Archives for the month of: January, 2012

An internet blackout by some of the internet heavyweights is looking much more likely. Mashable, one of the biggest tech websites out there, published an editorial calling for a campaign to inform the masses about the danger posed by SOPA.

Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. You’re the Big Three in this fight. You’ve already publicly affirmed your opposition to SOPA. Now it’s time to really be a part of the fight.

Everyone in the tech community knows about SOPA, but that isn’t enough – the anti-SOPA movement needs the average Joe to understand and protest against the bill.

A blackout of Facebook, Google and Wikipedia would get the world talking. It would be on the frontpage of newspapers (except possibly the SOPA supporting Murdoch press). People will ask ‘what is it about SOPA that causes these internet behemoths to take such drastic action?’

January 18th is the date set by members of online community Reddit for the blackout. Hacktivist collective Anonymous have tweeted that they will embark on radio silence on that day, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has stated that he hopes Wikipedia will be ready to get involved:

I’m all in favor of it [a January 18 blackout of Wikipedia], and I think it would be great if we could act quickly to coordinate with Reddit. I’d like to talk to our government affairs advisor to see if they agree on this as useful timing, but assuming that’s a greenlight, I think that matching what Reddit does (but in our own way of course)[…]

Of course, we really need Google to get involved. After all, ‘Don’t be evil’ is their informal corporate motto. They have stepped up to the mark before by removing Google search capabilities from China, now we have to hope they are prepared to step up again.

The SOPA bill is the desperate bite of a wounded and dying entertainment industry. The internet has liberated artists and content providers. We are seeing the emergence of an organic internet marketplace, free from the layers of middlemen that have exploited artists for so long. They have been creaming money of the work of others for so long that they think what they do is natural.

January 18th is set to be an important day for the internet. How important is up to the big three.

With the ominous SOPA act looming menacingly over the internet it is more important than ever to seek out and support progressive methods of getting artists and writers the money they deserve.

A stand-out service that I have joined is a social micropayment service called Flattr.  You create an account, choose a monthly amount of money to add to a pot (minimum 2 euros) and then click the Flattr button on webpages you like to share the money with the authors.

Kind of like tipping – the idea is simple, brilliant and completely in line with the ethos of the internet. I’ve recently noticed the Flattr button on a few websites – and I’ve started looking out for it on articles that I have enjoyed reading. It is a great way to reward bloggers for their hard work.

The service was started by Pirate Bay founder and spokesman Peter Sunde as a way to reward content creators for their work. Ambitions involve using the Flattr button to pay music and video creators as well as writers – Flattr has already teamed up with SoundCloud to include a Flattr button on their music player and there is a way to add a button to your Flickr account. YouTube are apparently keeping an interested eye on the project and Facebook are looking into delivering something similar. The service has already been used at conferences, enabling listeners to ‘Flattr’ speakers.

The Flattr team have already developed an app for Chrome that allows you to support Wikipedia by pressing a browser button whenever you have enjoyed or benefited from a Wikipedia article. As it is unofficial – they are keeping hold of the money raised and will deliver it the the Wikimedia foundation when enough money is raised. Also, when PayPal and Mastercard froze Wikileaks account – Flattr provided a way for supporters to send funds.

Flattr is a great project ran by people that really seem to value internet freedom over profit. It is a refreshing idea in an age of pay-walls and dangerous legislation, and it harks back to the democratic and collaborative origins of the internet. Money goes direct to the producer, the consumer decides what they consider a fair amount to pay and the Flattr button integrates snugly next to the Facebook ‘like’ button. It’s an idea I hope spreads – so sign up and start Flattr’ing.

Today offered a glimpse of a truly amazing future for conscientious shoppers that want to boycott products.

A team of anti-SOPA activists (read about the Stop Online Piracy Act here) have created an app that allows you to scan a barcode from a product and see whether the product is made by one of the 800 SOPA supporting companies.

It works by automatically checking a product against a database of companies. If the scanned product  comes from a SOPA supporting company, then a big red ‘x’ is displayed on the screen – enabling the shopper to chose not to purchase.

The idea behind the boycott app is brilliant and could be applied to anything. Simply change the list of companies in the database to whoever you want. If, for example, you want to boycott GlaxoSmithKlein after hearing about their exploitative and illegal vaccine tests that killed 14 babies – you could add them to your ‘boycott list’. Don’t like Coca-Cola for any of their irresponsible acts – add them to the list.

In a world where mobile app’s seem to be the domain of marketers – it is refreshing to see mobile technology being used by activists  to empower consumers and help hold corporations accountable.

Ideally this tool should become opensource so that any activists  or consumers can create their own unique database of companies to use with the app. Campaigning groups could make lists for supporters to upload to the boycott app. It could even be used to discover things about products when in a store – e.g. this cereal manufacturer CEO kills baby seals or this fashion designer has links to the far right.

Barcode scanning is something that is set to become more popular among consumers. This app is the latest incarnation of a broader trend of  scanning technology. Amazon recently released a popular mobile ‘Price Check’ app that encourages consumers to scan products they come across in bricks and mortar stores and receive a discount if they buy the product online through the Amazon app.

You could argue that the time it takes to scan every item of a weekly supermarket shop would be a barrier. However, jump a year or so in the future and every item will contain a RFID (radio frequency identification) chip, which is a superior and more efficient method of identifying objects than a normal barcode.

Then the same kind of friction-less technology we are seeing with Facebook will be a part of our shopping experience. Put a product in your shopping basket and your phone will give you a little alert if it is to be boycotted. Check out this ubercool video on the RFID future of shopping to get what I mean.

You may be under the impression that when you search for something on Google the results you see are the same as anyone else that performs that search. This isn’t the case, and hasn’t been for a long time.

In 2009 Google went full steam ahead with personalized search. The idea was to look through your internet history, your Gmail and all the rest of your Google products and look for signals that would enable Google to tailor a search results to exactly what you are looking for.

As well as looking through your history, Google has always wanted to look at your social network to make your search results more relevant. The only problem with that is it doesn’t own any social network data – a social network like Facebook is a ‘walled garden’ that Google can only peek in from the outside.

The arrival of Google+ allows Google free-rein over your social data and will herald the age of a new buzzword – social search. Social search is the process whereby your social network (or social graph) affects the results of a Google search. By looking at the content that has been created or shared by people in my social graph, the results I get from a Google search will be more personalized than ever before.

I’ve already seen this in action. After searching Google for ‘SOPA’ (the Stop Online Piracy Act) I found myself reading from a website that I had never heard of. I traced how I ended up on this particular page and it turns out that someone I have in my Google Circle network was a writer for this website and had +1’ed the article.

This is great, right? Google search results will become more relevant, based upon people like me and less likely to be manipulated by dirty SEO tactics. Some people have even gone so far as to call this a ‘Socratic Revolution’ – suggesting that the era of personalized search is akin to the philosopher Socrates placing man at the center of the intellectual universe.

There is, however, a dark side to personalized search that has been recognized in a book called  ‘The Filter Bubble’ by Eli Pariser. The problem, he argues, is that this personalized ecosystem of knowledge acts as a mirror that reinforces what we believe without allowing the possibility of our views being challenged. Each new layer of personalization strengthens the walls of our own bubble – satisfying us with the information we want to see instead of offering new ideas. Or as he puts it, we are being given ‘too much candy, and not enough carrots.’

Whilst the Filter Bubble emphasizes our uniqueness, it acts as a centrifugal force – it pulls us apart from one another. With enough personalization the front page of Google News will be different for everyone, removing the kind of shared experience we used to have with a newspaper. Also, the Filter Bubble is invisible – we don’t know the maths behind how these algorithms define us. And with the increasing omnipotence of Google – it is difficult to not be a part of it.

So the arrival of Google+ social search marks a new era of ‘invisible autopropaganda’ that will continue ‘indoctrinating us with our own ideas’. What it will also mark is the start of a new form of marketing and campaigning – especially in the run-up to the 2012 US election. If I tap ‘Healthcare’ into Google I will be presented with the healthcare articles that my network has shared. Both the Democrats and the Republicans will have to fight to ensure that they have the right people inside the voters Google Circles.

Whilst we may still be at the dawn of social search – the correct techniques in this area could eventually make or break a campaign. Could 2012 be the year that Obama leverages Google+ to win the election?

What have the Pyramids of Egypt, the space race and Wikipedia all have in common? Apart from being great achievements for humanity they were all accomplished through small contributions by a massive amount of people. But what else can be achieved through massive-scale collaboration?

Luis von Ahn has already begun to answer this question. He is the guy responsible for re-CAPTCHA, the service that stops spam on webforms by forcing the user to enter a distorted sequence of characters. Re-CAPTCHA is different to the original CAPTCHA because it presents two words instead of random characters.

Whilst you have probably filled in a Re-CAPTCHA, what you might not have known is that by filling in the two words, you are helping to digitize the worlds collection of print books – something that computers struggle to do automatically.

How? The trick is that one word in the re-CAPTCHA is the security word that the computer knows, and the other is a digital image from a print book. You get the security word right, you are probably going to get the other word right as well. And if ten other people say that the word is what you have said it is – then we have one accurately digitized word.

Because re-CAPTCHA is so popular on websites, it is managing to digitize 100 million words a day – the equivalant of 2.5 million books a year.

Fascinating stuff! But what is more exciting is his next project – translating the web. Computer translation is not going to be perfect for at least another 10 years, and hiring professionals to translate the the non-Spanish Wikipedia pages into Spanish (only 20% of the English Wikipedia is in Spanish) would apparently cost $50 million – and that’s at almost slave labour wages.

Luis von Ahn has tackled this by connecting this problem with the 1.2 billion people that are learning another language. His website Duolingo offers people the opportunity to learn a language for free (language lessons are notoriously expensive) in exchange for their time in translating the web.

So, if ten people learning a language all translate a sentence the same way then it is going to be correct. And the people taking part are learning by doing! Although it is still only in testing phases – it is apparently a powerful language teacher and a really accurate way to translate content. If the site gets a million active users – it will be able to translate Wikipedia into Spanish in 80 hours.

To hear more check out the TED talk

Google+ seemed to take up the lions share of my predictions for 2012. It is the most interesting and promising social network out there. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn all have their place, but Google+ is still surrounded by a suggestive veil of mystery. However – despite all my interest, I don’t actually use the service that much. So with a new year starting I thought I would dive in and see what pearls I can find.

Starting Over

A point raised by Ezra Klein over on Quora is that Google+ allows you a fresh  start. Furnished with all the skills you have picked up from four years of Facebook and two years of Twitter,  Google+ gives you the opportunity to ensure that people are correctly grouped and avoid any miscalculations you may have previously made.

Bookmarking

I used to be a massive fan of social bookmarking and I used to religiously save all the interesting links I found to Delicious. This changed this year for reasons that escape me. I think it was a combination of a forgotten password, a broken plugin or fears that Delicious was to close that stopped me bookmarking everything. However Google+ looks set to bring me back into good bookmarking habits.

The G+ button that you see at the top of webpages and next to search results act as a one click bookmarking function that saves the page you are viewing to your public or private +1 page (here’s mine).

The problems are that you cannot tag links like you could in Delicious and you cannot currently perform searches on your list of +1’s. I imagine this will all be changed soon, and you will be able to search your +1 bookmarks from the Google homepage. After all, Google intends your +1 page to be ‘the place you’ll go to personally manage the ever-expanding record of things you love around the web‘.

Subscribing

Every so often I need to give my Google RSS reader a clean out. I am constantly following new websites and removing others from my feed. On Facebook – I am careful to follow only a few websites and brands in order to ensure my Facebook news feed doesn’t get clogged.

However, when I am subscribing using Google Circles I am instantly encouraged to categorize each subscription. I can have a tech news circle, a recipe circle and film circle. I can have a circle dedicated to particular thinkers and a circle for particular colleagues. And – I can drop people and websites in and out of circles with ease.

You could argue that this is not much different to Twitter lists. Yet things seem easier and more integrated with Google than it does with Twitter.  It is also easier to have longer and sustained conversations around a post than is possible with Twitter’s 140 character limit. The Google+ feed is also more visual and exciting than with other social networks.

Connecting

Google are search – so it makes sense that searching for people on Google+ should be perfect. There is already a directory that has indexed over 31 million users called FindPeopleonPlus which allows you to restrict a search by the profile information logged by Google. This kind of people search is something lacking in Twitter.

The Google+ profile is also something that will become increasingly important. Unlike Twitter which restricts you to 140 characters – Google lets you create a full profile that will act as your shop window to all of your Google activity.

In conclusion

Google+ is going to be the most public of your social network profiles. It will be fully indexed and come up early on Google search. It is also going to serve as an infrastructure behind all of Google’s applications. It is also going to radically redefine what it means to search the internet – as my next post on the world of social search will explore

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