Facebook Connecting

•July 8, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Friendship is a strange creature, and with social media, the definition itself is changing. But is it for the better… or for the worse?

Adding anyone as “friend” on Facebook is simple. You could have known them your whole life, or just met them. It makes little difference to the social network, and your interaction is exactly the same. The people who see your status messages and read your latest wall posts are part of a single mass of connections. They are privy to your opinions and emotions; they have a level of intimacy with you that in previous times would have been reserved for our nearest and dearest. What kind of impact does this have on us? On our psychology? On our concept of friendship?
A recent Associated Press article states that divorce lawyers are finding social networks increasingly useful.

“People are just blabbing things all over Facebook. People don’t yet quite connect that what they’re saying in their divorce cases is completely different from what they’re saying on Facebook. It doesn’t even occur to them that they’d be found out,” divorce attorney Leslie Matthews says.

It’s natural to trust your friends, but what happens when everyone you’ve ever met becomes a “friend”?
Mashable has an article by Ori Brafman, co-author of a book on instant connections, which raises this question.

Working with his brother, a psychologist, to research what makes people form instant connections, Brafman found that Facebook lacks many of the “accelerators” that trigger or enable the deep bonds we form in real life.

Instead of meeting people who are close to us and who we can see all the time, sharing secrets with them and forming the cliques that give us a sense of belonging and unity, Facebook and social networks like it encourage us to reach out to strangers, to trust everyone and to belong to one giant global community.

More, not deeper
Social psychologists believe communication is an important factor in establishing friendships, but the sending and receiving of verbal and written messages goes alongside other factors like similarity, personal attraction and non-verbal cues.

“In their interactions with each other, humans display complex interpersonal dynamics. Their overt actions hide covert patterns of interaction,” summarises Kate Grieve, author of A Student’s A-Z of Psychology.
In the digital age, we know more people and spend more time with them, but the bonds we share are thinner, as our friendships through these networks lack depth.

Facebook’s original mission was to reconnect you with the people you already knew, letting you form intimate groups online where you could share recent experiences and photographs. Now things have changed… Facebook encourages you to connect with “everyone”, or at the very least, “friends of friends”, much in the way MySpace used to, toting slogans all about “open” and “instant”.

Your special little network on Facebook has become much bigger, encompassing not only those who you’d share your deepest, darkest secrets with, but everyone you’ve ever met. While this is still useful in its own way, it places limits on how close a relationship you can form.

The solution may lie in balancing our online relationships with real interaction with the people in our lives, and being extra careful about what we say to everyone else.

(originally posted at Digital Life)

The future of television

•June 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Last week, two “nobodies” released their own TV series. Backed by the world’s biggest peer-to-peer file-sharing conglomerate, the pilot is expected to be viewed by over a million people – more than network TV pilots can hope for. Is this the future of television?

Called Pioneer One, the double meaning in the title cannot be missed. The series is about a forgotten Soviet space mission that returns to Earth, bringing back more than just the past. According to the site, “It’s part political drama, part procedural drama, with a tinge of sci-fi,” and is based on factual events. The other thing it is, of course, is a pioneer into a new age of television distribution.

“One of the main challenges that independent content producers face today is not piracy, but finding ways to get their work noticed,” says P2P news site TorrentFreak.

“There’s only so much of that TV pie to go around, there’s only so much real estate on the networks,” co-creator Josh Bernard explains. “We would have to storm the gate just to get a meeting with somebody. Why would they pick a show from two nobodies outside their industry?”

So he and partner Bracey Smith created their pilot relying on donations and dedication from a cast and crew that believed in the dream. The dream is not only to produce a TV show, but also to create something that does not rely on the taste of bigwigs in an office around a conference table, but on the passion of the show’s fans, on its popularity.

This is a dream that the distribution channel, VODO, shares. VODO is a platform powered by BitTorrent, which uses peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing to release independent films and music, funded by donations. Founder Jamie King says he hopes to develop “an independent creation culture on P2P infrastructure”.

Pioneer One
is distributed for free, but if you donate towards the creation of the next episode, you receive additional bonus features such as deleted scenes and commentary (features vary depending on how much you donate).

Previous pioneers

Pioneer to this level of P2P distribution it might be, but the series is certainly not the first to use the “pay what you think the show deserves” model.

The model was first used for music. The Smashing Pumpkins and Radioheadboth released albums online and encouraged fans to donate what they thought the tracks were worth. Radiohead’s manager, Brian Message, explained: “We realised that, by using the internet for the delivery of the album, we could reach 173 countries and it would cost us less than three cents a copy for distribution.”
It makes logical sense.

More recently, Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, came to similar conclusions to Bernard and Smith. During the writer’s strike in 2008, he decided to challenge the industry by creating a three-part movie release specifically for online.

“The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it; to turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet; to show how much could be done with very little, and show the world there is another way,” he said.

The movie, called Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,was a superhero spoof musical, and it became an instant success. The online episodes were available for free for a certain period and then DVDs were released with commentary for those who wished to support the initiative.

While others have created “webisodes” – series broadcast online – Dr Horrible proved that online does not necessarily mean amateur and was a giant step towards improving the reputation of series that are released for free.

End to what we know?

So does the future hold an end to television as we know it?
Yes and no. The big networks aren’t going to die any time soon. As with traditional publishers of books and editors of titles like the New York Times, people rely on the quality control of the television networks. They know what they see is probably going to be good.

There is, however, space for both. The television networks don’t need to compete with people like Bernard and Smith, and they don’t need to treat P2P networks like enemies. The technology exists for them to cut down their distribution costs radically, if they are only more open to the idea of free sharing. There is also the opportunity for them to tap into talent, have their shows reviewed before they accept them by putting pilots online, and to bring in public opinion and crowd-sourcing. Perhaps, one day, we will see this happening. Perhaps soon.

Originally posted at Digital Life

Is the Internet controlling your brain?

•June 10, 2010 • 3 Comments

The brain rewires itself to adjust to different information sources, claims a new book by Nicholas Carr entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

He believes that reading on the internet has changed how we think, causing skimming, browsing and scanning of information and making us incapable of deep thought.

A 2008 report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, backs up Carr’s claims finding “a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, ‘flicking’ behaviour in digital libraries.”

The way we read, according to the study, has altered. We no longer evaluate meaning, but rather scan for quick answers and are constantly distracted. And this distraction is addictive.

Carr told Reuters that when he was writing his book, he switched off Facebook and Twitter and restricted e-mail access. He went through a withdrawal process for a couple of weeks, where he felt “befuddled”, but after that, his concentration returned and his productivity drastically increased.

Other studies, including studies by Harvard and Princeton universities, have shown that human beings become addicted to fast thought because thinking fast gives us a feeling of elation. This may be why we find it so hard to just switch off our social networks. On 31 May, a large group of people held a “Quit Facebook Day”, committed to getting a significant number of users to delete their Facebook accounts due to privacy concerns, but the day was a flop, with only 30 000 people actually deciding to kick the habit (Facebook gets 840 000 new users per day ).

“Quitting Facebook isn’t easy,” the Quit Facebook Day group admits. “Facebook is engaging, enjoyable and, quite frankly, addictive. Quitting something like Facebook is like quitting smoking. It’s hard to stay on the wagon long enough to actually change your habits.”

There are a few applications around to help limit your social network usage. One such app is called “Freedom”. Blogger Rebecca Traister discovered the app, developed by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Ph.D. candidate Fred Stutzman, last year. “Even as a comparative Luddite,” she explains, “I find myself bewitched, bewildered and deeply bothered by the number of minutes, hours, days I spend circling the online drain.”

“Freedom”, which cuts off network access for a set amount of time, seemed the perfect solution. What she found, though, was she still experienced what she calls a “phantom limb period” when she desired to click everything and was surprised to find it didn’t work. Her productivity did increase but after weeks of using the app, she still battled to switch it on for more than 15 minutes at a time.

It seems our lives are governed by this new media, perhaps more than we are willing to admit. However, it’s not all bad. According to Carr, our brains have also become more adept at making fast, visual decisions and at finding valuable information segments quickly.

It seems that different does not necessarily mean bad. The internet itself is not necessarily evil, but the research of Carr and others shows we need to be weary of our use of it, and of how much control we are giving to it.

Originally posted here

Will planned paywalling save the press?

•May 27, 2010 • Leave a Comment

News International has announced that as of next month, content on the websites of The Times and Sunday Times newspapers in the UK will be charged for. This method is called “paywalling” and it’s aimed to be the answer to a declining press.

“Our feeling is that it is time to stop giving away our journalism. That’s because we feel that we are undermining the value of our journalism, undermining the value of The Times and undermining the perception that journalism and news has a value,” said editor James Harding

Will planned paywalling save the press?There is no doubt that print revenue is falling. With the increasing prevalence of internet access, the collapse of advertising revenue in print media and the economic decline, some are going so far as to say it is on its last legs. Newspaper revenue fell 28% in the first three quarters of 2009 and nearly 15 000 newspaper employees were laid off.

In a hurry to transition into the technological age and not lose out to the likes of Google and Yahoo! News, many publications started putting their content online. But advertising does not bring in as much online and, in the words of NBC Universal’s CEO Jeff Zucker, publications are “spending analogue dollars to get digital dimes”. This has to change and “paywalling”  – charging for that content – is one way of doing it.
The theory that people will pay to access the content online comes from the idea that they still value the content the same as they always have, but with cheaper and easier distribution now (i.e. online) would rather not pay for paper. These people would, however, be willing to pay a lower price to access the same content digitally. This theory assumes a value for journalism: in-depth, truthful and balanced stories.
But is this the case?
The Wall Street Journal has made a success of it, with about 407 000 electronic subscribers, enough to keep the print publication going. But The Wall Street Journal has a very specific audience and offers highly specialised content. Charging for general news is another story entirely, and one that even News International isn’t sure will work.

One problem is that people in the digital age have grown used to finding that content for free. Another problem is that paywalling means the sites will not be indexed by search engines and will not be exposed to non-subscribers at all. That means an immediate loss of up to 20% of their traffic. It’s a brave move to make, but not necessarily a wise one.

Also something to take into account is that our reading habits for online are incredibly different from those at the breakfast table or on the beach. Studies have shown that we do not even read entire articles, let alone entire publications: we click around, we become distracted.

A recent study by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that not even the content is the same. The things we talk about and share with each other on social networks are markedly different from those we read in the news. We consume a different kind of journalism now – short-form, tweeted, pasted, blogged. Gone are the days of the long-form stories found in The New York Times. At least online.

This is something The New York Times might want to consider seeing as they’ve recently announced that they will also be paywalling from the start of next year.

What The New York Times is doing, however, that is a bit different from The Times is what the Poynter Institute calls “a metered system”. Already tried out by the Financial Times, this system allows users to read a certain number of articles a day for free before being prompted to pay up. It’s a good system for the casual browser, but will it make them any money considering how little people enjoy reading on the computer screen? Time will tell.

The fuss about the iPad
One point worth making is that tablets, like the iPad, may serve as some kind of salvation. By charging for applications and editions, the publications could make back some of their money. The question has to be asked, though: if you could get your news for free on your iPad browser from another source, even if it was just a blogger, would you still pay for an app just because it gave you “professional journalism”? Or is professional journalism itself a dying concept?

You can read our previous feature on blogging vs journalism here.

Originally posted at Digital Life

Update: Justice finds Anonymous

•May 25, 2010 • 1 Comment

Last year I posted about Freedom in the Time of 4Chan and 4Chan’s attack on Scientology under the name of “Anonymous”:

On 10 February 2008, thousands of 4chanians all over the world showed up outside churches in masks claiming the religion to be a cult. The protests in London, the USA, Canada and Australia were large enough to make the news. Many found the protests entertaining, particularly since several incorporated 4Chan memes. But what humour cannot hide is the fact that the protest was a strategically planned, coordinated attack that spanned the Internet-faring globe.

But could charges be brought against “Anonymous” for the attack? “Would limiting of freedom of speech in that case be justified?” I asked, “Our South African constitution says “Yes”. It excludes hate speech from that freedom.” Secondly I asked, “would it be possible? The outcry of 4Chan still echoing around the Internet says, “No”… Aside from anonymity, the update rate of the site is so fast that posts become unavailable before they can be reported, let alone traced to an IP.”

Today I was surprised to read that one of the members of “Anonymous” has been jailed.

According to the Associated Press: “Brian Thomas Mettenbrink, of Grand Island, Neb., was also ordered Monday to pay $20,000 in restitution and serve a year on supervised release after he gets out of prison.”

Says The Register:

“As part of an earlier plea bargaining agreement, Mettenbrink admitted using custom software from a message board run by Anonymous to throw useless traffic at Church of Scientology websites. Some sites became intermittently unavailable in January 2008 as a result of the efforts of Mettenbrink and many others.”

The judge justified the sentence by calling the attack a “Hate Crime”.

If it is possible to jail a man despite the anonymity provided by 4Chan, perhaps we will begin to see justice served for others who have fallen prey to the message board.

Why Facebook’s new stuff is scary

•May 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

(X posted from article I did for the DigitalLife Newsletter)

Privacy worries are something for conspiracy theorists and paranoid nerds, aren’t they? What does it mean for me, a normal person with not much to say to the world? Surely no one is all that interested in what’s going on in my life? If this is your thought process… you’re wrong.

Last month, Facebook unleashed something called “Open Graph”, a platform that shares your information with other sites so that these sites can tailor their services and offers to your personal interests. Such sites include Pandora, Yola, Microsoft and, well, 100 000 others (as of last week Tuesday).

There are many positive aspects to the service – it taps into an already-built database of your likes and dislikes and those of your friends. It also goes a long way towards creating what they call a Semantic Web – with everything connected to everything else, able to be categorised and indexed mechanically, as envisioned by the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.

So what’s the problem?

From Leon Pals Entrepreneur and founder of Zwirt via Next Web ShareablesOpen Graph gives web developers access to your personal information. Even if you go through the complicated process of opting out, your information can still be shared through your friends. And that data can be stored on the site for longer than 24 hours. In order to grab your personal info, webdevs need only drop a single line of HTML into a website to search Facebook for information on users. This can be, as intended, really convenient when you go to a site and it automatically tailors its service for you. However, it can also be abused.

A new site called OpenBook was developed to create awareness of these possible abuses. It uses only the API that Facebook makes so easily available to allow you to search every facebook newsfeed for embarrassing information such as “cheat test” and “boss is an asshole”… and the results come up with profile pictures of the posters. Why don’t you try searching for that status you just posted? What happens if your boss or teacher or nemesis tries searching for something similar and stumbles upon yours? Do you really feel as safe saying what’s on your mind now?

Facebook vs Privacy

Facebook seems to have a thing against privacy. Actually, Facebook’s creator and CEO Mark Zuckerburg does. He follows a philosophy that privacy is an outdated concept, that the social norm is now to share everything. But as true as that may be, privacy amounts to more than that. It’s about safety, which is why various organisations, including the Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, have a problem with it.

Facebook’s privacy policy has changed so completely and so often since the site first started in 2007 that most users no longer have a clue where they stand. Opting out is easier said than done.
Of course, this is because Facebook does not really want you to opt out. While you are opted in, you are making them money. As the Canadian Privacy Commission says, your data is a hot commodity. Facebook has faced enquiries over its apps before for this reason – because many of the surveys, quizzes and games on Facebook, developed by third parties, aim to get your personal data, collect it and sell it. And now third parties don’t even have to develop applications to obtain that information; you don’t even have to click the “approve” button anymore.

What does this mean for you? It means more spam, more catalogues, more advertising targeted specifically at you. It also means that, with that data freely available to the world, decisions are made about you without you even being asked. Employers, judges, teachers, all have access to every status update you make, every group you join. Is this really okay with you?

Forget about stalkers and horror stories of Facebook murders, the real worries are much more malignant.

Read more here

Internet Culture

•May 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Mashable has posted a great interview with Cheezburger Network CEO, Ben Huh (below). He explores the answer to the question: what is Internet culture? Where does it come from?

The Cheezburger Network has become widely successful in the past few years by cataloguing and cashing in on Internet memes. The most well-known is possibly the LOLCat – captioned pictures of cats that took the Internet by storm. The interview is certainly worth a look.