explicitly rejected direct democracy — in which citizens vote on every issue — in favor of representative democracy. The idea was that legislators would convene at a safe remove from voters and, thus insulated from the din of narrow interests and widespread but ephemeral passions, do what was in the long-term interest of their constituents and of the nation. Now information technology has stripped away the insulation that physical distance provided back when information couldn’t travel faster than a horse.

His chief complaint: the internet is "lowering the cost of mobilizing far-flung groups of people who share a political interest".

And, yes, Wright considers this a bad thing.

Call me crazy, but wasn't political participation supposed to be encouraged in a democracy? Wasn't an engaged populace, as opposed to an apathetic one, healthy for civic society?

Wright's reasoning suggests that democracy would function better if people just voted every few years and then shut up. As for citizens expressing their voices... it's a problematic obstacle. And as for technology and innovation... clearly, it is, of all things, the culprit responsible for the downfall of America.

Now I'm reasonable enough to understand that his real beef is with interest groups and their lobbying power in Washington. He should feel free to argue with Alexander Hamilton on that one. However, calling out technology as the scapegoat for our leaders' lack of political will and all else that's wrong with our democratic system? Really?

Only with that kind of logic could Wright possibly want to harken back to the glory days when we "couldn't travel faster than a horse". As for me, I'll take more political speech and civic engagement, not less, and I'll keep my internet access too, thank you very much.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Should Blogs Turn Off Comments?

The popular website that reviews tech products, Engadget, made the controversial decision yesterday to turn off comments. No longer, at least temporarily, will readers be able to add their own two cents on the content being posted.

The presumptive wisdom has long held that blogs were a phenomenon largely because, unlike traditional media publications, they fostered two-way dialogue. An interaction. Does Engadget's decision, then, signal a larger shift in this thinking?

Hey guys, we know you like to have your fun, voice your opinions, and argue over your favorite gear, but over the past few days the tone in comments has really gotten out of hand. What is normally a charged -- but fun -- environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations... and that's just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that's simply not the case.

Luckily, our commenting community makes up only a small percentage of our readership (and the bad eggs an even smaller part of that number), so while they may be loud, they don't speak for most people who come to Engadget looking for tech news. Regardless, we're going to crank things down for a little bit to let everyone just cool off, and we'll switch them back on when we feel like we've shaken some of the trolls and spammers loose from the branches (AKA swing the banhammer in our downtime). See you on the other side!

On the surface of this statement, it appears that Engadget believes its passive readership to be more valuable than its commenting readership. In other words, the blog perceives its own message to be more important, by far, than the two-way interaction.

This is not unperecedented. One popular blogger getting a lot of mentions today, John Gruber, is actually famous specifically for not having comments. As the Cult of Mac describes, the reason Gruber dislikes comments is because they distract from his all-important voice.

But here's why blogs ought to keep comments. It's one thing to turn them off temporarily, like when the site is flooded with spam or when tensions rise and personal and mindless insults start flying. However, this story itself justifies leaving comments on... When I wanted to see what people thought of Engadget turning comments off, the first thing I did was go to Mashable and read the comments that people were sharing about the decision.

It's the interaction that's fascinating. If we want the news, we read the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. But the reason we read blogs is to engage in dialogue with other voices on the same topics. That's the big selling point of New Media, and what sets it apart from the Old.

Bloggers would be wise not to forget that. After all, without comments and interaction, such blogs would be indistinguishable from the masses of their going-out-of-business counterparts.