The Toolbar Community

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I’m really intrigued by the return of the toolbar. Only now it’s not a toolbar. It’s more of a ribbon that appears in your browser on certain sites. Facebook started it but have oddly put it at the bottom of the screen:

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Facebook Connect, which I was so rude about yesterday, extends this idea.

NYT has just launched its own TimesPeople (above) which allows you to see what friends who are also registered with the service are recommending.

The whole idea, of course, is to keep eyeballs on the site in question by building a community around it. If I get suggestions from people I like/trust then I’m more likely to read them than if the NYT recommends them.

Facebook Connect takes this a stage further. Instead of the community being within the site itself, it’s an external community—on Facebook—that moves with the user. In essence it leverages the Facebook community you already have so third party sites can profit from that: If I like something on a Facebook Connect site, then my Facebook buddies will all trot along and read it.

All this is a good idea if you are a website. Media sites like NYT are fighting the mobility of information—the fact that it’s just as likely I’ll read a NYT piece off their website as on it. (Either through an RSS reader, or because someone has cross-posted it or part of it.) What all websites want to do is to keep their readers within the site, and building a community is a good way to do that.

The toolbar is a useful way to do this, since the technology now is available to do this pretty well (TimesPeople’s bugginess aside) without the user having to install anything. If you don’t want the toolbar you can get rid of it easily.

Facebook’s own toolbar is also pretty unobtrusive. Facebook Connect is more intrusive, at least in its introduction, but has received mostly positive reviews. Once signed in you’ll be able to see your friends who are on the same site, and their friends, and hook up with other Facebook users who are on the site. Privacy is an issue here: Do you want your boss to see you pop up on a celebrity site in the middle of the workday?

That aside, a pattern for the future emerges pretty clearly: media companies believe they’ve found a way to differentiate themselves from smaller outfits—blogs, basically—and to build on their volume of content by encouraging communities within their walled gardens. NYT may be big enough to do this: If I visit the NYT site to read a story, I would consider it a useful service to see a list of stories recommended by my NYT buddies.

But it’s still a pain to have to build yet another community around you for each site that offers the service. This is where Facebook Connect comes in. Don’t build a new community; just bring your Facebook community with you.

Community companies lke Facebook are happy to help them build that because they are not creating content themselves, and they have found there’s not enough within their sites to monetise sufficiently. So they have something media companies want to buy—readymade communities of shared interest who can act as recommendation engines to make their websites more sticky.

Facebook etc are so much more powerful and monetisable, in short, if they’re not wedded to the website. That for now means other websites, but of course down the road it could mean physical space too. Think Facebook on your location-aware iPhone able to find books in a shop recommended by your friends, perhaps?

Whether my Facebook community is quite as transferable as it may seem is the question. I have a lot of good friends on Facebook, but I’m not sure our interests overlap that much. In fact, I’d say I’ve got several overlapping online communities of friends and acquaintances, some better suited to others for this kind of thing. My twitter community is little different to my plurk community, to my LinkedIn community and my Facebook community.

Still, TimesPeople is an interesting start.

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South Ossetia: The First Cyber/Physical War?

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BBC picture

Wikipedia is doing a good job of chronicling the war in South Ossetia; its mention of several apparent cyberattacks on both sides makes me wonder whether this is the first instance of a physical war being accompanied by a cyberwar? All those listed on Wikipedia are not parallel attacks, i.e. they are not part of an actual physical war.

So far the attacks have been by Georgian supporters on two Ossetian media sites, and attacks by supporters of South Ossetia on the Georgian National Bank website and the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which was reportedly splashed with a collage of of Saakashvili and Hitler photos.) The Georgian news site, Civil Georgia that reported the attacks on the South Ossetian websites itself now appears to be down.

Some attacks appear to preceded the war, suggesting that they were part of a deliberate build-up ahead of the entry of Russian troops into South Ossetia. On July 21 the Georgian president’s website was attacked. I wasn’t able to access the website as of early Aug 9. While tensions have been growing between Georgia and Russia for several weeks, it seems clear that the botnet involved in this attack was set up for this purpose only a few weeks ago.

Of course, none of this means that it’s done at an official level. But it’s interesting that at a time the Georgians and the South Ossetians would presumably like to get their sides of the story out, they can’t because their websites, official and unofficial, are down.

As the Georgian ambassador to the UK put it to Al Jazeera:

“Georgia has been attacked by a formidable force, it is a brutal attack with the use of air force, tanks and even the trademark cyber attack.”

“If this is not an all out war what is?” he asked.

War in South Ossetia (2008) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Update on Aug 12: some more links

http://lists.grok.org.uk/pipermail/full-disclosure/2008-August/063820.html

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-10014150-83.html