Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

A piece I wrote ahead of Facebook’s IPO, casting a skeptical eye over assumptions that Asia would continue to be a source of major growth for the company.

Even as Facebook fever grips investors ahead of the social networking giant’s potential $100 billion-plus initial public offering, its breakneck growth in Asia may be slowing as it moves beyond desktop users to those who access the Internet largely or solely from a mobile phone.

In March, Facebook revised its own SEC filings to scale back its scope for further growth in India – its third-biggest user base and the largest population it currently has access to – China remains off-limits to Facebook. And independent data show that user numbers in Indonesia and the Philippines, its other largest Asia user bases, have actually fallen off slightly in the past three months.

“If you’ve been growing at such a huge amount it will definitely trail off,” said Ganesh Kumar Bangah, Kuala Lumpur-based CEO of online payment provider MOL Global. “You can’t expect it to keep growing.”

Read the rest: Analysis: Facebook can’t take Asian growth for granted

Social media stress? There’s an app for that

A piece on how one marketing company is capitalizing on what it says is growing stress among social media users. 

Nestle, purveyor of the decades-old KitKat snack, has launched an app it says addresses a growing problem among young social media users – giving them a break from the stress of posting updates by doing it for them.

The software, Social Break, automatically sends random updates to users’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. It will be officially launched in Singapore later this week and is free to download from kitkat.com.sg/socialbreak.

While the application is a tongue-in-cheek marketing gimmick, the developers behind the software, ad agency JWT, say it also highlights a serious problem among younger users, especially in Asia: growing stress about time spent maintaining a presence on social networks.

JWT surveyed 900 19-26 year olds in China, Singapore and the United States and found that more than half considered it too time-consuming to keep up with all their social media commitments and conceded that the time they spent on such sites had a negative impact on their job or studies.

More at Social media stress? There’s an app for that 

AboutFacebook

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Service column for newspapers, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

A few weeks ago I talked about Facebook’s brave new world of connecting your profile to all the other bits and pieces you leave on websites. I erred, and I apologize.

I thought that people wouldn’t mind the reduction in privacy that this would involve. At least I didn’t think they’d mind as much as a couple of years ago, when Facebook tried something similar.

But people did. And Facebook has been forced to respond, simplifying the procedures that allow users to control who can see what of the stuff they put on Facebook.

So was I really wrong? Do people still care so deeply about privacy?

Hard to say. Back then I said that we have gone through something of a revolution in our attitudes to privacy, and I think I’m still right about that. But I hadn’t taken into account that just because our attitudes have gone through wrenching changes doesn’t mean we’re comfortable with them.

Social networking—itself only a few years old—has forced us to shift our approach. When the Internet was just about email, that was pretty simple. We might balk at giving our email address out to weirdoes at parties with hair growing out of their ears, but that was no different than handing out our phone numbers, or home address.

But social networking is different. By definition the barriers are down, at least partially, because the network demands it. Networks require nodes, and that means that Facebook and every network like it needs to make it easy for people to find other people—including your folically resplendent stalker.

So already we’re talking a question of degree of privacy. And of course, we insist on these services being free, so the relationship we have with the purveyor of the social network is an odd one: Our investment in it is one of time, not money.

But nowadays many of us value time more highly than money, so we feel oddly possessive about our social networks. It’s not, I hasten to add, that we wouldn’t take our business elsewhere, as we did with MySpace and Friendster, but Facebook is somewhat different.

For one thing, the numbers are astonishing. Facebook has more than 400,000 active users—half of them logging on at least once a day. In other words, for many people Facebook has become email.

This has forced changes in privacy, because it’s impossible not to be private and be an active Facebook user. Unlike email, most Facebook activity is visible to other people. So I can, if I want (and I don’t, but can’t really help it), find photos of my nephew caressing a female friend, something I would have been horrified to allow my uncle to see when I was his age.

In part it’s a generational thing. We adults have no idea what it must be like to surrounded by cameras, transmission devices, mass media—an all-embracing Net–from our early years.

But does that mean that younger people are just more relaxed about privacy, or that they just haven’t learned its value? Much of us older folks’ understanding of privacy comes from having lived under snooping governments, or knowing they exist on the other side of iron or bamboo curtains. Or we read and could imagine 1984.

Or, simply, that we’ve had something private exposed to the public. I once had some love poems I had written at school to two sisters read out in front of the school when I foolishly left them behind on a desk. Since then I lock up all my love poems to people related to each other under lock and key.

Younger people, it’s thought, don’t care so much about this. They grow up in a world of SMS, of camera phones recording every incident, of having one’s popularity, or lack of it, measured publicly via the number of friends one has on Facebook.

This is all true, of course. And while employers may still be Googling potential employees, and looking askance at images of them frolicking, this is going to get harder to do when all their potential employees are on Facebook, and all sport photos of them frolicking.

This is part of a new world where the notion of privacy is balanced by transparency: Online is no longer a mirror image of offline, in the way email was just a more efficient postal service.  It’s now a place that one shares with lots of other people, and to play a role in it entails a certain visibility.

This is both the price and the reward of being online. There are bound to be things we’d rather keep to ourselves but we also recognize an advantage in such public access. Just as people can discover things about us, so can we discover things about them. A rising tide, as they say, lifts all boats. If you have an Internet connection.

In some ways this is deeply subversive, since it undermines the traditional structures of society. A teacher or speaker can be subverted by a back channel of comments among the class or audience to which he is not privy. Reality gets distorted, and traditional dominance undermined.

I was sitting in a hearing the other day where those being grilled by the legislators were maintaining a quite noisy twitter presence that stood in contrast to their respectful tone in the session. Two channels, both of them public, but both of them trains running on parallel tracks. Which of them is real?

Technology is moving ahead, and we’re catching up. But we’re catching up at different rates.

If an employer can’t make a distinction between an employee’s office persona and their, for want of a better expression, their personal persona, then they’re probably not very good employers.

Still, there are limits. The British man who joined a rampaging mob in Thailand and yelled at a passing citizen journalist hadn’t considered the consequences should that video clip end up on YouTube. Which it did and he now faces a lengthy time in jail.

Adolescents who share racy photos of themselves by cellphone are discovering the limits to transparency when those photos spread like wildfire. And one can’t help but suspect that not all school kids feel comfortable with the intensity of digital interactivity.

Which brings us back to Facebook.

Facebook is the thin end of a big wedge. We’ll probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, but that doesn’t mean we’re wrong in questioning Facebook’s actions or its motives.

But we’d be smarter if instead of putting Mark Zuckerburg in the stocks, we took stock of what we really want out of these services, and what we really want to share and what we don’t. I suspect that we simply haven’t done that yet, and so we lash out when such moves force us to confront the new reality: that definitions of privacy and openness have changed, are changing, very radically and very quickly.

Facebook’s Internet of Sharing

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Get ready for a world where everything is shared.

Readers of this column will already know that our notions of privacy have changed a lot in the past couple of years.

That has made it possible for Facebook to announce a new initiative this past week, pretty confident it won’t get rebuffed in the same way its Beacon program did a few years back.

Back then we didn’t like the idea of companies having access to the things we were doing on their websites and then posting it to our Facebook feed (“Jeremy’s just bought an Abba CD!”)

Now, with Facebook’s Open Graph, we’ll actually go quite a bit further than that. In effect, every web page will become part of your Facebook world, because whoever runs that web page will have access to your Facebook world—and, in a way, vice versa.

If you “like” something on a music website, then that “like” will be broadcast on your Facebook feed. So your friends will see it. But so will that music website have (at least some) access to your Facebook profile, your Facebook network, as will Facebook have access to your profile on that music website.

In short, Facebook will become a sort of repository of all the breadcrumbs you willingly leave around the Internet—what some are calling your “social metadata”. These are all the bits and pieces you leave on websites about songs, pictures, books, food, hotels that you like.

Instead of all that stuff just being little fragments, all those websites that participate in Facebook’s Open Graph will collect it and create a much more complete picture of you than your Facebook stream currently does.

I’m not going to get into the privacy aspects here. Obviously there’s a lot that’s creepy about this. But then again, we willingly share much of this stuff with our friends, and all the applications that we use on Facebook, so maybe we have already made that choice.

Compare this with Google, which collects similar data but in a different way. Google collects your interests, intentions and preoccupations whenever you do a search, or access your email, or look at a map.

Google may be a search engine, and Facebook may be a social network, but they’re ultimately fighting for the same thing: Targeted advertising.

Facebook will do it through social metadata you intentionally leave behind; Google will do it through data you unintentionally leave behind.

I don’t know whether Facebook will win with this or not. But it’s an interesting move, and, if we continue to inhabit Facebook in the numbers we do, we’ll probably slide effortlessly into this world.

And, of course, as we get more mobile, this only becomes more powerful. A research company called Ground Truth found last week that U.S. mobile subscribers spent nearly 60% of their time on social networking sites; the next biggest category was less than 14%.

In other words, social networking is actually more compelling on a mobile phone than it is on a laptop or desktop. Kind of obvious really.

If you want to get futuristic about it, it’s possible to see how this coupling of mobile device and social networking is likely to give a big push to a new kind of device: wearable computing.

Expect to see more of the likes of Ping: a garment that its inventors say allows you to connect to your Facebook account wirelessly and update your status simply by lifting up the Ping’s hood, or tying a bow, or zipping up.

Heaven knows what our Facebook page is going to look like in the future. But it’s a natural succession to the basic principle of something like Facebook, which is that a life not shared is not worth living.

I know I have developed that instinct to share the absurdities of my day on Facebook, and I appreciate it when others do. I’m not talking about the average “my boss sucks” update, but ones which are funny, thoughtful, or both.

One day we’ll look back, as we did at email, and wonder how we lived without status updates.

By then we’ll be swishing our arms or doing up a button to update our page—nothing as archaic as actually tapping it out on a keypad.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. Maybe I’ll update my Facebook status to reflect that.

The Future: Findability

We only noticed three months later, but we passed something of a milestone last December. I’m hoping it might, finally, wake us up to the real power of the Web: findability.

According to Ericsson, a mobile network company, in December we exchanged more data over our mobile devices than we talked on them. In short, we now do more email, social networking, all that stuff, on our mobile phones and mobile-connected laptops than we do voice.

Quite a turning point.

But a turning point of what, exactly?

Well, the conventional wisdom is that we will use our cellphone (or a netbook with a cellphone connection) to do all the things we used to do, or still do, on our desktop tethered laptop or PC. According to a report by Sandvine, another network company, released this month, one in five of us mobile data subscribers are using Facebook and video sharing website YouTube accounts for at least a 10th of all traffic.

But the conclusions they draw from this are wrong.

The thinking is that we’re somehow interested only in doing things that we did at our desk, even when we’re in the open air. Or on the couch.

Well, OK, but it betrays a lack of imagination of what we’ll do when we’re really untethered.

When we have access to everything the Internet has to offer–and when the Internet has access to us. Then we’ll have findability. By that we mean we can find the answer to pretty much every question we ask, from where’s the nearest 24-hour pizza place to what’s the capital of Slovakia. Or who was in that movie with John Cusack about a hit man returning to his high school prom?

We know that we know all this, even if we don’t know it. Because we have all this at our fingertips, because we have the Internet. No longer do we care about hoarding information because we know the Internet’s hoarding it for us, and Google or someone, is there to help us find it in a microsecond.

That’s one bit of findability. But there’s another bit. Connect all this to other bits of information about ourselves, drawn from sensors and other chips inside the device: where we are, what time of day it is, what that building in front of us is, who we’re with, what language they’re speaking, our body temperature, whether we’re moving or stationary, whether we’re upright, sitting or laying flat, whether our eyes are closed, whether we used voice, touch, eyes, keys or gestures to pose whatever question was on our mind.

All that adds extra layers of information to findability, by giving context to our search for information. Only our imagination can tell us how all these bits and pieces of data can be useful to us, but if you’ve used a map on your smartphone you’ll already get a glimpse of its potential.

Last December, we passed into this new era. The era when the potential of the Internet to move beyond the desk and lap, and start to mesh with our lives so that it is all around us. Where we, where everything,  can be found.

Social Engineering, Part XIV

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Further to my earlier piece about the scamming potential of Web 2.0, here are a couple more examples of why social engineering is a bigger problem than it might appear.

First off, governments and organisations are not as careful with your information as you might expect them to. There are plenty of examples of CD-ROMs and laptops going missing, but often even that doesn’t need to happen. Some governments openly publish such information on the Internet. Indonesia’s minsitry of education, for example, has published the names, addresses, age, date of birth, school and education number of 36 million Indonesian students in easily downloadable XLS format.

Who might use such information? The mind boggles at the possibilities. But one hint might be found in this Straits Times article from neighboring Singapore, which reports a growing wave of faux kidnappings: Gangs phone someone with enough information about their loved one—child, spouse, or whatever—to convince them they’ve been kidnapped and the mark must pay the ransom immediately. In the past six months employees at one bank alone have foiled 14 such attempts—merely by alerting the victims trying to withdraw large amounts of money that they’re being conned.

In the first half of this year, according to the newspaper, 21 people have been scammed out of S$322,000 ($216,000) in this way. Such scams rely on having access to just the kind of information contained in the ministry of education’s database: Knowing kids’ names, their class, their home address, their school chums—all would be invaluable in doing a scam like this. Or any other number of scams.

The point is that we need to think beyond the narrow confines of single channels of data. Scammers don’t: They use a combination of techniques to build up enough information about their mark to be able to either impersonate them or convince them of something. In the above case, it’s that they have kidnapped a relative. In this (still ongoing) Hong Kong-based scam, it’s that they are their bank.

I’m not suggesting Web 2.0 is going to breed a different kind of scam, it’s just going to breed a new kind of opportunity. Social engineering relies on gathering just the sort of data that social networking and presence tools base themselves on.

links for 2008-09-10

Web 2.0 Ain’t About the Technology

Scoble makes some good points in a blog posting about why Microsoft, and more specifically his old boss Steve Ballmer, doesn’t get Web 2.0. I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but he has an understanding of this era of the web born of living and working in its eye the past seven years:

“There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” Ballmer said.

When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.

Why aren’t they succeeding? Because eBay is NOT about the technology. It’s about the community and unless you have something that’ll convince the buyers and sellers all to switch all at one moment you’ll never be able to take eBay’s market away. Translation: it’s too late and eBay has huge defensibility around its business because people won’t move away from it even if you demonstrate 5x better technology.

I think Scoble fuses two different phenomena here, but the point is a valid one. But a marketplace is not quite the same as a community. eBay is not really about the community, it’s about the marketplace. As anyone who has tried to move a physical market — a wet market, say — from one location to another has found, it’s not easy. eBay (and Amazon) are about first mover advantage. If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the place most likely to sell it.

Facebook et al are different. They’re definitely about community. But community is maybe the wrong word, because it carries with it connotations of permanence that don’t really exist. MySpace, Facebook etc may still be as big in a few years’ time, but somehow I doubt it. They’re social spaces that open and close like real spaces — less communities, more campsites. Campsites may be there for years, but the structures are impermanent and can, one day, move or disperse.

I agree with Robert, too, that people who use these services ain’t just kids. That’s the most interesting thing about Facebook, in my view: the Skype-like opening up to less techie, older users because of the untechie attractions of being able to find and communicate with acquaintances and ex-colleagues with whom they share loose ties.

Social networking has broken out of its narrow confines, and this has huge implications. But we should be careful before we assume that this will evolve in the same way social networking has evolved for the geek community: these new users won’t stick around for ever adding apps of less and less consequence and communicating with all their buddies via Facebook.

Eventually, everyone finds everyone they need to find on Facebook and bores of the services designed to keep them there. Then they’ll want to export the address book and the creative capital they’ve invested in Facebook and move it someplace else. If they are blocked from doing that, their interest in such tools will quickly wane. We geeks are happy to populate new social networks by repeating all the data entry necessary to make the sites worthwhile, but non-tech users will be less patient (or actually have lives offline.) For them it’s about the people; the apps are just a pleasant distraction.

Then there’s the money. Robert is right: Facebook is an advertiser’s dream. But it has yet to be proven that Facebook users (and we’re talking non-tech users here) are going to tolerate too much intrusiveness. Gmail has scared a lot of non-tech users away, based on anecdotal evidence, because of its intrusive ads. I think Facebook will similarly scare people away if it mines that user data too deeply.

This all said, it is a puzzle as to why Microsoft has ignored this new world. All its tools beg for greater interactivity and sharing, but why is it I use Microsoft only when I’m typing this (the free Windows Live Writer), or when I’m writing a Word document, or emailing it to someone? If I want to discuss the document, or collaborate on a spreadsheet, I turn to Google Docs. Nowhere does Microsoft try to make that process easier or more social. Think of all the opportunities missed in those simple actions.

Steve Ballmer still doesn’t understand social networking « Scobleizer