A great day for Apple fan-boys. Both a major strike against the enemy in the form of a billion dollar patent ruling against Samsung, and a shock-wave of fear for anyone that wants to innovate in the mobile arena.

Apple say that this is not about money, that it is about promoting innovation. I agree with the first part, after all they are a filthy rich company. But to say it is about innovation is idiotic. This is about power.

How is declaring ‘thermonuclear war’ (Steve Jobs words) on competition going to aid innovation? Apple continue to exploit an archaic patent system in their blind pursuit of power. They desire complete mobile dominance for their tech empire.

So what were these incredible innovations that Apple now own? Did Samsung lift large chunks of programming that Apple had spent blood, sweat and tears coding?

In short, no. The patents are for things that really shouldn’t have a patent attached to them. Designs and functions that are at the very core of how we think about smart phones and a pivotal part of our new mobile era. For example,

  • D’381 patent covers things like ‘pinch and zoom’, dragging documents across the screen and the twist and turn ability.
  • D’163 patents cover the double tap action to zoom that we all use in Google maps.
  • D’915 covers scrolling down a document using one finger.
  • D’677 and D’087 refer to a rectangular phone with rounded corners.

This is going to set a dangerous precedent, as Apple will continue to hunt down companies it can squeeze with it’s arsenal of patents. Smaller companies will cower in fear of infringing and pay large premiums to license Apple’s patents. How does this increase innovation?

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It might seem that an online community is not something that can be engineered. A website can be made to look and function in a particular way, but a community is made up of people and people aren’t so easily programmed.

This is not the case. Across the web there are many different communities. Some of them spring up from the grassroots of the internet, and others are designed and managed using proven community building tactics.

Successful community building involves following a set of well documented techniques based on theories taken from a range of disciplines, as outlined in my previous post.

You start with a clear objective or mission statement and a desired outcome. From this, a community manager makes important decisions about the design of the community focusing on the following community levers.

Size and structure of site

There are a wide range of structural considerations when planning or running a community. For example, deciding to create a community with a small population will help foster a sense of exclusivity whereas a larger community may be harder to micro-manage.

Structural considerations such as the number of topics discussed in the community, the number of sub-groups and how members are recruited and screened will all determine the type of community that develops.

Form and types of content

Will content on the site be collected from outside sources, created by the community management team or generated by the users? Most likely it will be a combination of the three, so what percentage will come from each?

Will members of the community submit blogs, status updates, contribute to forums, upload media, fill in a profile or leave comments? Each of these different forms of content will have different effects on the dynamics of a community.

Organisation and management of content

Enabling community members to find the content or tasks that are relevant to them and preventing user distraction is key to a good user experience of a site.

Presenting particular bits of content to particular groups or individuals will ensure relevancy whilst implementing a way to monitor and remove offensive content is essential.

Relationships to other websites

What relationships will your online community have to other websites and social networks? Will you pull in profile information from Facebook or Twitter and will your community broadcast using these networks? Will you leverage the unique designs of sites like Tumblr and Pinterest? Will you tap into your members social networks to pick up new recruits?

It might be necessary to create relationships with other websites, such as syndicating the content of a news site to provide discussion material for your members, or tapping into another sites readership for recruitment.

Membership screening

By using registration forms and by recruiting through targeted websites and networks you can fine tune who becomes a member. Do you recruit people with similar demographics, attitudes and outlooks, or do you want diversity? Will you assign new members a series of tasks before they are accepted as part of a community?

Membership screening is particularly important in research communities as they often have very strict guidelines about who is a member. If a community has strict recruitment criteria then it is important to pay close attention to registration communication and make sure that expectations are well handled.

Allocating roles

At a basic level, you will want to have two tiers of community membership – member and non-member. This can evolve over time to include any number of roles. Experienced members should have their site privileges increased and an appropriate title such as administrator or elder should be awarded.

With these new roles should come an increase in responsibility and opportunities. Experienced members can begin taking over some of the management of your site and can help resolve conflicts. Furthermore, a clear path into these senior roles can motivate new members to contribute.

Rewards and sanctions

If you are directing a community towards a particular purpose, then capitalising on the power of rewards and sanctions can be really beneficial. By rewarding and highlighting the kind of behaviour and contributions you are aiming for whilst providing feedback and sanctions on undesired actions, you will be able to mould the shape of your community.

Rewards don’t necessarily need to be monetary – they can include highlighting and publically praising individual members contributions or awarding an increase in responsibility. Care should always be taken when delivering feedback, as you don’t want to put people off!

Framing and branding

The way a community defines itself, the way it asks questions and the way it writes copy are all major factors in how a community will develop. Fun, jokey or satirical content will attract a different crowd from content with a professional, official and serious tone.

How a community postitions itself in relation to other communities is important – is it in competition or collaboration with similar sites? Logos, typography, colours, taglines, images and other design considerations can all be used to brand and define a community.

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These are 8 broad areas that are all within the control of the community management team that can be used to engineer the shape and growth of a community. Within these elements there are hundreds of different variables and choices, each with well documented outcomes.

I’m back.

After a long hiatus from this blog I’m breathing life back into it again.

So, I hear you all ask, where have I been?

I’ve been spending the last 7 months diving into the world of online communities. I’ve been trying to work out what makes people gel together on particular websites, exploring what makes some of the top communities so good and seeing what I can learn from community building guru’s.

The core lesson I’ve learnt is that the way to understand online communities involves taking bits of knowledge from a wide range of disciplines. For example:

  • Psychology offers deep insights into the motivation and drivers of community involvement.
  • Sociology provides a way to understand and measure the dynamics between groups.
  • Web development will help you choose the right kind of tools to manage and build a community.
  • Market research gives invaluable advice on how to motivate people and word questions.
  • Network science supplies some useful metrics to measure and visualize an online community.
  • Marketing provides invaluable copy writing tips to make your words attractive to members.

These are just a few of the areas that community builders and managers can learn from. Stay tuned as I explain some of the things I’ve learnt, share resources that I uncover and discuss (where possible) how some of the client communities I run are coming along.

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?