Tag Archives: co-founder

Revolutions, Lynch Mobs and Anonymity

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Column

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Tunisia in the midst of overthrowing a two-decade old regime. A new website that lets you answer and ask questions. And, in Thailand, a 16 year-old girl feels the full weight of the online public after being photographed using her cellphone after causing a deadly car crash.

OK, so what does a revolution, a boring sounding website and a lynch mob have in common?

The Internet has done something that perhaps we said we were ready for—and it turns out we’re not. It has not made us all members of a global village; it’s more like we’ve all been thrust into a very large room. This is great if the music’s good and the wine is flowing, or we’re all British and politely forming a line, but it’s hopeless if some of us get restless, or start pushing.

Chaos ensues.

There are several currents at work here. One is that as the Internet gets easier to use—and the reason why everyone uses Google and is on Facebook is because they’re so easy to use, let’s not forget—so the environment becomes collaborative. We want to share stuff, we want to contribute.

But there’s a counter-current at work too: as it gets easier to collaborate, so it gets easier to be combative. Any academic will tell you that if someone is anonymous—either because their identity is hidden, or because they’re in a big seething mass—then they behave differently to when they’re sipping tea with the vicar on a Sunday afternoon.

This is why you’ll see angry comments on even high-brow websites: These people are, for the most part, anonymous, or, they’re camouflaged. There’s some distance between them and the people they’re cussing. You don’t find people you know, for example, posting obscene messages on your Facebook wall. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Which is why a new website called Quora is such an interesting thing. The idea is simple: Someone posts a question and other members of the website post answers. Simple, And not particularly new. But somehow—so far—it works. The kinds of people who post answers seem to know what they’re talking about; indeed, more than a few times the person most likely to know the best answer answers. Like Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, who has answered questions on AOL, advice for entrepreneurs, and the chances of the Stanford Women’s soccer team of winning a national title.

Those who frequent Quora liken it to the early days of the Internet, when everyone was a bit more, well, laid back and helpful. I’ve yet to find a ‘doofus’ comment on Quora.

Of course there are other reasons why Quora is hot. Twitter may have helped us move information around more efficiently—and serendipitously—and Facebook has enabled us to share videos of our children and of strangers walking into fountains in malls while texting, but it’s left a hole in terms of finding a set of considered, serious answers to questions from people who aren’t anonymous—indeed, whose expertise is clearly annotated.

Going back to our big room thing, Facebook helps us peel off into a room with friends. LinkedIn with business contacts. Twitter with people we don’t necessarily know throwing out random tips and bits of gossip. Quora lets us wander into a room full of specialists and ask a question—or find a question that’s already been asked—and measure the quality of the answer by the qualifications of the person giving it.

This is good. But it may also be important. Tunisia wasn’t a Facebook revolution—they would have kept on fighting with or without Facebook—but clever use of Facebook, and blogs, and other Internet tools—helped focus their efforts and inspire them to keep going. And, perhaps most important, provide a source of independent and alternative information. In Tunisia, this worked well—fortuitously assisted by a clutch of WikiLeaks cables.

But it doesn’t always work this way. Tunisians already knew their situation was dire, and their government even more so. The Internet gave them access to information and organization that helped galvanize and convince them of the legitimacy of their cause.

But the Internet can just as easily give poor information and lead people astray. Take the Thai lynch mob—incensed by a photo that seemed to suggest  the teenager’s callous disregard for the tragedy she’d unleashed. Based on that photo alone Internet users launched a massive online hate campaign against her and her well-connected family.

They may have been right. But they had insufficient information to make that call. Instead of the Internet being a source of knowledge, a crowd-sourcing of information, it became a ramp for a stampede, an unruly mob fed by supposition, assumption and prejudice.

I don’t necessarily believe that something like Quora will help this. But I do believe there’s room for rooms in this online community we’ve created. We probably need to start thinking about this—not necessarily doing away with anonymity, but of finding ways to give greater credence to those who know what they’re talking about, and not get carried away by rumor, innuendo, or photos provided without context.

It might also help the foot soldiers of the next revolution, wherever that happens to be.

Piracy Helps Some Countries Grow

One can only imagine Bill Gates’ discomfort: Standing silently as the Romanian president told the world that pirated Microsoft software helped his country become what it is:

Pirated Microsoft Corp software helped Romania to build a vibrant technology industry, Romanian President Traian Basescu told the company’s co-founder Bill Gates on Thursday.

“Piracy,” Reuters quoted him as saying during a joint news conference to mark the opening of a Microsoft global technical center in the Romanian capital, “helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania.” True, but as Reuters points out, 70 percent of software used in Romania is pirated and salesmen still visit office buildings in central Bucharest to sell pirated CDs and DVDs.

(And to be fair to the prez, he did actually call piracy “a bad thing”, according to another report by the AP, and said that “became in the end an investment in friendship toward Microsoft and Bill Gates, an investment in educating the young generation in Romania which created the Romanians’ friendship with the computer.”)

Actually I’ve long had the sneaking suspicion that (a) this is true. In places like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines etc, the impressive and attractively priced range of pirated software available raises local savvy and interest in computing. When you can buy 100 software titles for the price of a Coke, what’s not to like? And this brings me to (b): the likes Microsoft, I suspect, actually don’t mind this situation too much, or at least may not hate it as much as they say.

I’m not the first to suggest this: Microsoft knows it can’t sell legit copies of Windows or Office to every user in these places. So it gives away what it can, or at least sells at a steep discount, to youngsters. Businesses it tries to wrestle to the ground. The rest it writes off. Sure, it would be great if lots of people bought legit copies, but better that younger people are getting hooked on it, rather than to the opposition (Linux, Ubuntu etc.) One day they’ll pay.

I’ve often wondered, for example, whether folk like Adobe and Microsoft actually aren’t at cross purposes. Sure, they’re both members of the Business Software Alliance, but whereas Microsoft know that it’s better to get a nation hooked on Windows even if it’s on pirate copies than to crack down and plunge it into the hands of the Open Source brigade, for Adobe it’s a different story. No one is really going to buy a copy of Photoshop ($400-$700), so the idea of getting them hooked doesn’t really count. Better to crack down as hard as possible, so those few who really do need it cough up. Better 10 legit copies sold now than 100 possible sales later.

Is that why Bill didn’t say anything?

Vmyths Up For Sale On eBay

Vmyths, the web site that takes a skeptical look a the anti-virus industry, is for sale on eBay: item 5762562547  at a starting bid of $200,000. (Or you can buy the whole thing for $280,000:

Vmyths.com is the leading independent voice in the computer security and computer virus industry. The site is owned by an investor not directly involved in the industry and is looking to sell the site to either another investor or to a someone directly involved in the industry that could benefit from the editorial exposure from being associated with the site. We have an exclusive contract to Rob Rosenberger, editor-at-large. The site comes with URL, all content, and rights to Rob’s contract.

Rob Rosenberger, the editor, explains in his newsletter (not available on the website at the time of writing) that co-founder Eric Robichaud wants to sell Vmyths, and he’s got experience selling websites on eBay. But our readers will want to know: “why now?” Robichaud called to say he’s riding on the coattails of a bombshell we dropped in our latest “Whisper” Update. He told me to announce the eBay auction in a special newsletter or he’d do it himself in an advertisement.

I’ve not always agreed with Vmyths, believing sometimes that a threat is a threat and not always a hype. But its skeptical approach has been a useful antidote to the often inflated claims made by some security vendors. Indeed, Rob’s fear is that one of the companies he has been most scathing of, Britain-based mi2g, could shut down one of their most vocal critics with a meager $200k bid. Oh, sure, I could still rant — but years of historical insight would disappear overnight.

That would definitely be a shame.

The New Search Wars

Search is getting big again. Will it work this time around?

Programs that search your hard drive have been around for a while, but few of them seem to last. There was Magellan, askSam (OK, still around, sort of), Altavista’s Desktop Search, dtSearch (still going strong) and Enfish (still around, barely breathing). That was in the 1990s. But it’s only recently we’ve seen folk get really excited about the space again: There’s X1, Tukaroo (bought out pre-launch by Ask Jeeves), HotBot Search, and now something called blinkx (thanks, Marjolein, for pointing it out.)

Blinkx was officially launched last month as “a free new search tool that thinks and links for you, eliminates the need for keywords or complex search methods, easily finding the information you seek whether it is on the Web, in the news or buried deep within files on your PC.” In other words, pretty much what the other guys do. I haven’t looked too closely at it, but the main idea, as co-founder Kathy Rittweger puts it, is easy search without the logistics: “By eliminating the mechanics of search, such as keywords or sorting through dozens of unqualified results, we drive users more quickly to their goal: finding something, even if they didn’t know it was there!”

That’s good, and I would have said before that that was the way to go, but nowadays I’m not so sure. I think that as disk space grows and people’s hard drives become more complex, different users need different grades of configurability. With most of these new search engines pitching to the ‘lite user’ there’s a danger the more serious document hunter gets left behind. It’s actually a simple calculation: Are you aiming at the casual user who is happy to stumble across a few documents they didn’t know they still had, or are you aiming at the user that needs to find all the documents relevant to their search?

Anyway, it’s good to see folk finally seeing this space for what it is: Horribly underserviced, full of missed opportunities and millions of folk lost on their own hard drives. With Google, Microsoft and others about to enter the fray, here’s hoping that we get something really good out of it.

Blogger Gets A New Look

Google has given Blogger a new look, courtesy of a company called Adaptive Path, “the industry’s leading user-experience consultancy”.

It’s not bad, certainly an improvement on the old interface. But is it enough to win over all the folk who have migrated to places like Typepad, which offer many more features? In a news release it’s clear the emphasis has been on ease of use: Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger, says, “Our goal for this redesign was to enable people who had never even heard of a blog to be publishing their own blog in less than five minutes.”

There are some new features: lots of new templates, comments, permanent pages (rather than just mere chronological archiving) and some other stuff. And, I think, it’s still free.