Tag Archives: social

The Google Dilemma

Once we lived in simpler times. Google was a search engine that made its money off ads that were based on what we searched for. Look for cocoa and you’d get an ad for hot chocolate alongside the search results. Google made lots of money from this and we got our hot chocolate.

This worked because the web was searchable. At the end of the 1990s there was no walled garden beyond the shrinking cabbage patches of early Internet service providers AOL and CompuServe: All the the web was there anxious to be indexed, to be searchable. Idealists wandered into the sunshine and spoke of a future when everything would be found and information would be free.

It was not to be. We’ve already seen some of the problems. When information is free—as in not in chains—people also expect it to be free—as in free beer. When we started relying on search engines to find what we needed online the process would only work if that information was free to Google and its ilk to index, which meant, for the most part, it had to be free to us to access. Result: Google made lots of money, and lots of news organisations had to die before new business models could be found.

But something else happened along the way. Google made its money from knowing us through what we searched for. We had a relationship with Google whether we realised it or not. Just by entering a search term we told them stuff about us, and that helped them help others to sell us stuff. We weren’t the customer; we were, in the now familiar argot, the product.

Then Facebook and twitter and other social networks came along and realised that the same could be true on a much bigger scale if we could be induced to enter a lot more information about ourselves. Soon our lives were online, including photos, videos, likes and dislikes, relationships, affiliations, locations, what we ate, wore, drank, listened to, bought, read.

All that data is even more valuable than the data Google collected on us. But the problem is that it’s not part of the web. Facebook is not really searchable outside Facebook—and it’s not very searchable within Facebook, if you’ve tried to find a link you remember sharing with someone back in October. So now Google is shut out of a big chunk of the web we thought would be forever open.

So Google invented its own social network. Well, two, but one failed: Remember Buzz, anyone? Google now has Google+ and in the past year it’s been pushing it so hard it’s beginning to look like Google has forgotten what made it good in the first place. Its most recent stunt: Incorporate a search on Google with a search of the Google+ network, which it calls, somewhat awkwardly, Search, Plus Your World.

The idea is simple: When you search for cocoa, you not only want a search of what the web has to say on the subject, but you are probably interested in what your friends on Google+ have to say on the matter, along with any photos and tidbits you may have shared yourself.

Many folk don’t like this. They not only feel Google has forgotten that simplicity and speed was what made the search engine the world’s default. They also question why Google assumes that its users are only interested in Google+, which is still a minor player in the social network stakes. Why no twitter, Facebook or other networks?

Google says these two giants aren’t playing ball, something both companies deny; it’s far from clear who’s telling the truth. But what is clear is that Google is grappling with a problem that threatens it more than anything thus far: The rise of social networks which it cannot access, and therefore not only limit its popularity as a search engine, but shut it out of lots of ad dollars.

Folk were already worried that Google was alienating users of its products—not just search, but documents, email, maps, RSS, calendars and the mobile operating system Android—by pushing them into joining Google+. Now they’re worried, in my view rightly so, that Google is jeopardising its core product, the one that makes it all its money, by fiddling search results to favor this new social network.

It’s unlikely, but if people start to abandon Google search in droves, the rest of the empire will collapse like those walled gardens of old.

Is Thinking Small The Future Of Software?

Is there a future for small, niche software?

Clay Shirky thinks so, based on his work at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he found that students were ignoring the idea of writing big, scaleable, software for the world (the ‘Web School’) they were developing small, very specific programs — ‘situated software’, as Clay calls it — which is ”designed for use by a specific social group, rather than for a generic set of ‘users’.”

Among the programs they wrote: one to describe and rate professors, one to coordinate group restaurant orders, another to coordinate group purchases of items where discounts could be obtained for bulk orders. Sounds parochial? You bet. That’s the idea.

“This, strangely, is a kind of progress, not because situated software will replace other kinds of applications, but because it mostly won’t. For all the value we get out of the current software ecosystem, it doesn’t include getting an application built for a handful of users to use for a few months. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see a new software niche, where communities get form-fit tools for very particular needs, tools that fail most previous test of design quality or success, but which nevertheless function well, because they are so well situated in the community that uses them.”

I don’t know enough to be able to say whether this is a broader trend, but I’d like to think it is. There’s a dozen things I wish my computer could do, from building chronologies to providing a ‘treemap’-style zoomworld of all the data I’ve collected over the years — which I’m sure very few other people would be interested in, but which would be of great use to a narrow few into that kind of thing. In the future, I’m sure, someone in my position would just sit down and code such programs myself in the evenings, maybe selling a few copies, maybe giving away a few.

Sadly I’m not smart enough to do that, but perhaps the future, as Clay suggests, will be a world full of people who program, rather than programmers, and the software ecosystem will be far, far more diverse than it is now. I hope so.

Loose Wire: The State We

Loose Wire: The State We Could Be in

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 28 March 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Voting in your underwear? Sounds an appealing proposition: the chance to exercise your constitutionally protected right without actually having to leave your home. You could be watching Frasier while working out which candidate you want to mess things up for you for the next three/four/25 years, based on criteria such as which one most closely resembles a Teletubby/Frasier’s brother Niles/your Aunt Maudlin.

Yes, the lure of Internet voting is coming around again. In May, soccer enthusiasts will be able to vote for their favourite players in the World Cup via a joint South Korean and Japanese project (mvp.worldcup2002.or.kr; the site is not fully functioning yet). This is just an on-line poll, of course, and doesn’t add much to the mix except to try to introduce a new social group (soccer fans) to the concept of on-line voting. Elsewhere, however, on-line voting is already kicking in: Some towns in Britain are undertaking pilot projects allowing voters to choose their local councillors via the Internet, or even via SMS, in borough elections in May.

I don’t want to be a killjoy, but this kind of thing gives me the heebie-jeebies. The arguments in favour of on-line voting make sense — faster counting, less human error, attracting younger, hipper voters with handphones and Internet connections in their hatbands, higher turnouts, you can vote in your underpants, etc., etc. — until you actually think about it. Computers, we’ve learned since we plugged one PC into another, are notoriously insecure. Viruses are now so sophisticated and prevalent that many security consultants advise their clients to update their anti-virus software every day. What are the chances of a voting system not being a juicy target for people writing these nasty little vermin programs?

Another argument wheeled out in favour of Internet voting is this: The Web is now managing billions of dollars of transactions successfully, so why can’t it handle voting? There’s a simple answer to this, as security consultant Bruce Schneier of Counterpane Internet Security (www.counterpane.com) explains: The whole point of voting is that it’s supposed to be anonymous, whereas any financial transaction has attached to it details of payee, recipient and other important data. This makes it much, much harder to protect any voting system from fraud, much harder to detect any fraud and much harder to identify the guy conducting the fraud. What’s more, if there was evidence of fraud, what exactly do you do in an on-line vote? Revote? Reconduct part of the vote? Chances are that faith in the overall ballot has been seriously, if not fatally, undermined.

Some of these problems could be done away with via ATM-style machines that print out a record of the vote. That could then be used in any recount. But it’s still not enough: As on-line voting expert Rebecca Mercuri points out, there is no fully electronic system that can allow the voter to verify that the ballot cast exactly matches the vote he just made. Some nasty person could write code that makes the vote on the screen of a computer or ATM-machine printout different from that recorded. This may all sound slightly wacky to people living in fully functioning democracies. But (political point coming up, cover your eyes if you prefer) democracies can be bent to politicians’ wills, and one country’s voting system may be more robust than another’s.

Scary stuff. Florida may seem a long way away now, but the lesson from that particular episode must be that any kind of voting system that isn’t simple and confidence-inspiring gives everyone stomach ulcers. The charming notion that the more automation you allow into a system, the more error-free and tamper-proof it becomes, is deeply misguided. The more electronics and automation you allow into the system, the less of a role election monitors can play.

Internet voting, or something like it, may well be the future. I’d like to see it wheeled out for less mission-critical issues, like polling for whether to introduce traffic-calming measures in the town centre, or compulsory kneecapping for spitters, say. But so long as computers remain fragile, untamed beasts that we don’t quite understand, I’d counsel against subjecting democracy to their whim. Even if I am in my underpants.