Tag Archive for 'issue'

The Australian cancer that will kill the Internet

grainy girl censored There is a cancer growing in our society. This problem may seem small, isolated and insignificant, but left unchecked, could grow to affect everyone in the world. Because when a small nation validates a disastrous idea, it gives the larger countries evidence to pursue it – and like domino’s, we all fall.

Logging into a Bogota internet cafe last year as I was backpacking around South America, I nearly choked. Australia’s new government had slightly tweaked their election commitment: they no longer wanted to help parents filter the Internet to prevent their children from stumbling on child porn (children don’t watch child porn, and lets not forget the fact that child pornographers have a sophisticated offline network that bypasses technology), but now the government was going to mandate a “clean” feed on everybody. Mandatory censorship on the Internet is not a future I want. It made my blood boil.

It was to be a filtration regime, that the government would censor whatever they thought was deemed censorable. An unaccountable, shady regime using the high moral ground of claiming to look after children, but in subsequent examinations, has proven to be just the start. A recent leak has shown that there has been considerable scope creep. Pornography, gambling, abortion websites – all the good stuff in life that make conservative Christian’s pray for a flood and famine to clean society up – would be part of this black list, despite being perfectly legal for adults. The question isn’t why is the government banning porn and the like; it’s where will the line be drawn and who determines that? We are seeing a moral crusade, cloaking a very real civil rights issue.

Censored face

I wrote an email to every senator of the Australia government several months back, speaking on behalf of the Silicon Beach Australia community (which will give you all the background you need). Fortunately it worked – I not only educated, but I was acknowledged from two important senators that the current administration needed to pass the legislation. It was a temporary win, and thankfully since then the Australian mainstream media have taken an absolutely beating on the government. But very rarely does this get international attention.

More recent announcements suggest the legislation is dead in the water. But let’s not get complacent – we are only as safe as the next election, where the numbers in the Senate shift. This has been an issue for several years being pushed by the parties to win the growing Christian conservative vote. This dangerous policy hasn’t died – it’s just undergoing an evolution.

Why the rest of the world should care…and be scared
One thing that I’ve learned from this experience, is that the Australian government will cling onto the flimsiest of evidence and pathetic moral rhetoric, to position their case. Distorted perspectives, exaggerated linkages – it almost makes me laugh and then cry to see how desperate the government is to sell its case, by citing overseas efforts in an inaccurate way, in order to build their case. It is a propaganda war based on lies that we are getting sick of .


If an economically insignificant – but credible nation – like Australia introduces this filteration regime, it means it’s a global precedent. We don’t want a precedent. All it takes is one solid example, and governments around the world can jump out of hiding on this sensitive electoral issue.

The Internet needs to be open, free, and available. It’s going to be the infrastructure of our society that will allow new opportunities for the development of the human race. So when a government starts flirting with the idea of internet censorship – don’t get complacent. Every piece of legislation passed, is a step closer to a control regime we don’t need.


We need to make this issue political suicide around the world. Our public pressure needs to get to the point, where no politician in their right mind, will try to implement this policy. I’m not asking you to suddenly become an activist, but just understand – there is no room for leeway in this. This issue has been under-reported by the media across the world – let’s kill this cancer once and for all. Because unless we exterminate this fake moral crusade, this cancer is going to slowly grow in the background – only for us to realise it’s all over when it’s too late.

It’s not often I will breakout in anger over this, but I think about it everyday (like how my Twitter avatar is in constant protest). No need to chain yourself to a tree – but let’s start making this the bigger deal that it really is.

The broken business model of newspapers

About six weeks ago I took a week off work to catch up on life and do some research and testing of market opportunities. I had several hypotheses I wanted to test and sent content to a closed group of friends and colleagues. My goal was to watch how they reacted to it, to understand how time-poor people consume information…and it was an absolutely fascinating experience.

As part of this excercise, I took the task of reading all the major newspapers every day. It has literally been years since I’ve given that much attention to them – I used to read them daily, but my Gen-Y ways got the better of me, and I moved online. Unfortunately, I still can’t seem to manage my online rituals to efficiently consume information (hence the research I did – turns out other people are struggling as well). Something I realised in the course of my research, is that whilst newspapers are losing circulation due to the Internet – there is a lot they could do to really improve their competitiveness.

Too much detail
I tried reading the main newspapers word for word, and it took me hours. I don’t care how much people whine that they love the newspaper experience – the reality is, the people who read the news also work full-time. They barely have time to take out five minutes in their day; the reason people don’t read newspapers is because of the complexity of life. Personally I work through lunch; and if I don’t work, I am trying to do things in my life so as to make more time for myself after work. The weekend is literally the only time I have a chance to take a time out to read the newspaper – but given I neglect people in my personal life during the week and the myriad of other things I am involved in outside of work, means I don’t even get that chance. I rarely sit down – that’s why I read the news on my phone on the train.

Newspapers contain quality content, there is no doubt about that. However, if you are going to compete in the news business, you need to understand your audience: that’s all they want. If you read any news item in a newspaper, it will be flowered with extra facts, background information, and endless perspectives to colour the central issue. For example, an article about the Central Bank in Australia dropping its cash rate by 1% had several paragraphs talking about the exchange rate. Yes, it’s valid to talk about it – but there were another half dozen articles that did the same thing in the related coverage, and quite frankly, it’s a separate issue. Another article about the impact of the rate change on local business, makes mention that 50 million pizzas get sold through Dominoes Australia. Interesting stuff – but is it relevant to the news?

A newspaper should have a headline, and literally report just on that news. I’m not saying they shouldn’t report on the extra stuff – quite the contrary I love the extra stuff – but they fail to recognise that the problem with reading a newspaper is that it takes so long, and so people can only skim it. Report just the news, and let consumers follow up on the website with extra detail through special links provided.

Newspapers can’t compete in news any more
I was able to get copies of the major newspapers between 11pm and 12.40am – as in, the night before people usually buy it. Those newspapers had been delivered by a truck, after being printed in a factory far away, with thousands of copies being loaded and distributed earlier that evening. Of course, there is a staggered distribution with some newsagents getting them through the night and early morning (about 5am), but it’s still the same newspaper delivered at 12am as at the high profile newsagents.

The timeline for reporting news is a joke. The only hope a newspaper has in reporting news uniquely, is if it breaks it. By breaking news, it has a chance to take its time and frame the flow of information. But is this that common? Most newspapers use shared agencies to pool their resources with stories, like international news. Newspapers are being ignored by consumers, because they get news quicker on the Internet. Why must these media executives continue to ignore the reality that an online news organistaion is much more efficient in distributing breaking news. That’s why newspapers existed in the past, but they no longer fill that role in society – newspapers need to get out of that role (or become “news brand”, but no longer treating print as the prime distribution for that news).

The incentives and structures can’t compete with this new world
Journalists, especially freelancers, get paid by word count.
Readers, especially time poor ones, skim through the newspaper.

See a problem there? It’s called friction. In case you are a mass media executive, let me build on it for you: the economics of information have now changed. When your industry was created several hundred years ago, information was scarce and people had plenty of time. Today, it is people’s time (or “attention”) that is scarce, whereas information is abundant. Tradition through the “art” and skill of journalism seems to drive the industry more than its fundamental economic shifts. As I remarked at the Future of Media Summit several months back after hearing a mass media journalist rant on justifying her existence: “The skill of journalism? It’s just as relevant as the skill of sword makers. It’s nice, but I prefer a gun.”

A business that does not respond to its market, will die one day. The cost structures of the newspaper (and magazine industries) are sustaining a structure that no longer suits the market for which it supposedly caters for. Instead, it relies purely on generational factors of a Luddite population to sustain its circulation, trying to make money on a model that has now been broken.

What’s so exciting about this? The traditional media don’t get it, in the same way a bible-basher won’t accept there is no God despite presenting logic suggesting otherwise. I’ve heard this from friends in the industry, from people I’ve met at conferences, and from observing my own clients who are part of a broader media group.

Denial by a legacy industry can be a beautiful thing for an entrepreneur.

Thoughts on privacy – possibly just a txt file away

The other week, a good friend of mine through my school and university days, dropped me a note. He asked me that now that he is transitioning from being a professional student to legal guru (he’s the type I’d expect would become a judge of the courts), that I pull down the website that hosts our experiment in digital media from university days. According to him, its become "a bit of an issue because I have two journal articles out, and its been brought to my attention that a search brings up writing of a very mixed tone/quality!".

In what seemed like a different lifetime for me, I ran a university Journalist’s Society and we experimented with media as a concept. One of our successful experiments, was a cheeky weekly digital newsletter, that held the student politicians in our community accountable. Often our commentary was hard-hitting, and for $4 web hosting bills a month and about 10 hours work each, we become a new power on campus influencing actions. It was fun, petty, and a big learning experience for everyone involved, including the poor bastards we massacred with accountability.

control panel

Privacy in the electronic age: is there an off button?

However this touches on all of us as we progress through life, what we thought was funny in a previous time, may now be awkward that we are all grown up. In this digitally enabled world, privacy has come to the forefront as an issue – and we are now suddenly seeing scary consequences of having all of our information available to anyone at anytime.

I’ve read countless articles about this, as I am sure you have. One story I remember is a guy who contributed to a marijuana discussion board in 2000, now struggles with jobs as that drug-taking past of his is the number one search engine result. The digital world, can really suck sometimes.

Why do we care?

This is unique and awkward, because it’s not someone defaming us. It’s not someone taking our speech out of context, and menacingly putting it a way that distorts our words. This is 100% us, stating what we think, with full understanding what the consequences of our actions were. We have no one but ourselves to blame.

nice arse

Time changes, even if the picture doesn’t: Partner seeing pictures of you – can be ok. Ex seeing pictures of you – likely not ok.

In the context of privacy, is it our right to determine who can see what about us, when we want them to? Is privacy about putting certain information in the "no one else but me" box or is it more dynamic then that – meaning, it varies according to the person consuming the information?

When I was younger, I would meet attractive girls quite a bit older than me, and as soon as I told them my age, they suddenly felt embarrassed. They either left thinking how could they let themselves be attracted to a younger man, treating me like I was suddenly inferior, or they showed a very visible reaction of distress! Actually, quite memorably when I was 20 I told a girl that I was on a date with that I was 22 – and she responded "thank God, because there is nothing more unattractive I find, than a guy that is younger than me". It turned out, fortunately, she had just turned 22. My theory about age just got a massive dose of validation.

Now me sharing this story is that certain information about ourselves can have adverse affects on us (in this case, my sex life!). I normally could not care less about my age, but with girls I would meet when I went out, I did care because it affected their perception of me. Despite nothing changing, the single bit of information about my age would totally change the interaction I had with a girl. Likewise, when we are interacting with people in our lives, the sudden knowledge of a bit of information could adversely affect their perception.

Bathroom close the hatch please

Some doors are best kept shut. Kinky for some; stinky for others

A friend of mine recently admitted to his girlfriend of six months that he’s used drugs before, which had her breakdown crying. This bit of information doesn’t change him in any way; but it shapes her perception about him, and the clash with her perception with the truth, creates an emotional reaction. Contrast this to these two party girls I met in Spain in my nine-months away, who found out I had never tried drugs before at the age of 21. I disappointed them, and in fact, one of them (initially) lost respect for me. These girls and my friends girlfriend, have two different value systems. And that piece of information, generates a completely differing perception – taking drugs can be seen as a "bad person" thing, or a "open minded" person, depending on who you talk to.

As humans, we care about what other people think. It influences our standing in society, our self-confidence, our ability to build rapport with other people. But the issue is, how can you control your image in an environment that is uncontrollable? What I tell one group of people for the sake of building rapport with them, I should also have the ability of ensuring that conversation is not repeated to others, who may not appreciate the information. If I have a fetish for women in red heels which I share with my friends, I should be able to prevent that information from being shared with my boss who loves wearing red heels and might feel a bit awkward the next time I look at her feet.

Any solutions?

Not really. We’re screwed.

Well, not quite. To bring it back to the e-mail exchange I had with my friend, I told him that the historian and technologist in me, couldn’t pull down a website for that reason. After all, there is nothing we should be ashamed about. And whilst he insisted, I made a proposal to him: what about if I could promise that no search engine would include those pages in their index, without having to pull the website down?

He responded with appreciation, as that was what the issue was. Not that he was ashamed of his prior writing, but that he didn’t want academics of today reading his leading edge thinking about the law, to come across his inflammatory criticism of some petty student politicians. He wanted to control his professional image, not erase history. So my solution of adding a robots.txt file was enough to get his desired sense of privacy, without fighting a battle with the uncontrollable.

Who knew, that privacy can be achieved with a text file that has two lines:

User-agent: *

Disallow: /

Those two lines are enough to control the search engines, from a beast that ruins our reputation, to a mechanism of enforcing our right to privacy. Open standards across the Internet, enabling us to determine how information is used, is what DataPortability can help us do achieve so we can control our world. The issue of privacy is not dead – we just need some creative applications, once we work out what exactly it is we think we are losing.

Net neutrality

Mick just posted a video he has come across on net neutrality. At the very least, you should watch it because it’s an important issue. We take for granted that when we are connected to the net, we are given equal access; what the large Telco’s appear to be pushing, is to influence that actual content that flows over the internet. It’s a bit like a bunch of shops in a marketplace – the Telco’s want the consumers to pay for entering the marketplace (as they do) and now they want to charge the people who choose to host shops in the marketplace as well as allocating consumers a personal guide who depending on how much you tip them, will determine if you can visit a particular shop. The beauty of the internet, is that all you need is a connection and you are given equal like anyone else. In a world where space is finite, rent for a shop makes sense because it’s managing the demand; but in a virtual world there is no reason to inherit this age old concept as it will kill the core of what is what makes it the most amazing invention in history.

The first video is one I found that is more concise and to the point. The second one is the one on Mick’s blog which is certainly a lot more emotive.

Ouch – widgets bypassing Google’s wall

On the right of my blog as I write this, I have a widget – it’s a simple piece of javacript, from the company Feedjit, that allows me to embed a short piece of code to indicate to my readers how other people find my blog. Since the launch of the widget, it seems like it has become very popular with 60 million widgets claimed by the company’s website.

I made a discovery today almost by accident: I accessed my blog on another computer. Or rather, I accessed my blog via Google’s cache – who have replicated my content for their search results, widgets and all. Now when you look at the Feedjit widget (image below left), the data is very different: it no longer shows visitors to my blog, but visitors to Google servers.

If you follow through to the detailed statistics you will even see what the most popular sites are that day, as well as the locations of the visitors. As this is data from the Google cache server, you are effectively getting an analysis of visitors – who they are, what keywords they are searching for, and what they found. So because my blog is part of Google cache, I can effectively hack and sneak in the backdoor of Google’s data.

(Having a quick look, it seems this URL is the main Google cache address; however data will only get logged when someone looks at the cache.)

Feedjit google cacheDoes it matter?
While this is a fun thing to look at and then move on, I think it raises some serious issues – multiple ones at that.

On widgets: With the prolifiration of widgets on the web, has this become potentially the next biggest security risk on the web?

On privacy: It’s not that hard to identify the people making those searches. Search engines handing over data to the government has been a hot issue, with Google resisiting a much hyped story as the company tried to prove it protected its users. With the growing cross-pollination of the web, exemplified with widgets, are we prepared for what it means to have open data (which is becoming inevitable)?

On metrics: Google has a complete download of my blog in its cache, but what I didn’t realise, is that it is a copy of the full blog (with scripts like my web stats). When I look at my statistics, I see an awful lot of activity from computer bots for example. Is this because every time Google, Yahoo or MSN analyse content that has been ripped off my site, I can actually see what they are doing behind their closed walls?

Those are questions with simple but also complicated answers. Either way, if its that easy to hack even Google, then God help us.

How Google reader can finally start making money

Today, you would have heard that Newsgator, Bloglines, Me.dium, Peepel, Talis and Ma.gnolia have joined the APML workgroup and are in discussions with workgroup members on how they can implement APML into their product lines. Bloglines created some news the other week on their intention to adopt it, and the announcement today about Newsgator means APML is now fast becoming an industry standard.

Google however, is still sitting on the side lines. I really like using Google reader, but if they don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t announce support for APML soon, I will have to switch back to my old favourite Bloglines which is doing some serious innovating. Seeing as Google reader came out of beta recently, I thought I?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢d help them out to finally add a new feature (APML) that will see it generate some real revenue.

What a Google reader APML file would look like
Read my previous post on what exactly APML is. If the Google reader team was to support APML, what they could add to my APML file is a ranking of blogs, authors, and key-words. First an explanation, and then I will explain the consequences.

In terms of blogs I read, the percentage frequency of posting I read from a particular blog will determine the relevancy score in my APML file. So if I was to read 89% of Techcrunch posts ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú which is information already provided to users ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it would convert this into a relevancy score for Techcrunch of 89% or 0.89.


APML: pulling rank

In terms of authors I read, it can extract who posted the entry from the individual blog postings I read, and like the blog ranking above, perform a similar procedure. I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t imagine it would too hard to do this, however given it?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s a small team running the product, I would put this on a lower priority to support.

In terms of key-words, Google could employ its contextual analysis technology from each of the postings I read and extract key words. By performing this on each post I read, the frequency of extracted key words determines the relevance score for those concepts.

So that would be the how. The APML file generated from Google Reader would simply rank these blogs, authors, and key-words – and the relevance scores would update over time. Over time, the data is indexed and re-calculated from scratch so as concepts stop being viewed, they start to diminish in value until they drop off.

What Google reader can do with that APML file
1. Ranking of content
One of the biggest issues facing consumers of RSS is the amount of information overload. I am quite confident to think that people would pay a premium, for any attempt to help rank the what can be the hundreds of items per day, that need to be read by a user. By having an APML file, over time Google Reader can match postings to what a users ranked interests are. So rather than presenting the content by reverse chronology (most recent to oldest); it can instead organise content by relevancy (items of most interest to least).

This won?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t reduce the amount of RSS consumption by a user, but it will enable them to know how to allocate their attention to content. There are a lot of innovative ways you can rank the content, down to the way you extract key works and rank concepts, so there is scope for competing vendors to have their own methods. However the point is, a feature to ?¢‚ǨÀúSort by Personal Relevance?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ would be highly sort after, and I am sure quite a few people will be willing to pay the price for this God send.

I know Google seems to think contextual ads are everything, but maybe the Google Reader team can break from the mould and generate a different revenue stream through a value add feature like that. Google should apply its contextual advertising technology to determine key words for filtering, not advertising. It can use this pre-existing technology to generate a different revenue stream.

2. Enhancing its AdSense programme

blatant ads

Targeted advertising is still bloody annoying

One of the great benefits of APML is that it creates an open database about a user. Contextual advertising, in my opinion is actually a pretty sucky technology and its success to date is only because all the other types of targeted advertising models are flawed. As I explain above, the technology instead should be done to better analyse what content a user consumes, through keyword analysis. Over time, a ranking of these concepts can occur ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as well as being shared from other web services that are doing the same thing.

An APML file that ranks concepts is exactly what Google needs to enhance its adwords technology. Don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t use it to analyse a post to show ads; use it to analyse a post to rank concepts. Then, in aggregate, the contextual advertising will work because it can be based off this APML file with great precision. And even better, a user can tweak it ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú which will be the equivalent to tweaking what advertising a user wants to get. The transparency of a user being able to see what ‘concept ranking’ you generate for them, is powerful, because a user is likely to monitor it to be accurate.

APML is contextual advertising biggest friend, because it profiles a user in a sensible way, that can be shared across applications and monitored by the user. Allowing a user to tweak their APML file for the motivation of more targeted content, aligns their self-interest to ensure the targeted ads thrown at them based on those ranked concepts, are in fact, relevant.

3. Privacy credibility
Privacy is the inflation of the attention economy. You can?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t proceed to innovate with targeted advertising technology, whilst ignoring privacy. Google has clearly realised this the hard way by being labeled one of the worst privacy offenders in the world. By adopting APML, Google will go a long way to gain credibility in privacy rights. It will be creating open transparency with the information it collects to profile users, and it will allow a user to control that profiling of themselves.

APML is a very clever approach to dealing with privacy. It?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s not the only approach, but it a one of the most promising. Even if Google never uses an APML file as I describe above, the pure brand-enhancing value of giving some control to its users over their rightful attention data, is something alone that would benefit the Google Reader product (and Google?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s reputation itself) if they were to adopt it.


Privacy. Stop looking.

Hey Google – can you hear me? Let’s hope so, because you might be the market leader now, but so was Bloglines once upon a time.

Explaining APML: what it is & why you want it

Lately there has been a lot of chatter about APML. As a member of the workgroup advocating this standard, I thought I might help answer some of the questions on people’s minds. Primarily – “what is an APML file”, and “why do I want one”. I suggest you read the excellent article by Marjolein Hoekstra on attention profiling that she recently wrote, if you haven’t already done so, as an introduction to attention profiling. This article will focus on explaining what the technical side of an APML file is and what can be done with it. Hopefully by understanding what APML actually is, you’ll understand how it can benefit you as a user.

APML – the specification
APML stands for Attention Profile Markup Language. It’s an attention economy concept, based on the XML technical standard. I am going to assume you don’t know what attention means, nor what XML is, so here is a quick explanation to get you on board.

There is this concept floating around on the web about the attention economy. It means as a consumer, you consume web services – e-mail, rss readers, social networking sites – and you generate value through your attention. For example, if I am on a Myspace band page for Sneaky Sound System, I am giving attention to that band. Newscorp (the company that owns MySpace) is capturing that implicit data about me (ie, it knows I like Electro/Pop/House music). By giving my attention, Newscorp has collected information about me. Implicit data are things you give away about yourself without saying it, like how people can determine what type of person you are purely off the clothes you wear. It’s like explicit data – information you give up about yourself (like your gender when you signed up to MySpace).

Attention camera

I know what you did last Summer

XML is one of the core standards on the web. The web pages you access, are probably using a form of XML to provide the content to you (xHTML). If you use an RSS reader, it pulls a version of XML to deliver that content to you. I am not going to get into a discussion about XML because there are plenty of other places that can do that. However I just want to make sure you understand, that XML is a very flexible way of structuring data. Think of it like a street directory. It’s useless if you have a map with no street names if you are trying to find a house. But by having a map with the street names, it suddenly becomes a lot more useful because you can make sense of the houses (the content). It’s a way of describing a piece of content.

APML – the specification
So all APML is, is a way of converting your attention into a structured format. The way APML does this, is that it stores your implicit and explicit data – and scores it. Lost? Keep reading.

Continuing with my example about Sneaky Sound System. If MySpace supported APML, they would identify that I like pop music. But just because someone gives attention to something, that doesn’t mean they really like it; the thing about implicit data is that companies are guessing because you haven’t actually said it. So MySpace might say I like pop music but with a score of 0.2 or 20% positive – meaning they’re not too confident. Now lets say directly after that, I go onto the Britney Spears music space. Okay, there’s no doubting now: I definitely do like pop music. So my score against “pop” is now 0.5 (50%). And if I visited the Christina Aguilera page: forget about it – my APML rank just blew to 1.0! (Note that the scoring system is a percentage, with a range from -1.0 to +1.0 or -100% to +100%).

APML ranks things, but the concepts are not just things: it will also rank authors. In the case of Marjolein Hoekstra, who wrote that post I mention in my intro, because I read other things from her it means I have a high regard for her writing. Therefore, my APML file gives her a high score. On the other hand, I have an allergic reaction whenever I read something from Valleywag because they have cooties. So Marjolein’s rank would be 1.0 but Valleywag’s -1.0.

Aside from the ranking of concepts (which is the core of what APML is), there are other things in an APML file that might confuse you when reviewing the spec. “From” means ‘from the place you gave your attention’. So with the Sneaky Sound System concept, it would be ‘from: MySpace’. It’s simply describing the name of the application that added the implicit node. Another thing you may notice in an APML file is that you can create “profiles”. For example, the concepts about me in my “work” profile is not something I want to mix with my “personal” profile. This allows you to segment the ranked concepts in your APML into different groups, allowing applications access to only a particilar profile.

Another thing to take note of is ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ which I touched on above – implicit being things you give attention to (ie, the clothes you wear – people guess because of what you wear, you are a certain personality type); explicit being things you gave away (the words you said – when you say “I’m a moron” it’s quite obvious, you are). APML categorises concepts based on whether you explicitly said it, or it was implicitly determined by an application.

Okay, big whoop – why can an APML do for me?
In my eyes, there are five main benefits of APML: filtering, accountability, privacy, shared data, and you being boss.

1) Filtering
If a company supports APML, they are using a smart standard that other companies use to profile you. By ranking concepts and authors for example, they can use your APML file in the future to filter things that might interest you. As I have such a high ranking for Marjolein, when Bloglines implements APML, they will be able to use this information to start prioritising content in my RSS reader. Meaning, of the 1000 items in my bloglines reader, all the blog postings from her will have more emphasis for me to read whilst all the ones about Valleywag will sit at the bottom (with last nights trash).

2) Accountability
If a company is collecting implicit data about me and trying to profile me, I would like to see that infomation thank you very much. It’s a bit like me wearing a pink shirt at a party. You meet me at a party, and think “Pink – the dude must be gay”. Now I am actually as straight as a doornail, and wearing that pink shirt is me trying to be trendy. However what you have done is that by observation, you have profiled me. Now imagine if that was a web application, where this happens all the time. By letting them access your data – your APML file – you can change that. I’ve actually done this with Particls before, which supports APML. It had ranked a concept as high based on things I had read, which was wrong. So what I did, was changed the score to -1.0 for one of them, because that way, Particls would never show me content on things it thought I would like.

3) Privacy
I joined the APML workgroup for this reason: it was to me a smart away to deal with the growing privacy issue on the web. It fits my requirements about being privacy compliant:

  • who can see information about you
  • when can people see information about you:
  • what information they can see about you

The way APML does that is by allowing me to create ‘profiles’ within my APML file; allowing me to export my APML file from a company; and by allowing me to access my APML file so I can see what profile I have.


Here is my APML, now let me in. Biatch.

4) Shared data
An APML file can, with your permission, share information between your web-services. My concepts ranking books on Amazon.com, can sit alongside my RSS feed rankings. What’s powerful about that, is the unintended consequences of sharing that data. For example, if Amazon ranked what my favourite genres were about books – this could be useful information to help me filter my RSS feeds about blog topics. The data generated in Amazon’s ecosystem, can benefit me and enjoy a product in another ecosystem, in a mutually beneficial way.

5) You’re the boss!
By being able to generate APML for the things you give attention to, you are recognising the value your attention has – something companies already place a lot of value on. Your browsing habits can reveal useful information about your personality, and the ability to control your profile is a very powerful concept. It’s like controlling the image people have of you: you don’t want the wrong things being said about you. 🙂

Want to know more?
Check the APML FAQ. Othersise, post a comment if you still have no idea what APML is. Myself or one of the other APML workgroup members would be more than happy to answer your queries.

Climate change: forget the science, it’s real for the market

I recently sat through a two hour presentation on climate change at work. My employer this year (a big four firm) has been mobilising to respond to the market with a climate change solution for our clients – and the things happening are amazing. They want to be first-movers in what is a huge business opportunity. Even through I have had dealings with people on the climate change team, it wasn’t until I sat through this presentation that a few things clicked for me: climate change is real. And I am not talking about the science – it’s real for the market economy.

I wouldn’t be doing any justice if I attempted to explain what I learned, however I will explain something that was a big realisation for me. This guy that spoke is a world expert, and he reckons more has happened in the last eight months of his career regarding climate change than it has in 25 years of his career. To understand why, is to understand the realisation of the markets.

Increasing shareholder value

If it’s one phrase that sums up corporations working within the framework of capitalism, it’s about “increasing shareholder value”. It’s a term that is mocked because we are sick of hearing it, but it essentially explains the market: investors make money by putting their money where they can generate more value for their buck. Value creation is the centre of everything – a start-up company generates value through innovative new products that people buy; a tax agent generates value by reducing your tax expense; a real estate agent generates value because they can sell your property at a higher valuation. In the context of corporations, people make money in companies through returns: a higher share price means a higher value of that share or piece of property. Companies are judged on their profits because more profits reflect a higher return an investor gets from that entity; just like a home being sold, it reflects the additional value they can generate from that piece of property they own.

Profits reflect shareholder returns, which come in two forms.

1) dividends, which are cash payouts from profit distributions to shareholders. An investor wants higher profits, because it means more cash for them on their existing shareholding – it reflects a better return on their investment.

2) retained earnings, which is when a company doesn’t pay the dividend but holds it so they can fund future growth. More profits, means extra cash to invest to generate more growth in the entity, which ultimately means more value. If you buy a share for $1, and the company grows and your share is now $2 – you are a happy chappy because you’ve effectively doubled your money.

How climate change now has a price

Lets say we generate x amount of carbon tons a year. The objective of climate change, is that we can reduce the amount of x with time, and then get to the stage where we can grow sustainably, which means for every x we generate, we can offset that bit of carbon so as to to generate a net of zero on the environment. That’s called sustainable economic growth.

Lets say y is the amount it costs to remove a ton of carbon dioxide. Meaning y represents the expense of generating carbon. So if you times x with y – that equals the amount it will costs to remove the carbon dioxide we generate so that we have a net impact of zero on the environment (or at least, the cost to reduce emissions). If the government forces you to reduce your emissions, like they force you to pay taxes, that expense has now become very real.

How much a ton of Carbon Dioxide will cost is a big issue yet to be settled, but as you can tell y is an important number because it determines how much it costs for you to reduce your carbon footprint. A very conservative estimate is that it costs 25 US dollars to remove 1,000 tonnes of carbon. The reason I say conservative is because more recent evidence suggests it is actually a lot more than that (I think he quoted 40 euros). Using the $25 figure, he said that it will cost us $15 trillion to remove carbon dioxide. There is so much pressure on governments from voters, lobby groups and the like, that governments (like here in Australia) are going to mandate that you offset your carbon emissions each year. The Kyoto agreement is saying a 60% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 for example.

Now as an investor, I am thinking my investments have a share of the pie of a $15 trillion expense that they have to pay each year. That’s expensive. Expensive stuff reduces my profit. Reducing my profit means lower returns for my investments (ie, lower dividends, lower retained earnings to fund growth). Holy crap – this climate change thing is eroding shareholder value. Crap crap crap – I want to start knowing what my investments are doing to tackle this future expense. I want more accountability, alongside the financial reports that companies are mandated to provide (and which tells us about profit).

And that is exactly what the investors that control $41 trillion dollars – one third of the worlds money -are currently saying.

So much more to say, but I just want to share that point: climate is real economically and the environmental cost is being built into the market mechanism. There are a lot of issues that are yet to be resolved, but you’d be stupid to start ignoring the massive developments occuring, because its getting nearer to an agreement where it will affect every transaction we make in our economies.

5 observations of how social networking (online) has changed social networking (offline)

Just then, I had an image get shattered. A well respected blogger, whose online persona had me think they were a very cool person offline, is infact, a fat geek with an annoying voice. I can pretty much cross off the list that he can relate to experiences of how Facebook is mentioned in trendy nightclubs on the dancefloor.

Another thing I have noticed: all the major commentators & players of the Internet economy, are usually married, in their 30s or 40s, and almost all come from an IT background.

Don’t get me wrong – the industry has a lot of people that are a goldmine with what they say. They challenge my thinking, and they are genuinely intelligent. But although they are users of web services like Facebook or MySpace – just like the rest of society – they are people experiencing these technologies in the bubble of the technology community. Their view of the world, is not aligned with what’s actually happening in the mainstream. No surprises there – they are the early adopters, the innovators and the pioneers. It’s funny however, that comparable to other services (like Twitter) the adoption amongst the tech community for Facebook has been slow: it was only when the developer network launched that it started getting the attention.

What I want to highlight is that most commentators have no way in the world of understanding the social impact of these technologies in the demograghic where the growth occurs. We all know for example, Facebook is exploding with users – but do we know why it’s exploding? A married man in his 40s with a degree in computer science, isn’t going to be able to answer that, because most of the growth comes from single 20 year olds with an history major.

So what I am about to recount is my personal experience. I am not dressing it up as a thought-piece; I am just purely sharing how I have seen the world take to social networking sites and how it has transformed the lives of my own and the people around me. I’m 23 years old, the people in my life generally fall into the computer clueless category, and I have about 500 Facebook friends that I know through school, university, work, or just life (about ten are in the tech industry).

1) Social networking sites as a pre-screening tool
Observation: I randomly was approached by a chick one night and during the course of our conversation she insisted I knew a certain person. Ten minutes, and 20 more “I swear…you know xxx” – I finally realised she was right and that I did know that person. For her to be so persistent in her claim, she had to be sure of herself. But how can someone be sure of themselves with that piece of information, when I had only met her 30 seconds earlier?

I then realised this chick had already seen me before – via facebook. I know this is the case, because I myself have wandered on a persons profile and realised we have a lot of mutual friends. In those times I would note it is bound to happen that I would meet them.

Implication: People are meeting people and know who they are before they even talk. They say most couples meet through friends. Well now you can explore your friends’s friends – and then start hanging around that friend when you know they know someone you like!

2) Social networking sites getting you more dates
Observation: I met a chick and had a lengthy chat with her, and although she was nice, I left that party thinking I would probably never see her again as I didn’t give out any contact details. That next day, she added me as a friend on Facebook. In another scenario, there was a girl I met from a long time ago and I hadn’t seen her since. We randomly found each other on Facebook, and I’ve actually got to know the girl – picking up from where we left off.

Implication: Social networking sites help you further pursue someone, even though you didn’t get their number. In fact, it’s a lot less akward. Facebook has become a aprt of the courtship process – flirtation is a big aspect of the sites activity.

3) Social networking sites helping me decide
Observation: There was a big party, but I wasn’t sure if I would go because I didn’t know who would go with me. I looked at the event RSVP, and I to my surprise found out a whole stack of people I knew were going.

Implication: Facebook added valuable information that helped me decide. Not knowing what people were going, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Think about this on another level: imagine you were were interested in buying a camera, and you had access to the camera makes of your friends (because the digital photos they upload contain the camera model – as seen with Flickr). Knowing what your friends buy is a great piece of advice on what you want to buy.

4) Social networking sites increasing my understanding of people I know
Observation: I found out when a friend added me on myspace, that she was bisexual – something I never would have realised. Being bi is no big deal – but it’s information that people don’t usually give up about themselves. Likewise, I have since found out about people I went to school with are now gay. Again – no big deal – but discreet information like that increases your depth of understanding about someone (ie, not making gay jokes around them). I know what courses my contacts have studied since I last saw them, and what they are doing with their lives. I also know of someone that will be at one of my travel destinations when I go on holiday.

Implication: You are in the loop about the lives of everyone you’ve met. It’s nothing bad, because these people control what you can see, but it’s great because there are things you know, things you know you don’t know, but now you can find out things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

5) Social networking sites as a shared calendar
Observation: My little sister is currently going through 21st season – back to back parties of her friends. One of the gripes of 21sts when organising them, is overlap with other peoples. Not only that – but also the physical process of contacting people and getting them to actually RSVP – it’s a pain. However unlike my 21st season experience from a few years ago, my sister has none of these issues. This is because Facebook is like one big shared calender. Another example is how I send my congratulations to birthday friends a lot more than I have in the past because I actually know its their birthday- due to fact our calendars are effectively pooled as a shared calendar.

Implication: Facebook has become an indispensable tool to peoples social lives.

6) Bonus observation – explaining the viral adoption of Facebook
I have a few friends that don’t have Facebook. You can almost count them on the one hand. And when you bring it up, they explode with a “I’m sick of Facebook!” and usually get defensive because so many people hassle them. In most cases, they make an admission that one day, they will join. The lesson here is that Facebook is growing because of peer pressure. The more people in someone’s network, the more valuable facebook becomes to them. When they say 40 million users, it’s actually 40 million sales people.

God bless the network effect.

On the future of search

Robert Scoble has put together a video presentation on how Techmeme, Facebook and Mahalo will kill Google in four years time. His basic premise is that SEO’s who game Google’s algorithm are as bad as spam (and there are some pissed SEO experts waking up today!). People like the ideas he introduces about social filtering, but on the whole – people are a bit more skeptical on his world domination theory.

There are a few good posts like Muhammad‘s on why the combo won’t prevail, but on the whole, I think everyone is missing the real issue: the whole concept of relevant results.

Relevance is personal

When I search, I am looking for answers. Scoble uses the example of searching for HDTV and makes note of the top manufacturers as something he would expect at the top of the results. For him – that’s probably what he wants to see – but for me, I want to be reading about the technology behind it. What I am trying to illustrate here is that relevance is personal.

The argument for social filtering, is that it makes it more relevant. For example, by having a bunch of my friends associated with me on my Facebook account, an inference engine can determine that if my friend called A is also friends with person B, who is friends with person C – than something I like must also be something that person C likes. When it comes to search results, that sort of social/collaborative filtering doesn’t work because relevance is complicated. The only value a social network can provide is if the content is spam or not – a yes or no type of answer – which is assuming if someone in my network has come across this content. Just because my social network can (potentially) help filter out spam, doesn’t make the search results higher quality. It just means less spam results. There is plenty of content that may be on-topic but may as well be classed as spam.

Google’s algorithm essentially works on the popularity of links, which is how it determines relevance. People can game this algorithm, because someone can make a website popular to manipulate rankings through linking from fake sites and other optimisations. But Google’s pagerank algorithm is assuming that relevant results are, at their core, purely about popularity. The innovation the Google guys brought to the world of search is something to be applauded for, but the extreme lack of innovation in this area since just shows how hard it is to come up with new ways of making something relevant. Popularity is a smart way of determining relevance (because most people would like it) – but since that can be gamed, it no longer is.

The semantic web

I still don’t quite understand why people don’t realise the potential for the semantic web, something I go on about over and over again (maybe not on this blog – maybe it’s time I did). But if it is something that is going to change search, it will be that – because the semantic web will structure data – moving away from the document approach that webpages represent and more towards the data approach that resembles a database table. It may not be able to make results more relevant to your personal interests, but it will better understand the sources of data that make up the search results, and can match it up to whatever constructs you present it.

Like Google’s page rank, the semantic web will require human’s to structure data, which a machine will then make inferences – similar to how Pagerank makes inferences based on what links people make. However Scoble’s claim that humans can overtake a machine is silly – yes humans have a much higher intellect and are better at filtering, but they in no way can match the speed and power of a machine. Once the semantic web gets into full gear a few years from now, humans will have trained the machine to think – and it can then do the filtering for us.

Human intelligence will be crucial for the future of search – but not in the way Mahalo does it which is like manually categorising pieces of paper into a file cabinet – which is not sustainable. A bit like how when the painters of the Sydney harbour bridge finish painting it, they have to start all over again because the other side is already starting to rust again. Once we can train a machine that for example, a dog is an animal, that has four legs and makes a sound like “woof” – the machine can then act on our behalf, like a trained animal, and go fetch what we want; how those paper documents are stored will now be irrelevant and the machine can do the sorting for us.

The Google killer of the future will be the people that can convert the knowledge on the world wide web into information readeable by computers, to create this (weak) form of artificial intelligence. Now that’s where it gets interesting.