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The Proud Legacy of the New Web

My weekly column for the Loose Wire Servce.

A few things I had to do this week brought me to the same conclusion: Companies that don’t get simplicity are struggling.

First off, I have been writing a paper on social media. What we used to call Web 2.0, basically. Now that everything we do is Web 2.0 it’s kind of silly to call it that. And nerdy. But next time you use Facebook, or Twitter, or any web service that uses a clean, simple interface—nothing ugly, no bullying error messages—then you can thank Web 2.0.

Every time you are pleasantly surprised when the service you use—for free—adds more cool features and doesn’t try to sting you for it, thank Web 2.0.

Web 2.0 made things simpler, more user-centric. Its principles were share, create, collaborate (against the old world’s hoard, consume, compete.)

If you want to read more on this, download the Cluetrain Manifesto, a book written by a cluster of visionaries. A great read and a sort of call to arms for the Web 2.0 generation.

We know this. Researching the paper reminded me of just how influential Web 2.0 has been. But everything else I’ve done this week has reminded me how few companies still don’t get it.

First off, I had to set up a mailing list. You know, sending out lots of emails to people. It’s fiddly if you want to do it right. Before, you’d download software and painstakingly fiddle with spreadsheets and stuff.

Now you can do it online. But not all online services are alike. I tried one, Constant Contact (which doesn’t, actually. sound that appealing a concept. Sounds like an STD or one those annoying kids who follow you around at school.)

ConstantContact was OK, I suppose. But it was fiddly. No way was this going to be fun. Then I tried something called MailChimp. The look and feel of the site was pure Web 2.0. Big buttons, nice colors, the sort of site that makes you want to get yourself a coffee and browse around.

Sure enough, the whole thing was not only a breeze, but a joy. Not perfect—they like their simian jokes, those guys at MailChimp–but so different it brought home how Web 2.0 isn’t a set of tools but a mindset. “How can we make this easier, and fun? And cheaper?”

That was the first experience. Then I had to set up an email account on Microsoft’s online corporate web service, called Outlook Web Access (known as OWA.) The acronym should have given that away. OWA, as “Oh er” or “whoa”. After five years of Gmail using this was like going back to typewriters. And not in a good way.

Clunky, ugly, lots of annoying “Are you sure you want to do this?” type messages.

It was hell. A real reminder of what email was before Google got hold of it. (And, sorry, Yahoo!, but you’re still stuck in the slow lane. I tried your web mail offering again but it wouldn’t let me send half the emails I wanted, instead accusing me of spamming. Sending six emails makes me a spammer? That makes you my ex web mail provider.)

It’s not that Gmail is wonderful. But it’s simple. And it adds features before you’ve had time to think them up yourself. It strives to get out of your way and let you get on with stuff. Very Web 2.0-ey.

Then I had to buy a video camera. It was then I realized that Web 2.0 wasn’t just about software.

I got one of those Flip video cameras three years ago. I loved it. Barely three buttons on the thing, and perfect. An antidote to complicated video cameras and smart phones that require a PhD to use. Web 2.0 on a stick.

So I went looking for a replacement. Flip has been so popular it’s a) been bought out, and b) has lots of competitors. Even Sony have one. Yes, the guys who brought you the Walkman now offer you something called the bloggie PM5, which is basically what the Sony design people think is a better Flip.

Only it’s not. It’s Sony’s view of the world, and it’s striking how anachronistic it looks.

At first blush it’s smart. The lens swivels so you can see yourself videoing yourself. Which is good. But that’s the only thing good about it.

It’s heavy. The buttons are too many in number and aren’t intuitive—I couldn’t even find the volume adjuster, and nor could the guy in the shop—and it has all the things that reminded me why I’d never buy anything from Sony again. A proprietary USB cable slot—so you can only use a Sony cable with it. Their own memory card, which means you can’t use your other memory cards like the increasingly popular SD one.

(Oh and it only records for 30 minutes at a time. Not that the manual tells you that.)

In other words, Sony talks about the bloggie-ness of their bloggie, where you can share all your stuff on Facebook and YouTube, but still doesn’t get the bigger picture: That the Flip was supposed to make all this stuff simple. Open, fun, collaborative, about the moment rather than the fiddling. And no more closed shop. No more trying to sucker you into buying more of their stuff.

I haven’t talked about Apple in all this because the jury’s out on them. They definitely make things easier to use, but they’re still proudly disdainful of everyone else—including, I suspect, their customers. Their products are a joy to use, but I think the Cluetrain passed their stop.

So Web 2.0 is a state of mind. It’s something we should demand of all our interactions with products, services, companies, officials. Simplicity. Put yourselves in the user’s shoes. Don’t put up road blocks. Make using your product, if not a joy, then at least not a pain.

Sony, Yahoo!, Microsoft, print that last paragraph out and make a banner out of it. I guarantee it’ll work wonders for you.

Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.

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.

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.

The New Normal: Constant Flux

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

I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.

But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.

The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:

The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold.  The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses.  Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable.  And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.

The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.

The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?

So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.

Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.

All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.

Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.

And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.

Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath. 

The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.

That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.

Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.

So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.

I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.

Into the Light

Part of my job is explaining the world of new/social media to old media veterans. It’s not easy, either because they’re very resistant to change, or because they tend to see the changes  being wrought on their industry as somehow different to the much bigger changes taking place.

It’s not a bunch of separate revolutions—it’s one revolution. For want of a better description, it’s not unlike the transition from the Dark Ages to the High Middle Ages. That’s perhaps overstating it, but compare, if you will, this small vignette.

I was chatting with a friend on Skype just now; he had returned to Canada to be with his ailing dad. I enquired more, and he told me his father had been at the Battle of Ortona, and still suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

I know something of PTSD, but I was ignorant of Ortona, so I looked it up while we chatted. There’s a great Wikipedia page on it, so I quickly got a sense of what his father had been through, back in 1943.

Then my friend sent me links—to a book written about it, which I could thumb through on Amazon and search for his name.

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I was able to quickly learn a bit about the battle, about my friend’s father, and about his wounds, both external and internal. Then my friend sent me another link, this time to a YouTube page that showcased a movie about the battle.

Within a few clicks I was much, much more knowledgeable about what this man had gone through, made more personal by my friend’s messages that dropped through Skype:

All of the officers he trained with were killed. He was the only one left.

He has one pal left who is still alive from those days.

It’s easy to dismiss this all as just bite-sized knowledge, without depth or perspective. But nevertheless what we have at our finger tips is so much more than was possible a few years ago—so much so that it’s no exaggeration to say that the Internet offers wisdom over darkness to those who came before it.

And for the media? Well, it’s not really about news anymore. It’s about wisdom. Information grabbed when needed to assemble an insight. The dividing line now is not between those who have access to information—everyone, more or less, has access—but between those who have the skill and interest to be able to know what they’re looking for and to find it. And then, of course, digest it.

That has huge implications for media because it transforms the market for information. It doesn’t remove it—it transforms it. We haven’t figured out how.

But we have already reached, without really making a big fuss about it, a great point of leveling, where we all can claw our way out of ignorance, topic by topic, surprisingly quickly. Whether we want to is something else entirely.

Image from SDCinematografica.it

The Big Chill Hits Google

So is Google, like, the new Yahoo?

Google is closing some of its services, or at least no longer supporting them. Which for me is a tad sad, since I’ve always loved prodding around inside the Googleplex, convinced that one day all these disparate services would come together in the same way Google Docs, Calendar and Gmail have. I thought Chrome would be the centerpiece of all this. Now, maybe not.

But no. Jaiku is now open source, meaning it’s not going to become Google’s competitor to twitter or anything like that. For me Jaiku had tons of potential because it seemed to understand that many of us work from our cellphone as much as our laptop. Anyway, it’s not going to happen.

Google Notebook is also on the deathlist. Another shame: While I never used it as much as I should have done, I have been busy divining a catch-all answer to everything, and the Notebook app, and its Firefox extension, was a key part of it. Google has said it’s no longer supporting it, but existing users will be able to continue to add and access their material.

The other thing they’re dumping is Google Video. It always took a back seat to Youtube, but for me that was a good thing. No inane comments, and no restrictions on file size. The result was a mostly classy collection of videos. Gone.

So what should we use instead?  Well much of what you do in Google Notebooks could as easily be done in Evernote, while others recommend Zoho Notebook. Jaiku? Well, Facebook and twitter, and I guess FriendFeed, have already moved into the space that Jaiku looked so likely to dominate, once upon a time.

I feel sorry for the guys who started Jaiku. They were an impressive and fun bunch, when you could understand them. I hope they walked away with a decent stash.

Facebook Scams: Not Out of the Woods

Facebook may have just won a theoretical warchest from a spammer, but it’s not put its house in order when it comes to scams. Indeed, I suspect they’re getting worse. Now you can get infected without even having to visit your Facebook account.

What happens is that, if you have set your profile to receive email updates when someone sends you a message on Facebook, these trojan scams actually make their way direct into your inbox. Facebook is just the vector:

Here’s a message, as it looks in Gmail:

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Click on that link and it takes you, not to the Facebook message page, but straight to the dodgy website. In this case the website is still active. It will have a name like YuoTube:

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and a YouTube-like interface:

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The message in the ‘player’ says “Your version of Flash Player is out of date.” Without you doing anything the download window will appear:

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Of course, if you install that you’re in trouble. But are you in trouble if you’ve already visited the page? I’m still working on that.

Backed Up? Or Cracked Up?

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There’s quite a commotion online about a program called g-archiver that promises to back up your Gmail account, but in the process apparently harvests all users’ Gmail usernames and passwords, and mails them to a separate Gmail account.

This is indeed scary, although it’s possible that the person behind it wasn’t collecting the passwords for nefarious purposes. But it highlights some important issues that we tend to overlook in this Web 2.0, mashup age:

  • Your online email account is more vulnerable than an offline one (by which I mean, storing your old emails online, rather than downloading them to your computer and deleting the online copy.) In this sense, POP is good, IMAP and webmail bad.
  • If you give your username and password to third parties, i.e., those who access your account on your behalf, you need to be more rather than less careful than with the original service. For example, services like Plaxo allow you to access your other accounts but will inevitably require you to enter your username and password, which will be stored on their server.

On top of that, it’s intriguing to take a look at how legitimate this one program appears, and how little those websites helping in its distribution have vetted it. I found copies at Download.com (owned by CNET), despite a commenter pointing out it steals passwords, Shareware Junkies, BrotherSoft, Softpedia, ZDNet, Download3000, FreedownloadsCenter, the excellently named Safe Install and Filedudes.

Just out of interest, G-Archiver is apparently the work of a company called MateMedia, which registered the website hosting the software. An interview with the company’s president, Russ Mate, is here.

A message on the original blog post purporting to be from Mr. Mate says “MateMedia is a legitimate company and we are absolutely horrified that this has occurred”, and will be notifying any download sites hosting the software to “remove it immediately.”

That clearly hasn’t happened yet, but neither has the company removed it from its own website, at the time of writing. (Seeing the software alongside tools like FriendTools, which automates adding friends and comments for MySpace spammers, or TubeAdder, which does the same thing on YouTube, might give a prospective user pause for thought.)

My rules of thumb:

  • Never download software without visiting the author’s original site, and finding out who produced it. This applies to Facebook apps as well. (In G-Archiver’s case, there is no contact page.)
  • Think hard before you give your email password to any service, however legitimate. It’s not so much about losing your email password but about all the other passwords and personal data that a bad guy could access inside your email account.

As Web 2.0 involves more and more cross-pollination of information, so we need to be smarter about who we give our passwords to, and what information we store behind those passwords, both in email and in social networking accounts.