Thursday, October 28, 2010

Weak Link Between Election Polls and Online Social-Networking...

One of the most overhyped and overrated political tools is online social-networking sites.

Both the media and internet zealots love to make statements like, "The internet is changing the face of American politics", or they give political cycles monikers like, "2008 was the YouTube Election; 2010 is the Facebook Election".

Don't buy into the hype.

Statistically speaking, there is only a very weak correlation between a candidate's popularity on social-networking sites and how they do in the polls. Some current examples...

  • Delaware Senate Race

    Christine O'Donnell (R)Chris Coons (D)
    # Facebook Fans25,8099,523
    Real-World Polls40%57%

  • California Senate Race

    Barbara Boxer (D)Carly Fiorina (R)
    # Facebook Fans39,14118,300
    Real-World Polls51%46%

  • Indiana Senate Race

    Dan Coats (R)Brad Ellsworth (D)
    # Facebook Fans4,4228,553
    Real-World Polls57%40%

  • West Virginia Senate Race

    Joe Manchin (D)John Raese (R)
    # Facebook Fans5,5803,873
    Real-World Polls49%49%

If all you saw were these statistics, you're only conclusion would be... Nothing. You can't draw any conclusions about the correlation between social-network popularity and election polls because, strictly going by the numbers, there isn't any.

Sure, if we expand our sample we would likely find that, overall, those candidates with more Facebook Fans tend to perform better in the polls as well. But that's weak at best. The truth is that even when that correlation is present, it's more a reflection of popular sentiment than it is a cause.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cracking the Facebook News Feed...

On Facebook, not all people are created equal.

We're all familiar with the Facebook News Feed - the starter page that's visible when we first login, filled with recent status updates of our friends. Well, have you ever wondered why some people's statuses appear on the "Top News" feed, while others do not? Furthermore, would you be surprised to learn that the "Most Recent" feed - which we assume displays all of our friends' recent statuses in reverse chronological order - actually does not?

Facebook controls both news feeds with an algorithm. This algorithm is designed to highlight for the user only certain status updates, and not all of them - those that Facebook thinks will keep you interacting with the site longer.

So how exactly does this algorithm work? Thomas Weber of The Daily Beast conducted a fascinating experiment to test what factors are involved in making some users' statuses show up in people's news feeds, while not in others. I recommend reading the entire article, but here is a summary of his findings... [the experiment is based on a new user, Phil, creating an account and trying to get noticed in his friends' feeds] ...

  1. Facebook is biased against newcomers - Poor Phil spent his first week shouting his updates, posted several times a day, yet most of his ready-made "friends" never noticed a peep on their news feeds.

  2. Facebook's Catch-22 - To get exposure on Facebook, you need friends to interact with your updates in certain ways. But you aren't likely to have friends interacting with your updates if you don't have exposure in the first place. (The secret: Try to get a few friends to click like crazy on your items.)

  3. It's not the amount of activity you have, but the type - Facebook has a reason to do this: If users saw all of the posts for all of their friends, they might be overwhelmed (or bored) and tune out—a disaster for Facebook, which needs eyeballs to earn revenue. But in doing so, Facebook's ranking system makes judgments about items it thinks you'll be interested in.

  4. "Most Recent" news is censored too - Think that viewing your "Most Recent" feed will display all updates from all your friends? WRONG. If you've never tinkered with the "Edit Options" button on your Most Recent feed, this underscores why you should check it out—there's a little-used setting that caps the number of friends shown in the feed.

  5. Stalking your friends won't get you noticed - Maybe you've fretted about it while poring over photos of an old flame or estranged friend on Facebook — or maybe you've diligently worked to get on someone's radar by clicking all over their page. Do Facebook's mysterious algorithms factor your stealthy interest in another person into that person's news feed? Answer: Absolutely not.

  6. Having friends who stalk you WILL help your popularity - Stalking does work in the other direction, we found. After Phil spent days posting updates in vain, with most of our volunteers seeing none of them, we tasked a handful of friends to start showing more interest in Phil. Even though he wasn't showing up in their feeds, they sought out his Facebook page repeatedly, clicking on links he had posted and viewing his photos. This was the point at which Phil finally began to break through. It took a few days of constant clicking, but not only did the friends doing the stalking begin to see Phil in their Top News feeds — others who weren't stalking began noticing him as well.

  7. Links trump Status Updates - We're sure you consider all of your musings fascinating — but Facebook doesn't. For those who were seeing updates from Phil, links appeared more frequently than status updates — presumably because links are more effective at driving "user engagement," which translates into people spending more time on Facebook.

  8. Photos and Videos trump Links - Same principle applies here as in the last point, but photos and video are even more likely to appear in friends' news feeds than links.

  9. The Power of Comments - If items you post attract comments from a few friends, it clearly raises your visibility overall.

  10. Facebook Really is Like High School - After weeks of testing and trying everything from having Phil post videos to getting some of his friends to flood him with comments, by the end of our experiment, a few of our volunteers had still literally never seen Phil appear in their feeds, either Top News or Most Recent. These were the "popular kids" — users of Facebook with 600 or more friends. (Conversely, those with only 100 to 200 friends were among the first to spot Phil.) So the key, as you build your coterie of friends, is making sure to include some without huge networks. They'll see more of your feeds, interact in Facebook-approved ways, and up your visibility with all.

So the next time you post something to Facebook, be aware that not all of your friends will see it. Conversely, when you're reading through your news feed, also realize that some of your friends may have posted something that you're not seeing.

I bet you thought this was all so simple :-)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The iPhone's Closed Process: Deja Vu All Over Again...

It's time for yet another Nerfherder iPhone rant. I've blasted Apple several times in the past for how they run their App Store and how they treat developers. But now I have a new ally backing up my narrative... the New York Times.

If you want a smartphone powered by Google’s Android software, you could get Motorola’s Droid 2 or its cousin, the Droid X. Then there is the Droid Incredible from HTC, the Fascinate from Samsung and the Ally from LG.

That’s just on Verizon Wireless. An additional 20 or so phones running Android are available in the United States, and there are about 90 worldwide.

But if your preference is an Apple-powered phone, you can buy — an iPhone.

That very short list explains in part why, for all its success in the phone business, Apple suddenly has a real fight on its hands.

Americans now are buying more Android phones than iPhones. If that trend continues, analysts say that in little more than a year, Android will have erased the iPhone’s once enormous lead in the high end of the smartphone market.

But this is not the first time Apple has found itself in this kind of fight, where its flagship product is under siege from a loose alliance of rivals selling dozens of competing gadgets.

In the early 1980s, the Macintosh faced an onslaught of competition from an army of PC makers whose products ran Microsoft software. The fight did not end well for Apple. In a few years, Microsoft all but sidelined Apple, and the company almost went out of business.

Can Apple, which insists on tight control of its devices, win in an intensely competitive market against rivals that are openly licensing their software to scores of companies? It faces that challenge not only in phones, but also in the market for tablet computers, where the iPad is about to take on a similar set of rivals.

Apple’s PC-versus-Mac battle almost put it out of business. Is it creating a similar one in the smartphone field?

The major issue under discussion here is something I've been writing about for two years already... Apple's closed processes. Now, I'm not completely delusional - I recognize the iPhone's enormous popularity and certainly don't believe Apple is even close to going out of business. However, the Times article is 100% correct in asserting that the the very same closed process that gave the iPhone such a huge early success is inevitably going to lead to its eventual demise.

The reason... It's the developers, stupid! As good as the iPhone is, its success over the long-term depends upon the all-important apps that drive it. But Apple has been so controlling in its app process, that developers like myself have either been driven away or are sitting on the edge of our seats just waiting for a commercially viable alternative platform. And now we have Android, which is soooooooo much friendlier to developers.

In sticking to their hardline closed culture, Apple has created a situation where there are now millions of developers innovating for Android, whereas a handful of employees still have to approve of innovations for iPhones. That's obviously unsustainable. Furthermore, computer science departments at universities have begun teaching classes in Android development at a much greater pace than for iPhones - again because Android makes it so much easier by eliminating an unbelievable number of layers of bureaucratic red tape. Thus, the second generation of app programmers will be trained on Android from the outset.

Let's all sing together in unison the advantages of an open approach. Mitchell Kapor is absolutely right... "Having a tightly controlled ecosystem, which is what Apple has, is a large short-term advantage and a large long-term disadvantage".

Talk to app developers and you know that the wheels are already in motion. The writing is on the wall. The question is not whether Apple's closed process can sustain its success beyond the short-term. It can't. The only question is, how long is the short-term?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Is Linux Dead?

When Facebook blew up in popularity a few years ago, this blog asked the question, "Is MySpace Dead?". Now, we're forced again to ponder another once-beloved and often-hyped technology and ask, "Is Linux Dead?".

PCWorld's Robert Strohmeyer wrote an article yesterday that's lighting up the discussion boards in the open-source community. He argues that yes, indeed, desktop Linux is dead. As much as open-source advocates would hate to admit it, he makes a pretty convincing argument.

The argument goes like this...

It kills me to say this: The dream of Linux as a major desktop OS is now pretty much dead. Despite phenomenal security and stability — and amazing strides in usability, performance, and compatibility — Linux simply isn't catching on with desktop users. And if there ever was a chance for desktop Linux to succeed, that ship has long since sunk. ... Ultimately, Linux is doomed on the desktop because of a critical lack of content. And that lack of content owes its existence to two key factors: the fragmentation of the Linux platform, and the fierce ideology of the open-source community at large.

Ouch. Strohmeyer goes on to say that the reasons for its failure are NOT what critics often cite - that it's "too geeky" - but rather a lack of, specifically, online multimedia content and compatibility.

Something of a Linux enthusiast myself, I would have to say that there is some truth to that statement, but it's also overblown. Most of my multimedia files run fine on my Ubuntu distribution the majority of the time, however, I admit, when quirky things happen, - for instance, when I want to watch Hulu, - I often go straight to my Windows machine instead.

Also admittedly, the lack of total multimedia compatibility is probably the main reason why I maintain my Linux desktop as my secondary computer to fiddle around with, while I continue using my Windows computer as the primary machine for when I actually need to get serious work done.

There is still hope for Linux in the form of HTML 5 (which makes streaming multimedia a more open process), but in the meantime all trends indicate that the desktop itself is becoming irrelevant as cloud computing takes over the world. Ironically, if Linux does manage to pull through it will only be because of "the sheer irrelevance of the operating system itself".

To be clear, this discussion is strictly about the demise of Linux for the Desktop. In other areas, Linux is still quite strong. For instance, it's totally entrenched on mobile devices, underpinning everything from Android and LG phones to Web-enabled HDTVs and set-top boxes like Roku, Google TV, and Boxee. For this reason, one CEO is quoted as saying that Linux proponents should instead focus on pushing aggressively for open Web platforms.

But nevertheless, having failed to acquire more than 1% market share in the operating system universe, it's becoming increasingly clear that despite being a fantastic free, open-source product, Linux is never going to quite catch on. To those of us who actually use it, that's a shame (and let's remember that there is a reason why it has such a hardcore loyal following). But 1% is pretty irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. Perhaps that's how Linux deserves to be treated.

Heck, even MySpace has more that 1% market share, and they were pronounced dead long ago.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Water

In keeping with an annual tradition, today is "Blog Action Day" in cyberspace. Everyone with a blog is encouraged to write a post on a specific cause in the hope that if thousands of people post on the same humanitarian topic then it will be an agent for social change; or at least garner some mainstream media attention towards the issue.

In previous years, the topic has ranged from the environment, to poverty, to climate change. This year's cause is WATER.

Right now, almost a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. That’s one in eight of us.

Unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Children are especially vulnerable, as their bodies aren't strong enough to fight diarrhea, dysentery and other illnesses. The UN predicts that one tenth of the global disease burden can be prevented simply by improving water supply and sanitation.

But, water moves beyond just a human rights issue. It’s an environmental issue, an animal welfare issue, a sustainability issue. Water is a global issue, deserving a global conversation.

Some unbelievable stats...
  • Every week, nearly 38,000 children under the age of 5 die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions.

  • Today, 40% of America’s rivers and 46% of America’s lakes are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life.

  • Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets, but many more have access to a cell phone.

As of this writing, there have already been approximately 38 million readers of 5,000 blogs in 137 countries that have been invloved in Blog Action Day today. You can also view an ongoing list of posts on Twitter. Considering many of us bloggers consider our sites labors of love, and aren't really in it for the money, why not write a quick post to support the cause? And if you're not a blogger, why not consider signing the petition below?

This is cyberactivism at its best.|Start Petition

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Social Media Popularity Paradox...

Social media websites, like Digg and Reddit, rely on users to generate their content. It's something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they don't need to hire a team of journalists to cover news stories; people submit stories to them and vote on which are the most newsworthy. On the other hand, the more stories someone submits, the more influential they get on the site, and, over time, those power users can skew the results.

In August, Digg wanted to re-balance the system and changed how its website functioned in order to mitigate the influence of its power users and give some power back to The People. Naturally, those power users would get upset, but the thinking was that, by making the site more accessible to new users, Digg would net more traffic and wind up with more users overall.

They were wrong. Digg did indeed tick off their loyal core supporters, but no significant number of new users signed up. This led to Digg's CEO apologizing for the changes and rolling back many of them.

Now, GigaOm asks the pressing question... "Can Digg Apologize Its Way Back to Popularity?"

It's likely that the true Digg power users will remain loyal to the site because online influence isn't easily acquired and certainly isn't easily tossed aside, disgruntled as they may be. It's also likely that many Digg users have permanently moved on and now frequent different social media pastures.

The moral of the story is summarized in the GigaOm piece...

The upheaval at Digg shows just how difficult it is for a social network to change the way it functions on a fundamental level. Many of the changes were clearly designed to blunt the power of hard-core users and make the service more appealing to a broader range of users, but the revolt made it obvious that the changes had seriously alienated some of the site’s loyal fan base. This kind of strategy only works, however, if enough new users arrive to justify the loss of that traditional fan base.

For all social media websites that rely on user-generated content, the paradox is this... In order to become popular, you need to develop a strong group of loyal followers; however, in trying to raise your ceiling and gain in popularity even more, it is that same group of loyal followers that will restrain your growth and hold you back.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Much Still To Do on Obama's Cybersecurity Plan...

Brushing up on some notes before a cybersecurity-related meeting today, I thought it would be useful to go back and review President Obama's original plan to protect the nation's critical cyber-assets. As "Layer 8" reports, 22 out of the 24 proposals have yet to be implemented.

To be clear, this is the policy that is supposed to protect us from cyberattacks by Iran, China, Al-Qaeda, etc. Shortly after coming to office, President Obama released his Cyber Policy Review which was his intended plan to enhance the nation's cybersecurity infrastructure. It sought to extend the policies created in the Bush-era National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace by, for example, requiring the US to build a cybersecurity-based identity management plan and strategy that addresses privacy and civil liberties, leveraging privacy-enhancing technologies while maintaining net neutrality principles.

However, it's quite striking how nearly all of the 24 proposals are only bureaucratic in nature, hardly addressing technical challenges at all. As Layer 8 scathingly points out, "the overarching strategy to protect US assets from cyber attack remains pretty much just a paper plan".

So to refresh everyone in the Administration's memory, here is the list of all 24 proposals that the President put forth last year...

  1. Appoint a cybersecurity policy official responsible for coordinating the Nation's cybersecurity policies and activities;

  2. Establish a strong National Security Council directorate, under the direction of the cybersecurity policy official dual-hatted to the NSC and the National Economic Council to coordinate interagency development of cybersecurity-related strategy and policy.

  3. Update the 2003 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace to secure the information and communications infrastructure. This strategy should include continued evaluation of Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative activities and, where appropriate, build on its successes.

  4. Designate cybersecurity as one of the President's key management priorities and establish performance metrics.

  5. Designate a privacy and civil liberties official to the NSC cybersecurity directorate.

  6. Convene appropriate interagency mechanisms to conduct interagency-cleared legal analyses of priority cybersecurity-related issues identified during the policy-development process and formulate coherent unified policy guidance that clarifies roles, responsibilities, and the application of agency authorities for cybersecurity-related activities across the federal government.

  7. Initiate a national public awareness and education campaign to promote cybersecurity.

  8. Develop US government positions for an international cybersecurity policy framework and strengthen our international partnerships to create initiatives that address the full range of activities, policies, and opportunities associated with cybersecurity.

  9. Prepare a cybersecurity incident response plan; initiate a dialog to enhance public- private partnerships with an eye toward streamlining, aligning, and providing resources to optimize their contribution and engagement.

  10. In collaboration with other Executive Office of the President entities, develop a framework for research and development strategies that focuses on game-changing technologies that have the potential to enhance the security, reliability, resilience, and trustworthiness of digital infrastructure; provide the research community access to event data to facilitate developing tools, testing theories, and identifying workable solutions.

  11. Build a cybersecurity-based identity management vision and strategy that addresses privacy and civil liberties interests, leveraging privacy-enhancing technologies for the Nation.

  12. Improve the process for resolution of interagency disagreements regarding interpretations of law and application of policy and authorities for cyber operations.

  13. Use the OMB program assessment framework to ensure departments and agencies use performance-based budgeting in pursuing cybersecurity goals.

  14. Expand support for key education programs and research and development to ensure the Nation's continued ability to compete in the information age economy.

  15. Develop a strategy to expand and train the workforce, including attracting and retaining cybersecurity expertise in the federal government.

  16. Determine the most efficient and effective mechanism to obtain strategic warning, maintain situational awareness, and inform incident response capabilities.

  17. Develop a set of threat scenarios and metrics that can be used for risk management decisions, recovery planning, and prioritization of research and development.

  18. Develop a process between the government and the private sector to assist in preventing, detecting, and responding to cyber incidents.

  19. Develop mechanisms for cybersecurity-related information sharing that address concerns about privacy and proprietary information and make information sharing mutually beneficial.

  20. Develop solutions for emergency communications capabilities during a time of natural disaster, crisis, or conflict while ensuring network neutrality.

  21. Expand sharing of information about network incidents and vulnerabilities with key allies and seek bilateral and multilateral arrangements that will improve economic and security interests while protecting civil liberties and privacy rights.

  22. Encourage collaboration between academic and industrial laboratories to develop migration paths and incentives for the rapid adoption of research and technology development innovations.

  23. Use the infrastructure objectives and the research and development framework to define goals for national and international standards bodies. Implement, for high-value activities (like the Smart Grid), an opt-in array of interoperable identity management systems to build trust for online transactions and to enhance privacy.

  24. Refine government procurement strategies and improve the market incentives for secure and resilient hardware and software products, new security innovation, and secure managed services.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Questions About Cyber-Surveillance in Everyday Life...

Recently, I was invited to an international workshop that's taking place in Toronto this upcoming May. It focuses on the issue of cyber-surveillance which has become widely prevalent, not necessarily only on behalf of governments, but by businesses, websites, and other entities as well.

It's the questions surrounding the issue which I find so interesting...

Digitally mediated surveillance (DMS) is an increasingly prevalent, but still largely invisible, aspect of daily life. As we work, play and negotiate public and private spaces, on-line and off, we produce a growing stream of personal digital data of interest to unseen others. CCTV cameras hosted by private and public actors survey and record our movements in public space, as well as in the workplace. Corporate interests track our behaviour as we navigate both social and transactional cyberspaces, data mining our digital doubles and packaging users as commodities for sale to the highest bidder. Governments continue to collect personal information on-line with unclear guidelines for retention and use, while law enforcement increasingly use internet technology to monitor not only criminals but activists and political dissidents as well, with worrisome implications for democracy...

  1. We regularly hear about ‘cyber-surveillance’, ‘cyber-security’, and ‘cyber-threats’. What constitutes cyber-surveillance, and what are the empirical and theoretical difficulties in establishing a practical understanding of cyber-surveillance? Is the enterprise of developing a definition useful, or condemned to analytic confusion?

  2. What are the motives and strategies of key DMS actors (e.g. surveillance equipment/systems/ strategy/”solutions” providers; police/law enforcement/security agencies; data aggregation brokers; digital infrastructure providers); oversight/regulatory/data protection agencies; civil society organizations, and user/citizens?

  3. What are the relationships among key DMS actors (e.g. between social networking site providers)? Between marketers (e.g. Facebook and DoubleClick)? Between digital infrastructure providers and law enforcement (e.g. lawful access)?

  4. What business models are enterprises pursuing that promote DMS in a variety of areas, including social networking, location tracking, ID’d transactions etc. What can we expect of DMS in the coming years? What new risks and opportunities are likely?

  5. What do people know about the DMS practices and risks they are exposed to in everyday life? What are people’s attitudes to these practices and risks?

  6. What are the politics of DMS; who is active? What are their primary interests, what are the possible lines of contention and prospective alliances? What are the promising intervention points and alliances that can promote a more democratically accountable surveillance?

  7. What is the relationship between DMS and privacy? Are privacy policies legitimating DMS? Is a re-evaluation of traditional information privacy principles required in light of new and emergent online practices, such as social networking and others?

  8. Do deep packet inspection and other surveillance techniques and practices of internet service providers (ISP) threaten personal privacy?

  9. How do new technical configurations promote surveillance and challenge privacy? For example, do cloud computing applications pose a greater threat to personal privacy than the client/server model? How do mobile devices and geo-location promote surveillance of individuals?

  10. How do the multiple jurisdictions of internet data storage and exchange affect the application of national/international data protection laws?

  11. What is the role of advocacy/activist movements in challenging cyber-surveillance?


Monday, October 04, 2010

When Cyberbullying Misses the Point...

Last week, a Rutgers student named Tyler Clementi committed suicide after his roommate filmed him allegedly having homosexual relations, then posted the video on the internet. The media quickly classified the story as a case of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying is a serious issue and has been prominent on the national agenda ever since the Megan Meier case a few years ago. But as the media frames this as a cyberbullying story highlighting the need for greater regulations on internet behavior, it's possible that they've got it wrong. This is a case of a hate crime being committed; and if it is prosecuted as such, then it changes the conversation dramatically.

For instance, one Time article emphasizes a lack of cyber-education as the root cause of the incident...

Maybe we are where we are because we've had no teachers. No one has instructed us how to use the Internet. We've learned on our own, pointing and clicking, blogging and tweeting. There are no rules of the cyber-road. In a lawless Facebook-Twitter-chat-room culture with scant etiquette and 24/7 saturation, it can be hard to know where to draw the line.

A good point, to be sure. However, it does a great injustice to suggest that a simple lack of cyber-manners or etiquette led to the Clementi incident. Extreme homophobia was to be blame, and the internet was merely the transmission vehicle.

Because of the "cyberbullying" label, Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi's friend, Molly Wei, are only being charged with invasion of privacy. That's a proper charge for many cyberbullying cases. However, if the situation is assessed more soberly, it would be absurd to deny the role that homophobia played in this incident. And in legal terms, there is a monster difference between charging someone with "invasion of privacy" versus charging them with "hate crimes".

Cyberbullying is an extremely serious problem that has to be addressed, both through social norms as well as the legal system. However, in this Clementi case, let's not ignore the large elephant in the room. To frame what happened as a simple invasion of privacy is akin to labelling someone spray-painting a swastika on a synagogue as simple vandalism.

It's not untrue, but it misses the real point.