Sunday 14 November 2010

Information paywalls: betrayal of the World Wide Web’s first principles, or realistic necessity?

This post is a follow-up to John Royle’s and my posts about News International’s decision in the summer of 2010 to charge for online access to The Times and Sunday Times.

What are the issues surrounding information paywalls? To be absolutely clear - I am not talking about ordinary ecommerce: buying a new book from Amazon; having a bouquet of flowers sent to your mother through Interflora (FTD); paying for a software download, or web hosting services. Everybody understands that goods and services bought online are just the same as goods and services bought in a bricks & mortar shop or by snailmail order. You might quibble about the relative charges, but they are straightforward commercial transactions.

No, this is about information - a far slipperier beast than any DVD, bunch of carnations or tin of baked beans. Potentially ephemeral and transient, or timeless - eternal even. Valueless to some; priceless to others.

Right now, in November 2010, this blog post is worth nothing at all. Nix. Niente. Tipota. Zilch. Just possibly in a few hundred years, in the unlikely event it still exists in some retrievable digital form, a researcher of the 21st Century World Wide Web may consider paying for access to it as part of a bigger package of relevant archived material. Or perhaps I am flattering myself. But I like to think not. If it doesn’t sound too pompous, in my experience all old manifestations of the written word have some value to somebody, somewhere, sometime.

So what characteristics bestow monetary value on digital information? Is it simply age? And how old is old?

Certainly age is a very important factor. No one (except perhaps Rupert Murdoch) can pretend that up-to-the-minute general news stories, comment and advertisements – in other words most of the content of hardcopy newspapers – can possibly be hidden behind a paywall when presented online. Advertising is free by definition, otherwise it wouldn’t be advertising. And advertising is already used online to generate some income from otherwise ‘free’ information. Everybody knows “Comment is free” – this blog is effectively ‘comment’ and we certainly wouldn’t have the bare-arsed cheek to try and charge for it. And as for real general news stories they are available ‘free’ (plus ads, see above) from so many online sources it must be extremely hard to justify charging for your particular version of the story, because your version should be almost identical to everybody else’s if you have all got the facts right - er, shouldn't it? And everybody else’s is free. And remember that most stories, apart from genuine exclusives, originate with a limited number of sources anyway.

But when news is old news it becomes archived. Literally ‘yesterday’s news’. That expression normally means something is ‘old hat’, passé, worthless. In fact the very opposite is true. Such is the demand for history, both old and recent, that the keepers of newspaper archives who have digitalised their collections at considerable expense have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people prepared to cross paywalls for access. And whether it is newspaper archives, or all kinds of old records for which major expense has been incurred in the digitalisation process, then a paywall is fair and justified. (Not everybody can afford to be as magnanimous as Google Books and provide online versions of hundreds of thousands of old books ‘free’. And bless them for it.)

The Lancet - clearly a specialist information paywall:

But up-to-date specialist news is quite a different matter from general news and comment. Business and financial news is a good example. Ordinary newspapers do contain business pages of course. However, if you are prepared to pay for business and financial news online, are you going to subscribe to a general newspaper or are you going to subscribe to a specialist like the Financial Times? Obvious really, but yes, the Financial Times online - specialist - is doing rather well; News International’s London Times online - general - is doing rather poorly by all accounts.

But what has happened to the “free access for all” concept of the World Wide Web? Well, it is still there, don’t worry! It has only acquired a certain amount of realism. There are still millions of amateurs (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense) out there spending their evenings and weekends posting information to websites – available free to anyone with an internet connection and a relatively enlightened government. But anyone of those amateurs will tell you that it is quite hard work and time-consuming. They know that as an individual, or part of a small group, they don’t have the clout to tackle big digitalisation projects. Realistically therefore, big projects involving one very large collection of information can only be undertaken by, or on behalf of the keepers of the collection, and that means business. And money.

There are exceptions of course. Wikipedia I hear you shout. Quite right, but it works because it is only an aggregation of all of those millions of amateurs, all doing their small piece of the whole. It is actually just like the old multi-volume hardcopy encyclopaedias: numerous contributors each covering their own specialist subjects. But even so, Wikipedia is such an enormous beast it does need money to keep it alive: the amateur maintaining his small, but valuable family history site, say, can stand the cost of 50 megabytes of server space. Wikipedia is different! If they are to avoid selling advertising space or selling access through subscriptions, then they must continue to seek donations.

I haven’t said anything about copyright. Copyright exists in a different dimension to value. Sometimes they overlap, but neither guarantees the other in the mind of the potential buyer. Copyright is useless without value.

To take you back to the beginning of this piece: it belongs to me – technically I hold the copyright, and, just like the journalist at The Times newspaper, I am paid to write it. In my case it is as part of a package I sell to Glanton. But you are never going to pay for this post in the lifetime of that copyright. And anyway, the whole blog in itself acts as a kind of oblique advertisement for Glanton. If Glanton didn’t exist, this blog post would never have been written. And if my imaginary researcher (in the year 2525) has actually paid for access, then it is only because the provider has gone to the trouble and expense of aggregating and storing blog posts from more than 500 years ago, and the researcher (Just in case: “Hello there! And sorry about the links and images: I guess they are all broken by now.”) believes there is value in buying access. I hope it was worth it.

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Tuesday 31 August 2010

'SOCIAL CHECK-IN': Harmless gimmick, or something sinister? Or both?

Social check-in, for those who might think it is a new method of flight check-in - using your Facebook password perhaps - is actually personal geolocation using your portable device to sign in to participating businesses and establishments. The idea being that your friends, playing the same game, can see where you are, and you can see where they are. And then you and all your friends can play an old fashioned game of sardines around the high calorie special lattes or Caipirinhas. I guess.

Excuse my cynicism, but the vocal supporters of these social networking geolocation apps like Foursquare, Gowalla and Facebook Places try and shame me into feeling like a grumpy old fuddy-duddy simply because I ask, "What is the point?" But these things are games, pure and simple, and shouldn't be credited with more significance than that. They are games which attract players by gently massaging vanities and social insecurities - play the game and prove you exist.

Don't get me wrong: geolocation is very useful - for specific purposes. It's great that people can find your 'bricks & mortar' business with ease online and have it pinpointed on a map, and then through their smart phone can be directed straight to your door so they can (let's say) buy the only secondhand Tintin books available in your city. It's great that you can run a blog for your business promoting all the trade shows you will be attending and with 'RSS 2 Geo' those trade shows will be pinpointed on a map. You get the idea. It is extremely useful.

But personal geolocation? Give me a break.

More than ten years ago - in the age of the simple cell phone - I was visiting a high-tech relative in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Friday lunchtime and we were in a bar with four or five of his friends-stroke-colleagues. It was decided that most of us would meet up again after work at another bar, and maybe some of us would go on together to eat somewhere. But nothing was actually decided and I pointed this out as the lunchtime party broke up to go back to work. I was mildly shocked and amused to be told, "Don't worry - we all have cell phones - we'll sort it out in the afternoon!" Shocked and amused because the group seemed oblivious to the absurdity of ignoring the simple face-to-face opportunity to firm up the evening's social events in favour of spending yet more time ringing round - probably several times - to work out where we were going to meet.

And the result? Well, the afternoon's phoning proved totally unnecessary. We met at the bar the group always met at on Fridays after work. Of course. And those of us who went on to eat went to one of the group's most favoured restaurants. And this is the crux of the matter. We are creatures of habit. Even trendy high tech urban young adults with disposable income are creatures of habit. Today the successors to the group described above must be among the perceived top targets for the whole 'social check-in' concept - along with the wannabes of course, who are actually the biggest target group. (Look at the Foursquare and Gowalla websites and it is clear they are aimed at the teenie market.) However, they too are creatures of habit. Few people have time to be anything else, however 'cutting-edge' and trendy they consider themselves. Even the 'Friends', from the eponymous darling TV sitcom, always met at the same coffee shop. OK, that was to satisfy production demands, but you get the point because it was totally natural. No viewer was surprised by that routine.

So what are the young trendy high tech urban adults with disposable income making of social check-in? Well of course some of them will play with it for a while, until they realise that it's a gimmick. And when they start dropping out, social check-in will be left with the wannabes and the office saddo. People will be sitting there trying not to spill their lattes on their smart phones while they work out where all their friends are. Two of them are on the sofa opposite - oh, right! (Embarrassed smile - I forgot you were here - "Hi Guys!"). And if you are not all in the same place anyway, who is going to move? Surely there is massive comic potential here.

And what about the office saddo? Remember, he's the guy you reluctantly befriended on Facebook, but then quickly hid from your news stream, and if he sends you a direct message you pretend you didn't see it - well the notification is a bit small and easy to miss isn't it? This is the poor lonely socially challenged inadequate or pain-in-the-arse who you have spent months keeping in the dark as to where you all go on Friday nights. He has a smart phone too you know - of course you and everybody else knows because he never ceases to bang on about it (normally he only gets to spend his money on gadgets), and sure he will sign up to Foursquare - and everything else.

Will people get totally paranoid about their every move? Will there be special apps developed to work out which restaurant you can go to tonight, successfully avoiding everyone on your private black list? You may end up just going home because your device won't let you go anywhere anymore.

And what happens if you are a perfectly trendy modern type, who just happens not to live in a large urban area? There are plenty of us about. Not a dozen Starbucks within spitting distance. In fact only one Starbucks for miles and miles. The whole idea of social check-in is going to look pretty puzzling to an awful lot of people who live in small communities, smart phone or no smart phone. At least Foursquare appears to understand this: their strapline reads, "Check-in, Find your friends, Unlock your city." My stress.

The evangelists for personal geolocation, however, are already trotting out the same two mantras.

First mantra:

It [social check-in] is today's equivalent of calling someone, "Hey! I'm at the café on the corner, c'mon over if you want!"

I think I have already dealt with this! But I could add, has anyone ever actually done that? Gone to a café and then start ringing round to see if you can entice friends to join you? Oh wait a minute - perhaps you are the office saddo, desperately trying to find someone to be social with...?

The second mantra is about security and the whole big brother/'1984' issue:

With Facebook you control the information you share. With Places, you choose when to share your location by checking in or allowing friends to check you in. Your location is never given to anyone automatically. This works just like Gowalla or Foursquare. People, you control it.

Absolutely true. You can turn it all off if you want to, and you don't have to sign up in the first place if you don't want to. [Turn off FB Places] But how many users actually have much idea about Facebook's privacy settings? Not many I wager. Unfortunately the social web illuminati can't understand that huge numbers of social web users - indeed, computer users - just want to turn the blessed thing on and use it. I guarantee that there are thousands of FB users out there who haven't even realised 'FB Places' exists; understand it, or know whether they want to use it or not.

And what about the business of letting everybody know where you are all the time? Or your friends letting everybody know where you are without your knowledge? It will happen. Big Brother and all that. You may argue that through mobile phone and plastic money usage The State can get a fix on you pretty quickly anyway, unless you are extremely careful. And, hey, you're honest, aren't you? They are not going to have any reason to look for you, are they? You live in a free country don't you? There are privacy laws in place to protect you aren't there? Of course there are...

But the more sinister side of social check-in and personal geolocation is almost exactly the opposite. By showing where you are in real time, or where you are going to be in a few hours, it shows where you are not. Right now I am not at home. Or where I should be. If you are cool with that, then so be it. But be warned: nobody quite knows where this is going, or what cunning ways will be thought of to dishonestly exploit these services.

So, personal geolocation and social check-in is a gimmick. An urban craze which will burn itself out when people get bored with it and realise that it is just some elaborate game and it is actually far easier to organise a social life using more traditional methods. And for all those cafés and other 'ideal' businesses? Well, they are probably damned if they do, and damned if they don't. Who wants to be seen as a place where no one ever checks in? But who wants to be known as somewhere you can't check in? It's your call.

So is there actually anything useful about social check-in, other than its potential as a silly vanity game with potentially hazardous consequences? Well, yes, maybe. Here is a comment I saw in the last few days:

A former co-worker of mine used his [FB Places] to track his travels all over Germany recently, it was interesting to follow!

OK, that's fair enough. However, that rather makes my point: geolocation is great for special and specific events, and for businesses to geolocate themselves in a modern Yellow Pages kind of way. As a day-to-day benefit to social networking it sucks.

Now, bring on the mystery and crime movies...

and be careful out there, people!

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Monday 28 June 2010

In Praise of the Skype Telephone

A bit of light relief with a serious message: save money!

In "Praise of Skype" - what do you mean? Surely everyone knows about all the benefits of the web telephone system? Aren't you several years behind the times with this piece?

No - no - not Skype itself! I really do mean the Skype telephone. The hardware. An actual handset you can buy and have in your house or office.

What? You are joking aren't you? [scoffing noises] I mean that's sort of retro isn't it? Or rather, a technological sidestep into a cul de sac. Not something for the comms-savvy 21st century modern techie-type, surely?

No, I am perfectly serious. I have been converted. A year ago I would have agreed with you and probably laughed at the very idea. But it is all in the flexibility it offers, especially for the home environment. Having what looks like an 'old-fashioned' cordless telephone when you have Skype installed on your computer might seem silly and unnecessary, but really it is only like having the Skype App for your smart phone.

Flexibility? Now you are having a larf! Everybody's got a PC in their home - and several in their office, plus a laptop - and most people have a smart phone with the Skype App don't they? What else could they need for making Skype calls?

Well, I think you are wrong. Not everybody does have a smart phone with the Skype App. Yes, most people have a PC in their house - but that's rather my point.

What is?

Well, when you make a Skype call from your PC there's lots of clever things you can do like video calls and screen sharing and so on, and that is fine for the office and quite often at home. (For example, video calls with the grandchildren in Australia.) But there are other circumstances - especially in the home - when you don't need all that.

Go on.

In fact 'all that' becomes a burden. You don't need it and don't want it. People often just want to blather on a cordless phone for hours on end while they get on with other things around the house, just like they have done for years with their cordless landline. In fact, before there were cordless phones people had great long extension leads so they could carry their receiver around the house. (Remember the 1970s? Flares, shag-pile carpets and huge long telephone extensions. Coolio coolio.)

Well, they can do that on their desktop or laptop can't they? You don't have to make a video call and most microphones are good enough to let you walk around the room at least. And if you have a laptop, or better still a small notebook, you can carry that around with you from room to room.

Yes, you are right up to a point. And in fact that is what my wife does. But it doesn't suit everybody. Let me tell you a true story.

Go on then -

Well, as you know, from early spring until late autumn my wife and I spend most of our time in Greece. The younger of our daughters lives in our flat in Germany the whole year. We have broadband connections in both places, feeding a desktop in Germany and my laptop in Greece, with WLAN to my wife's notebook. My wife and our daughter like to talk on the phone most evenings, usually for a considerable time. It used to be that our daughter always rang from Germany using the landline and one of the cheap pre-dial codes so that the charge went on the German bill - slightly cheaper than doing the same procedure from Greece. The bill for these calls came to somewhere between 5 and 10 Euros a week. Not a lot? Well, think about that for the best part of 30 weeks a year. A complete waste of money when they could talk free for as long as they liked using a web phone system like Skype. Once set up in both locations, it worked well. For a while. But I started to notice more and more that there seemed to be some excuse for not using Skype, and more and more of their conversations had reverted to the old landline and cheap code routine.

It took me a while to find out why. The German end was the problem. Our daughter found it a real drag having to boot up the PC and then sit in the office cubby-hole where it lives. For their length of conversations she needs to go the toilet at least twice; smoke at least two cigarettes (on the balcony); probably make herself something to eat and quite likely watch a TV programme, and deal with SMS and calls from her girlfriends on her mobile phone, all while talking to her mother. She says it is multi-tasking. Now, our daughter is probably an extreme example, but there must be plenty of people in a home environment who are not welded to their computers like us and would much rather talk using a traditional cordless phone or a mobile.

Solution? A Skype telephone! Hooray! I reckon the one I bought is just about the best option, and certainly for this particular circumstance. It is the DUALphone 3088, which plugs its own modem into your router and the handset sits in its own wireless base station, so you can keep it pretty much wherever you want in a normal-sized house.

- but does it work? Does your daughter use it?

Oh yes. Have a look at the photos - our daughter multi-tasking! In fact our two households are connected for hours on end every evening...with no running meter. And in our case, the handset has paid for itself within a year.

So, if you thought web telephoning wasn't for you because of perceived restrictions, think again. Have a look at the different equipments available. Surely between Skype on desktop, laptop, notebook, smart phone and skype phones themselves, landlines should be kicked into touch in almost every conceivable circumstance in office or home - the only exceptions being where local landline calls are free or part of a comms package you are already paying for.

[ Disclaimer: Neither Glanton nor Tom Muir have any connection, financial or otherwise with Skype or Dualphone. This is not an advertisement! ]

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Wednesday 9 June 2010

Welcome to the paid-for web: a contrary view

I disagree with my colleague John Royle about his post Welcome to the paid-for web. Or rather, I have a slightly different take on the significance and certainty of the events he describes.

I believe that tacit in his description of Rupert Murdoch's News International's decision to start charging for access to The Times and The Sunday Times websites is the assumption that the said news organisation and newspapers are actually important in a web news context.

There is no denying that News International is big and powerful as a print news organisation. And there is no denying that the London Times was once thought of as The Thunderer - THE Upmarket British newspaper; how Britain saw itself and the rest of the world, and essential reading for 'top' people everywhere and perceived as a source of sound information and steady, sensible opinion. However, that reputation has been steadily eroded in the decades since Murdoch bought the paper. Eroded to such an extent that for a number of years now it has been only half-jokingly referred to as "The Broadsheet Currant Bun" - a mildly scurrilous Cockney Rhyming Slang comparison to its stablemate at News International, the infamous and unapologetically downmarket redtop tabloid, The Sun.

Of course there is a lot of oohing and aahing at the moment about The Times and The Sunday Times charging for content because, well, it is a change. But I don't believe it is a very significant change; nor do I believe those newspapers' online presence is either important in a global web context, or would be greatly missed if it was to disappear completely. Generally speaking, I don't think there is any particular loyalty amongst online news consumers: one source disappears, another starts to charge - "oh well, never mind, forget them, let's move on. There is plenty more out there."

I believe online news is so big, so diverse, so instantaneous, and online news grazing so endemic and habit-forming that the majority of online consumers will soon forget about Murdoch's newspapers - if indeed they ever knew they existed. Yes, he may well get his 10% of current visitors to sign up (though my guess is it will be slightly less) and that small percentage almost entirely consist of libraries and universities along with journalists and commentators from other news organisations who need to have their fingers on every pulse - however weak. The few readers of The Times who still care deeply about their favourite newspaper are I believe almost exclusively confined to those who buy the print at the railway station kiosk or have it drop through the letterbox every morning. If you have paid for hardcopy you are not very likely to worry too much about any online version, one way or the other.

Based on the above, I don't believe everybody is going to cling to Murdoch's shirt tails and move to pay-for content. Firstly, I think very few will see 'Murdoch's 10%' (if he ever gets even that) as a good result. Nor will the advertisers.

Secondly, there is already a well-established model for charging for online news content: back issue archives. The Times itself, from 1795-1985 inclusive has been totally digitalised and available online in its entirety for nearly ten years now. At a price. And fair enough I say (although currently they only cater for institutional subscriptions, which is bad luck on private individuals without access through a subscribing organisation). Similarly, but more universally available, is the British Library's Colindale Online Newspaper Collection which currently provides total searchable access to 49 local and national titles from 1800-1900.

Surely this already established method is the way for news organisations to deal with their online presence? The everyday, constantly updated, headline and limited article output is to stay free (with any advertising that can be sold attached of course), and the back catalogue of full, uncut issues is available online in an archive at a price. I believe this is the way most newspapers will go. The Scotsman already does this. The Times was doing it too until last week, but they seem not to have realised.

If however, John is right, and print newspapers as a herd all turn to pay-for online content, then they will marginalise themselves in web terms. The massive online news consumer group will simply drift away to specialist online news services or organisations which remain free to view. There will be enough to satisfy every taste everywhere, I am certain.

And as for a general stampede away from free content of value on the web to charging, I suspect the former has been something of a rose-tinted illusion for a considerable time. As I have said, The Times Digital Archive has been online for the best part of ten years, and has only ever been available by subscription. Almost every serious specialist magazine which has an online edition charges for access, and always has done, in my experience.

However, daily news - real news, collected, processed and broadcast on the web on a constantly updating basis, is a different beast altogether. It's diversity, quality and volume may fluctuate, but I believe it will always be free.

So what do I think will befall The Times and The Sunday Times online output and any other national newspapers who do choose to go the same way? Surely they are asking to be treated like specialist magazines, when they are actually quite the opposite. What can they do? Perhaps they should be broken up into specialist departments and subscriptions sold for these new seperate sites on that basis, so that The Times newspaper as a total concept, an entity, no longer exists online.

Will John or I be buying the drinks in 2011? No doubt it will be me whatever happens! ;-)

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Monday 7 June 2010

Welcome to the paid-for web

Last week saw an event which I believe will go down as one of the most fundamental shifts of the internet age and will mark the end of the honeymoon period we have enjoyed thus far. I'm referring to Rupert Murdoch's News International's decision to start charging for access to The Times and The Sunday Times websites.

From this week you'll pay £1 for a day's access and £2 for a week. Furthermore he is blocking Google and other search engines from spidering the content - in other words News International content will not legally appear in any news feed or news digest.

The jury's out on whether this will work (Murdoch says he's prepared to lose 90% of visitors so long as the remaining 10% pay) but if it does, and my money says it will, then every single news and newspaper website will follow suit faster than you can believe. If you think about it, it has to happen. Every newspaper in the world is losing money and the web advertising revenue is just too widely spread to fund them.

I know it feels like a shame and we are being hard done by, and at odds with the fundamental perceived principles of the internet, but 'reality bites' and in the current climate every word that someone is paid to write is an asset and who can blame the owners of those assets for profiting from them on the web just as they do in print? There is no reason at all why one medium should cost and the other be effectively free, despite the presence of advertising.

My point is, that once the new News International business model is established then every digital product that has any value and can be distributed over the web will come with a price. My guess is that by mid 2011 it will be the norm. Incidently, did you see that I linked value with cost? Remember that old one?!

Projecting further ahead, I think we'll see a whole new raft of businesses floated who aggregate, summarise, and recommend all these paid-for digital products so that you can make an informed choice before subscribing and keying in your credit card number. These advisory services will, of course, cost you.

Look out too for new technologies to help you protect your new valuable digital assets - RSS blockers, cut and paste stoppers, screen grab disablers.  And if that fails then happy days for the poor cash-strapped lawyers of this world who will be employed to sue anyone re-publishing paid-for content.

Welcome to the new internet world where content costs; gateways rule; and people of our generation look back on the golden age of free access and free material on demand.

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Monday 24 May 2010

Share; sharing; shared?

Some thoughts about semantics (especially for Mark Zuckerberg and others):

What do we mean by "share"? In the real world where people sit together at kitchen tables and drink hot drinks and chat about the next-door neighbour, there are two kinds of sharing. There is one chocolate biscuit left so you agree to break it in half and share it. That is the most basic kind. It is free. Equal by definition. Generous of spirit. There are no strings.

The other kind of sharing can be a little more complicated. In the discussion about the next-door neighbour, one of the coffee drinkers at the kitchen table might say:

"I have a good story about the neighbour - I am going to share it with you."*

Superficially this information is going to be free. But there is often a lot of tacit code attached:
"I am party to information to which you are not."
"I am generously going to make you party to it too."
"I am giving up something with my act of sharing with you."
"By telling you that I am going to share something with you, I am reminding you that that is what I am doing."
And, depending on the context, there may be many other strings attached.

(*especially if they are American - it may be just me, but I suspect that on the European side of the pond we find this use of 'share' a tiny bit creepy - pompous even - and are much more likely simply to say, "I am going to tell you something.")

But what about the meaning of "share" online and in a social web and networking environment? It has become clear that it depends which side of the user-provider fence you are standing on. The friend on Facebook - if they think about it at all - mostly believes, or used to believe, that clicking "share" meant they are simply posting something for their friends to see. But the FB executive trying to create income streams for their social network sees every click you make as a potential money-spinner. "Share" has surreptitiously come to mean "Share with the world; share with every application and site which is prepared to pay for it." (In some ways this is no bad thing: Targeted ads are surely better than un-targetted ones.) All social web apps like to use the term "share". It has become an industry standard. But wouldn't "post" or even "broadcast" be more appropriate?

And it is disingenuous of Facebook to try and have us believe that the current incredibly tedious and long-winded privacy settings you can use to combat their version of sharing are simply a silly mistake on their part. Who are they kidding? (Somebody really designed all those forms by mistake?) They will do something about it because of enormous public pressure. But only because of that pressure. In reality they would like every user to let them use/sell everything they do on Facebook.

And therein lies the great struggle between social network provider and user. We want 'free' social networks. The 'free' social networks need to make money by some means or other.

But I am convinced it will not be through business, large or small, except by the placement of traditional ads. I believe Facebook simply isn't for business, whatever people have been persuaded, or like to imagine. Another recent FB débâcle proves this in my opinion. Facebook have decided to make Page owners with under 10,000 fans pay for the full facilities associated with Pages in one way or another. Please see: As one would expect small Page owners are furious. I have picked out just two, among numerous excellent and pertinent comments attached to the Allfacebook piece:
" I’ve been fuming about Facebook for a while, and how they deliberately make it difficult for small businesses to organically grow a following. This move further proves that Facebook is no friend of small biz. Unless you have an established brand and know how to find your customers on Facebook, it’s fast-becoming a next-to-useless marketing “tool” for small business. Boycott I say!
Lucy Beer - May 19th, 2010 at 7:22 pm "

" Makes you wonder what else they will “take away” with no notice. This is another good reason why you need your own website or blog where YOU call the shots not Facebook…
Michelle Hummel - May 19th, 2010 at 8:20 pm "

" need your own website or blog..." Oh yes. Exactly. Your website is yours. People will find it, whether they are FB users or not. Forget Facebook!

So how is Facebook to make money? I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Targeted, discreet ads in the right column à la Google. (I'm prepared to give up certain aspects of my online privacy to have targeted ads rather than untargeted ones - for me that is a no-brainer.) And that's it. If this reduces the perceived value of Facebook, then so be it. Sorry guys and gals. But with 500 million users surely it is worth it for business to advertise?

Just a thought: Does all this winding up by Facebook of their 500 million and business to boot, bring my Second Wish a little bit closer?

PS: If you want to check that you have the strongest privacy settings at Facebook, and maybe completely lock-down the service, follow these 33(!) steps. Not all are sensible - why prevent your friends posting on your wall, for one thing? But as a basic guide to navigating FB's current byzantine privacy settings it is helpful.
(Note: some of the features are called different things in different parts of the world.)

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Saturday 15 May 2010

Grooming for cloud-computing, or simply misunderstanding Facebook?

I have been particularly interested by two recent announcements. Interested, but not necessarily desperately excited.

The first partially explains, but does not excuse, Google Books' bugger's muddle of an interface for their users' libraries which I raged against in a post last month. The second is the revelation that Microsoft's Office Web Apps, which copycats Google Docs, will apparently be made available, free, to all users of Facebook.

The first announcement concerned the coming of a Google ebooks store this summer. Yes, they are going to take on Apple and Amazon in this lucrative download market. Clearly the ebooks store will be intergrated with the main Google Books site. Nothing wrong with that. However, it does in some part explain Google Books' cack-handed redesign of their library interface to include compulsory social networking elements which I blogged about last month. Obviously Google wants to use the viral marketing potential of users (they hope ebook buyers) writing reviews and 'spreading the word' among other users/buyers. Again, nothing wrong with that - in principle. However, it does not excuse the awful botch-job they have made of the user library in anticipation of this momentous event. It still beggars belief that they can think making their five default 'shelves' undeletable and in-yer-face is any way constructive, user-friendly or displays the slightest trace of intelligence or adeptitude. I can only dream that when the ebooks store eventually goes live somebody at Google will realise that the current user libraries design needs binning. We live in hope.

The second announcement is of course Microsoft's direct attack on Google Docs with online apps of their own: Office 2010 will include "Office Web Apps". OK, fine. I am not particularly interested in who fights who for what share of the online apps market - so long as there IS a lively and developing online apps market. What does interest me is this quote from the BBC's piece on the subject:

"Crucially, Microsoft will also offer its online office suite to all users of one of the world's most popular social networking sites, Facebook."

Crucial? More like gimmicky - at least that's what first sprang to my mind. I have written many times about what Facebook is for - what users really want it for. It's really not for business, except as a benign adjunct to a much wider web presence. Social networking sites are really exactly that - exactly what the term 'social networking' implies. So do FB users really want to access, create and store Worddocs, spreadsheets and all that 'work' related stuff directly from their FB account? Somehow I expect that instead they will be slightly bemused - as they are by many of Facebook's tweaks and attempted innovations.

But hang on a minute.

Google Docs is the trail-blazing serious cloud-computing place for both business and individuals. However, it has been around a while now in internet terms, but as the BBC report states:

"Google Docs currently has a small (4%) but growing share of the [business] market."

Everybody recognises that cloud-computing is the way forward - for everbody. However, few businesses and individuals have made the switch so far. They don't really need to at the moment. Even cloud-computing evangelists like us at Glanton still have our hard drives cluttered up with MS Office, OpenOffice and all the bits and pieces of 'traditional' and fantastically wasteful home and office computing.

So what are Microsoft and Facebook playing at? It can only be grooming.

Grooming users to first realise there IS an online apps / cloud-computing universe out there; then accept it; then use it; then wonder how they ever lived without it. Office Web Apps at Facebook is not an end in itself. It is simply a (possibly) very clever way to worm their way into the consciousness of a very large user group. It may take some time to have any effect, but I believe the Facebook connection will fade in time as its job is done.

The success of this move may well start to show in the next few hardware buying cycles. If the FB user - now accepting the concept of cloud-computing - can buy a new laptop relatively cheap because it actually has fairly limited hard disk space and no bundled software packages like the traditional MS Office, but does have free access to Microsoft's new Office Web Apps - then they are going to be tempted aren't they? Or they will have learnt enough to know that they don't even need the access to MS Office Web Apps because they have already become a free Google Docs user.

When I find myself buying my next computer I am sure that is what I'll be looking for.

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Sunday 18 April 2010

Volcanic Fallout: How Did Your Company Shape Up?

Ongoing air travel and transport chaos in Europe caused by the size of the ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano has brought the fragility of our express/last-minute/on-demand civilisation into sharp focus and demonstrated just how at-risk our way of life is from natural disaster or catastrophe. It used to be called Act of God. Despite the minimal risk to human life on the mainland of Europe, this event still qualifies as a disaster because of the disruption and the knock-on effects worldwide.

This is not the place to try and sort out the huge problems piling up for Kenyan farmers for example, but we can look at the day-to-day running of our companies - the flow of information within the company and that flow's relationship with the movement and physical interaction of personnel within the company and with customers and clients.

In other words, we should be asking ourselves, "How did we, or how are we shaping up?" in the face of these problems.

This is not a new idea of course. Since the beginning of the Digital Age people have been looking at ways to wire up their businesses better and find ways to make the journeys of company personnel less and less necessary. Every disaster, whether it be local or global, has (or should have) inspired companies affected to re-examine their modus operandi. Unfortunately however, human nature being what it is, good intentions are liable to be forgotten in prolonged times of comfort and relatively easy mass travel. We get sloppy.

The European Volcanic Ash Cloud Disaster has had a very specific victim: jet air transport. Hopefully nobody is dying. Nobody is being made homeless. Or starving. And all telecoms are working normally. But it is beyond our control.

However, one of the things a company can actually control is the movement of its employees and consider whether disrupted journeys were really necessary in the first place. Clearly many journeys are necessary - I don't want to suggest anyone goes the way attempted by George Clooney's character's company in the rather disturbing film Up In The Air. For those unfamiliar with the plot, George Clooney plays a professional 'executioner' working for a company which is employed by other companies to come in and physically make all the redundancies. The result is that George Clooney spends most of his life in the air between appointments to downsize businesses. One of the central themes of the movie is his employer's attempts to do the whole thing by video link from head office, so doing away with George Clooney's travel and the personal and physical face-to-face meeting with the about-to-be-jobless. The scheme is a disaster, and the value of the genuine face-to-face meeting in such trying circumstances is proved.

So any George Clooney characters caught up in the Volcanic Ash Disaster will just have to get on with it the best they can and go to ground until it all blows over. Similarly the likes of the trade exhibition planned months before will just have to be cancelled. And on the customer side I am assuming that you have placed warnings about despatch and delivery times on e-commerce operations you may run.

But what businesses can do is check and overhaul their existing internal online systems and work out which areas could or should be done better.

Some questions:

Does your company have an Intranet?

If so, does it really work properly, and do your employees really use it to its potential? Or is it only used by a few geeky types at head office?

Are you cloud-computing? (Perhaps an unfortunate term under the circumstances). Are your employees able to work effectively from home, a hotel room or the hotspot in an airport?

Do you use Skype for Business?

Do you use Yammer?

Some other internal instant messaging service?

Was your cancelled international business meeting in Frankfurt on 19 April re-arranged with online white boards, screen and file sharing and video? If not, why not?

Do you do most of your in-house training online? (See our image at right).

Now clearly some of these questions cover similar ground and some won't be relevant to particular businesses. But can you put your hand on your heart and say that your company does the best possible job with the tools available online to minimise disruption inside your business in the face of a disaster preventing travel?


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Sunday 11 April 2010

Customisation or control-freakery?

Those of you accustomed to watching 'free' live sport, football for example, on one of the mildly dodgy TV feed websites, will recognise the following scenario.

You wait for the stream to load and the first thing that happens is the screen is obscured by a click-through advertisement. Sometimes it will be announced that the ad will close in 20 seconds, sometimes you are given a 'close' button after a short interval. You wait patiently for one of these options - well you have to, don't you? You are doing something a bit naughty and for free, so advertisements come with the territory. These ads are liable to reappear at regular intervals throughout the 90 minutes of football.

Presumably - however puzzling you or I might find it - these advertisers are not wasting their money and are getting a return of some sort in visits and sales. You or I might not dream of ever clicking on such an ad, but we recognise that somebody must be.

But now there is a new little comic twist to the process: sometimes when the 'close' button appears, it is not quite what it seems. Presumably controlled by a length of javascript, this button, when approached by mouse, jumps to left or right, committing the slow-of-reaction amongst us to clicking on the pesky advertisement afterall. What is our reaction to this cheap trick? Universally unprintable I would imagine. Do we smile and say, "Oh well, I might as well buy this thing now I am here because these nice people are obviously so proud of their thing that they will try any funny trick to get me to their website" ?? Oh yeah, sure we do.

(This is not necessarily a capture of a jumping 'close' button - it may be one that isn't. However the jumpers look very similar to this.)

So who is responsible for this advertising aberration? Not real advertising people that's for sure. It must come from the techies - the people who wrote the javascript or run the dodgy website. Yes, they are cute and clever, but they apparently know Sweet Felicity Arkwright about advertising or public relations or any basic social skill. Somehow they have managed to sell the trick to the customers wanting to place the ad, who themselves are clearly lacking in advice from real advertising people. The last thing any proper advertising person wants is for the potential customer to be confronted by the product with pre-raised hackles, steam coming out their ears, "Oh shit" on their lips and an automatic and irreversible feeling of antipathy towards the product and all who sail in her. The percentage of potential customers must be pretty small anyway for this kind of click-through advertising - something akin to spam emailing. But with added trickery? Surely any potential must evaporate completely...

Now I have blogged previously about allowing the silver-surfer (or non-surfing) suits with no adeptitude too much power and control over web content and design. But the reverse is also true. Don't let the inept tunnel-vision techies take over the asylum either!

Which brings me nicely, if a teeny-weeny bit unfairly, to Google. Not Buzz, the current number one hot Google topic, but an old standby, Google Books. And not for the usual reasons to do with copyright, access rights, intellectual ownership, commercial interests and so on. No - like the above naff ad trick - this is about bad design, presumably inspired by techie know-how, but little in the way of common sense and logic.

First let me state my position clearly. I am a huge fan of Google Books. The basic concept of scanning and making available - free - online as many complete, out-of-copyright books as they can lay their hands on is one of THE great successes of the digital age. It has long since become a resource without parallel and it grows all the time. When I wear my naval and family history research hats I am constantly aware of how much Google Books has helped my work - so saying it has 'changed my life' is not an exaggeration.

For my research purposes I have a 'Library' at Google Books - literally a bookmarking system. These bookmarks can be divided up into folders, or what they now call 'shelves'. And this is where the problems start.

Not satisfied with simply being an online repository of digitalised books, Google have decided they should ape the likes of and become a social networking book site too. OK, if people want to use Google Books like that, then fine. However, despite all Google's claims about customisability within users' 'libraries', the SN element has taken over: it is right up front, in-yer-face and unavoidable. They have created five default 'shelves' called 'Favorites', 'Reviewed', 'Reading Now', 'To Read' and 'Have Read'. Yes, you can create your own shelves as well - this is the user customisation part. Currently I have 22 of them. These user-created 'shelves' are customisable to the extent you can make them public or private and, most importantly, delete them if you don't need them anymore.

But the five default 'shelves' are un-deletable. (You can make most of them private - but where's the logic in that?) Furthermore these five 'shelves' are stuck permanently at the top of your list, taking up hectares of extremely valuable real estate on the start page of your 'library'. WHY?

Have a look at the capture of my Google Books 'library' full-size by clicking on the image below:

As you will see, four of my five default shelves are empty. (The other, 'Favorites', Google populates for you automatically.) These shelves will always be empty. I don't want, or have any need to use them. I would like to delete them. What kind of techie control-freakery makes Google think it is cute to lumber me with shelves I am never, ever going to use? The image above left shows the drop-down 'Options' box for the 'Reviewed' un-deletable shelf. It looks just like this for the other four compulsory shelves. Why? Why set something up to be customisable and then remove some of the options? Below left shows what it should look like: this is the drop-down options for user-created shelves with all the options active, including 'delete shelf'.

You can't even make the 'Reviewed' shelf private - what are Google going to do? Order me to review books in my library and ban me from Google Books if I refuse? (Reviews of the books in my particular library would be the most boring of all time: what on earth could I say about Navy Lists, Army Lists, The Annual Register and Parliamentary Papers from the mid 19th Century? And I am certainly not going to mark them up as 'To Read', 'Have Read' or 'Reading Now' as these concepts are completely irrelevant for what is essentially a reference library!)

Yes, of course, if you want to use the social networking aspects of Google Books, then fine. Use them. But how many people are there like me who find this a useless bore? Google may imagine they will get some useful statistics from this set up: perhaps the "Most Read Book" or the "The Book Most Commonly On Users' Shelves, But Left Unread." (Something by Richard Dawkins? - he commented mischievously).

But Google can't force me to fill in those five shelves, so why not let me remove them? Empty shelves are no help for their statistics - other than to show how many people don't want them. And in this day and age of almost infinite customisation possibilities - so well exemplified by the likes of DotNetNuke - it is actually so easy to get it right. Why don't Google Books borrow some ideas from their stablemates, Google Blogger and iGoogle? It is almost as if the Google Books team are working in a vacuum, unaware of what goes in other arms of the business, and the current incarnation of their interface is simply, well, shabby. Real customisation, that's the key.

This Google Books aberration looks to me like a classic example of unjoined dots and ducks not in rows. Somebody has looked at what the techies have suggested and waved it through without any logical scrutiny. Google's defence will no doubt be that Books is still really in 'beta'. But I am sorry that just won't wash: this daft set up has been around for far too many weeks now for them to use that feeble excuse. (And yes, I have filled in a couple of feedback forms in recent weeks pointing out to them just how daft the current set-up is.)

Unless of course Google really does have some sinister ulterior motive and are going to insist that all Google Books Library users tell the world what books they have or haven't read and write reviews of them!

It might seem far-fetched to criticise in the same breath both a darkside and counter-productive advertising trick and the inept counter-customisation design produced by an Internet giant who should, and usually does know better. But when the details are stripped away, it is clear to me that both aberrations have the same distant pedigree: they are the result of too much reliance on techie expertise and a culture of control-freakery, rather than the application of good old marketing common sense.

As I wrote last year in a different attack on bad design, "Don't do it just because you can; do it because you should."

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Sunday 21 March 2010

A Wish List

During my long winter break I considered posting a list of New Year Social Media and Networking predictions. But before I had even licked my pencil I had been overtaken by several unforeseen events which convinced me that the predictions circus was a mug's game. If you are proved right, then, despite the vanity gold star you award yourself, to the rest of the world it was obvious, wasn't it? And nobody even notices. Alternatively being proved wrong only demonstrates how far your finger was (and by implication probably still is) from the digital pulse. Your predictions are in danger of becoming the objects of ridicule, rather in the way the Tomorrow's World [BBC] episodes from the Sixties are often unkindly laughed at for having been way off the money.

So to avoid the elephant traps I have a Social Media and Networking Wish List instead - much safer ground and hopefully more useful. Just two wishes for the Common Man: for somebody with a proper job and plenty of Internet adeptitude, but somebody who simply doesn't have the time to spend twenty hours a day in congress with the Internet.

First Wish

Twitter. I have one wish that would make my experience of Twitter far more satisfactory by thoroughly speeding up admin. I like Twitter a lot: I find it an excellent feed-reader alternative and combination news/info propagator and harvester. However, a lot of slime-dwellers also imagine Twitter to be wonderful for their dubious and spam-ridden activities too. 95% of accounts that try to follow me fall into this category, it saddens me to say. I don't want to discourage the genuine and friendly 5%, so I allow people to follow my accounts and I get an email announcement to that effect. However, this is what the email looks like:

It can be seen that the only information provided about the new follower is their Twitter handle and the numbers of their followers and followees, and their tweets. Of course if they have only made one tweet and are following 943 and are only followed by 7, then I know instantly that I am going to block them. I do follow my own Twitter Rules! However there are plenty of people with an apparently reasonable balance between following and followed and a healthy number of tweets who I will block immediately I see their profile bio and site link (or lack of same).

So, dear Twitter, my wish is this: put the potential follower's full profile in the email so I don't have to log on every time to see what they are up to. And while you are at it, stick a 'block' link in the email too - rather like the 'unsubscibe' link in a group/forum/discussion board email. Then I will be able to perform all my admin duties straight from my inbox, saving one or two of those valuable clicks.

Second Wish

Social Networking (no, not just Facebook).

A 'given' about email: If you have an email account you can send to, and receive from, anyone else who has an email account. Blindingly obvious. That's how it works.

But if you want to 'social network' you must sign up with a seperate provider, Facebook, Myspace, Google Buzz, Wave or - probably - Tsunami. I actually suspect all these things are becoming way too complicated and particularly time-consuming for my Common Man described above. Google Buzz and Wave are, or are going to be, very clever, but it seems to me I would have to live there the whole time - and so would my friends - to make use of them. I want email. And then I want an SN service for family and friends and colleagues where I can share photos and video and gossip and a bit of blah-blah. In my own time, when I want. I am sure my Common Man feels the same way.

In Germany there is an SN service called StudiVZ which started in very much the same way as FB - social networking for German speaking students. My step-daughters started SN with StudiVZ and then joined Facebook as well when they realised that if, for example, they wanted to be 'friends' with me or their mother, or my sister, or a bunch of people in Greece, they had no other choice. And a lot of their 'friends' at StudiVZ are in the same position. And the same applies to LinkedIn, the business and career-orientated social network. Yes, it is now possible to squirt different social networking news feeds into other services, or use one of numerous consolidation sites which put all your social networking stuff on one page.

But why? Why is this necessary? Why do I have to have all these accounts and spend hours fiddling about getting the whole bag-of-mashings set up just how I want it (or maybe failing to do so)?

No one would tolerate this situation if it applied to email - it would be a joke.

My dream is about a generic 'social networking facility' linked with all webmail accounts. When you signed up for a webmail account you could automatically get 'SN Access', just like the way Google gives you access to Calendar, Books and so on (including their own Buzz), when you have a Gmail account.

If you chose not to activate or use it, you wouldn't have to. If you are already an account holder at Facebook you would tie your email identity to your FB one so that all your FB stuff was sucked into the SN skin in the tab next to your email. And your LinkedIn account, and StudiVZ... The skin and use of apps would be totally customisable. The only thing you would have to accept would be targetted plain ads in the right column, à la Google. (These ads would be sold and placed by your particular email/SN provider. And if you wanted to pay for your account you could avoid the ads altogether.)

But if you didn't already have any of the individual branded SN accounts, the fact that you had activated the SN part of your email account would automatically make it possible to be friends with anyone from any of the individual SN sites. Conversely they could search for you and add you to their Facebook account or their generic 'SN account' just like yours.

So, to put it another way, having an account at Facebook, Myspace or StudiVZ would be the social networking equivalent of having an email account with AOL, Google, Hotmail, Talktalk, Btinternet, &c. &c. But in the end of course, all the individual SN sites would become redundant because SN would simply become a sibling of email. Note: I am not advocating that email and SN should be mixed up on the same page in the way that Google seem to be heading - their roles are too distinct in my opinion. Tabbed would be fine. And within the SN tab you could of course tab or group (ring-fence if you like) your contacts according to status: family; friends; business; hobbies, although individuals could be in more than one group. (Think of it graphically like a Venn Diagram). For instance, you might have a sister-in-law who is in the same line of work as you, so she would be in your 'family' and 'business' groups, but her other business contacts couldn't see her family contacts or feeds - or the family-related part of her profile.

And you would of course have total control over exactly how much and which personal info goes into each part of your profile.

This is my wish for Social Networking for the coming decade.

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