Tag Archive for 'Privacy'

Platform growth over user privacy

Facebook announced that data about yourself (like your phone number) would now be shared with applications. Since the announcement, they’ve backed down (and good work to ReadWriteWeb for raising awareness of this).

I’ve been quoted in RWW and other places as saying the following:

“Users should have the ability to decide upfront what data they permit, not after the handshake has been made where both Facebook and the app developer take advantage of the fact most users don’t know how to manage application privacy or revoke individual permissions,” Bizannes told the website. “Data Portability is about privacy-respecting interoperability and Facebook has failed in this regard.”

Let me explain what I mean by that:

This first screenshot is what users can do with applications. Facebook offers you the ability to manage your privacy, where you even have the ability to revoke individual data authorisations that are not considered necessary. Not as granular as I’d like it (my “basic information” is not something I share equally with “everyone”, such as apps who can show that data outside of Facebook where “everyone” actually is “everyone”), but it’s a nice start.

http:__www.facebook.com_settings_?tab=applications

This second screenshot, is what it looks like when you initiate the relationship with the application. Again, it’s great because of the disclosure and communicates a lot very simply.
Request for Permission

But what the problem is, is that the first screenshot should be what you see in place of the second screenshot. While Facebook is giving you the ability to manage your privacy, it is actually paying lipservice to it. Not many people are aware that they can manage their application privacy, as it’s buried in a part of the site people seldom use.

The reason why Facebook doesn’t offer this ability upfront is for a very simple reason: people wouldn’t accept apps. When given a yes or no option, users think “screw it” and hit yes. But what if they did this handshake, they were able to tick off what data they allowed or didn’t allow? Why are all these permissions required upfront, when I can later deactivate certain permissions?

Don’t worry, its not that hard to answer. User privacy doesn’t help with revenue revenue growth in as much as application growth which creates engagement. Being a company, I can’t blame Facebook for pursuing this approach. But I do blame them when they pay lipservice to the world and they rightfully should be called out for it.

Manipulating numbers that don’t mean anything

Erick Schonfeld wrote a post today saying all the hoopla over Facebook’s privacy isn’t justified. I disagree for two reasons.

1) Awareness.
When Facebook announced their new changes, I tweeted why the hell no one was complaining. Chris Saad and I then wrote one of the first (if not the first) posts that criticised the Facebook move. CNN referenced our post and the entire industry has now gone over the top complaining.

Why didn’t anyone from the major blogs critique the announcement immediately? Why the time lag? For the simple fact there wasn’t awareness – people hadn’t thought about it deeply. And to validate my point, check this recent exchange with a friend in Iran when I asked him how the people of Iran felt about the changes. He had no idea, and when he found out – he got annoyed.

2) The monopoly effect
I love Facebook as a service. But I will also admit, nothing compares to it – I love it for the sole fact it’s the best at what it does. If there was genuine competition with the company, that offered a compelling alternative – I wouldn’t feel as compelled to use it. They win me over due to great technology and user experience, but I’m not loyal to them because of that.

I think Facebook has some security right now because no one is in their class. But they will be matched one day, and I think the reaction would be very different. Rather than tolerate it, people would move away. And whilst Facebook can lock my data and think they own me like I’m their slave, the reality is my data is useless with time – what they need is permanent access to me, and to have that, they need to ensure my relationships with them is permanently ahead of the curve.

An invention that could transform online privacy and media

The University of Washington announced today of an invention that allows digital information to expire and “self-destruct”. After a set time period, electronic communications such as e-mail, Facebook posts, word documents, and chat messages would automatically be deleted and becoming irretrievable. Not even the sender will be able the retrieve them, and any copy of the message (like backup tapes) will also have the information unavilable.

GmailEncapsulated

Vanish is designed to give people control over the lifetime of personal data stored on the web or in the cloud. All copies of Vanish encrypted data — even archived or cached copies — will become permanently unreadable at a specific time, without any action on the part of a person, third party or centralised service.

As the New York Times notes, the technology of being able to destruct digital data is nothing new. However this particular implementation uses a novel way that combines a time limit and more uniquely, peer-to-peer file sharing that degrades a “key” over time. Its been made available as open source on the Mozilla Firefox browser. Details of the technical implementation can be found on the team’s press release, which includes a demo video.

FacebookEncapsulated

Implications
Advances like this could have a huge impact on the world, from controlling unauthorised assess to information to reinforcing content-creators copyright. Scenario’s where this technology could benefit

  • Content. As I’ve argued in the past, news derives its value from how quickly it can be accessed. However, legacy news items can also have value as an archive. By controlling the distribution of unique content like news, publishers have a way of controlling usage of their product – so that they can subsequently monetise the news if used for a different purpose (ie, companies researching the past for information as opposed to being informed by the latest news for day to day decision making)
  • Identity. Over at the DataPortability Project, we are in the finishing touches of creating our conceptial overview for a standard set of EULA and ToS that companies can adopt. This means, having companies respect your rights to your personal information in a standardised way – think how the Creative Commons has done for your content creations. An important conceptual decision we made, is that a person should have the right to delete their personal information and content – as true portability of your data is more than just reusing it in a different content. Technologies like this allow consumers to control their personal information, despite the fact they may not have possession, as their data resides in the cloud.
  • Security. Communications between people is so that we can inform each other in the ‘now’. This new world with the Internet capturing all of our conversations (such as chat logs and emails threads) is having us lose control of our privacy. The ability to have chat transcripts and email discussions automatically expire is a big step forward. Better still, if a company’s internal documents are leaked (as was the case with Twitter recently), it can rely on more avenues to limit damage beyond using the court system that would issue injunctions.

GoogleDocsEncapsulated

There’s a lot more work to be performed on technologies like this. Implementation issues aside, the inline encryption of the information doesn’t make this look sexy. But with a few user interface tweaks, it gives us a strong insight into real solutions for present day problems with the digital age. Even if we simply get companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft ad Yahoo to agree on a common standard, it will transform the online world dramatically.

The artist formally known as liako

Yesterday I switched over my blog to a new domain name: previously Liako.Biz, it now resides as a sub-directory off a domain with my real name (http://eliasbizannes.com/blog). Further more, I renamed myself on the primary micro-blogging tool I use (Twitter) from @liako to @eliasbiz. For most, you wouldn’t see why that matters so much – but for those knee deep in social media, you’ll understand how much of a big deal it can be. In the course of my decision, I realised a few things, so I thought I’d share it here.

Your brand – it matters
I created Liako.Biz in 2005 to document my travels. Although I was partly doing it to explore blogging as a concept, I never realised that my future would be in technology. A year after my trip, I relaunched my blog with a focus on issues I came across in the information and technology sector. The name “Liako” – which is a nickname for “Elias” in Greece and used by my brother and an ex-girlfriend – extended across the web as my online identity. With all these sites I would sign up to, I didn’t think much of it. Turns out those sites now matter.

Due to my work in the DataPortability Project, the concept of online identity has always been on my mind, so perhaps I am a bit more involved in such thinking than most people and hence why I think it’s a bigger deal. More recently however, I noticed Chris Messina have to go through this thought process as he renamed his Twitter profile. Rebranding yourself is a big deal, that I can understand why Messina hasn’t got around to rebranding his blog. It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it – changing your name on a service is a big deal. The question I suppose is why is it so?

All these technology tools are enabling us to stay connected with other people. Twitter as a case in point: I was pulled into that two years ago after Marty Wells and Mick Liubinskas told me it was critical if you are involved in tech.

We are seeing now beyond the tech community but in our everyday life, our reputations grow and develop based on our online activities. As relationships form and develop through these online tools, an emotional connection is attached with the persona of the person they interact with. As soon as I announced a name change on Twitter, I immediately got a reaction from friends – it wasn’t just me, they literally felt like something had changed – validating the emotional connection people build with a brand.

Twitter _ @EliasBiz

Anyone that has a blog understands how hard it is to build up its credibility. You require hundreds of people to link to you, for your blog to even reach a credible level. So to create a new domain name, you effectively are throwing out all that brand value and starting again. It’s like throwing money away for no reason.

Why it matters
Chris Saad and Ben Metcalfe convinced me I needed to drop my liako brand and go with my real name. It’s just common sense to do that – as your profile in the industry grows, people need to know you by your real brand (your actual name), not some alias which in the flood of other aliases makes it even harder for people to remember and distinguish you.

Twitter as a case in point (again), to get value from the service, you should follow people you don’t already know -which is how I know the people pictured below. These people created their own brand which is fine, but it’s lost opportunity – as far as I am concerned, they are two separate people and unless I know them well I may not join the dots.

Twitter _ Home

Our online identities are no longer a play thing: they’re now an intrinsic dimension to our overall identity. Identity is a crucial thing that we need to protect: it can affect our emotional health due to the standing we have in a community – and it can also affect our financial security due to people compromising it. It permeates our life in more ways than one.

Working in the Internet industry, I’m more acutely aware of the importance of my online identity as it directly relates to my career. But our lives are slowly being transformed by the Internet, and even if you don’t have a career touching technology, your online identity is increasingly going to become an important part of you.

Privacy
From a personal branding point of view, it’s obvious why you consolidate your names. You don’t need to necessarily pick your real name, but you need to stick with one name that makes you unique. If you don’t have a unique name, it makes more sense to pick a nickname. However, our actual names are the only brands that matter. We are not companies selling products; we are people selling ourselves.

But something that is worth considering are the privacy implications of using your real name on everything. A Google search for me will now bring up my real time thoughts on Twitter, which sometimes are about other people – not something I want happening in real time. Using multiple names actually can be a good thing, as I don’t want some girl I meet in a nightclub to be able to instantly track me down online (which has already happened – jut because I meet someone doesn’t mean I want to be permanently connected with them!). Separately, I’ve recently had some people harass me (non-stop communicating via multiple channels that I wasn’t responding to) and stalk me (turning up somewhere uninvited), and it’s frustrating to not be able to control the communication from them as you are everywhere and cannot really hide from them.

So why did I do it
Although I’ve developed some goodwill on the Liako brand over the years, I am aware my real break into the industry hasn’t happened yet. So better to start fresh now – and do it right. My future is in the industry, and as painful as it has been to change over – getting it right now will pay off later. I’ve grown accustomed to Liako (my real world friends call me that now!), but using a nickname is exactly that. It disappoints the creative inside of me, but when we are talking about our identity – unless you’re an entertainer seeking attention – it’s worth being boring about that.

Postscript:

      people that subscribe to my blog via feed readers shouldn’t be affected;
      all my posts have been fully ported here so nothing has been lost;
      legacy links will get automatically redirected to the equivalent new URL

Online advertising – a bubble

I just recorded a podcast with Duncan Riley and Bronwen Clune – two New Media innovators I greatly admire, to discuss what the future of media was. Unfortunately, the podcast recording came out battered and my normal analytical mind wasn’t in gear to add fruitfully to the discussion.

So Dunc and Bron, here I go: why I think advertising on the Internet has a future that will repeat the property bubble that fueled the world’s economic expansion these last few decades. (Y’know -the one that just burst.)

Advertising has been broken by the Internet
Let’s think about this from a big picture first: why do people advertise? It’s to get an outcome. Ignoring elections and government campaigns, the regular market economy has advertising so companies can make money. Pure and simple. Whether it be "brand" advertising which is a way of shaping perceptions for future sales, or straight-off-the-bat advertising pushing a product – the incentive for companies is to get a response. That response, ultimately, is to take that cash out of your wallet.

Now’s lets jump into the time machine and think about companies in the 1970s and 1980s – before this "Internet" thing became mainstream. How could companies get exposure for their products? Through the media of course. The mass media had captured audiences, and they were able to monetise this powerful position they had in society by forcing people to consume advertising as they were dealt with servings of information they actually wanted.

It worked in the past, because that’s how the world worked. That is of course, until the Internet and the Web completely transformed our world.

Companies jumped on the web thinking this was simply an extension of the mass media but so much better. And they were right to some extent – it was much better. A bit too good actually, because it now exposed the weaknesses of the concept of advertising.

Take for example one of the undergraduate students that works at my firm. Apparently, this 19 year old never watches television – but he is on top of all the main shows. He does this through peer to peer technology, where he is able to download his favourite shows. I asked him why does he do that and he responded quickly: "because I can avoid the ads". What’s happening with the Internet is that consumers can control the experience they have when consuming information now, unlike the past where they marched in line according to the programming schedule. The audience is no longer captive.

The Internet did another thing: it made advertising more accountable. In the past, savvy agencies would ‘segment’ the population and associate various mass media outlets as better being able to connect with the ‘target market’. To measure, print used circulation and readership – working out how many people bought the publication, and some number out of some Actuary’s head of how many people read that same copy (through statistical techniques of assessing patients in doctors’ surgeries, no doubt). Broadcasters on the other hand, would randomly call households and using statistical methods, would estimate the number of people that tuned in.

Perhaps the fact I took statistics for my undergraduate degree, is why I am so skeptical. Even my stats lecturer admitted it was bullshit – albeit in an ‘educated’ way. In relation to the mass media, the bigger issue was the fact this educated bullshit was not disaggregated. What I mean, was that when a newspaper has a readership of 100,000 people – there is a massive assumption that if you advertise in that publication, you will actually reach them. You might have bought a newspaper to read this one article your friend mentioned – and yet, your act of purchase enables the newspaper to justify all the other pages to advertisers with a simplistic metric.

The Internet completely changed this because we no longer are relying on statistics, but actual data collected. In the past, advertisers would get a plane and fly over an Amazonian forest they picked and pay to drop one million pamphlets hoping that at least 50,000 of their target market would catch the pamphlets and respond. Of course, indirect sales activity could indicate the effectiveness of a campaign, but in reality it was all a guess. Now with the Internet, a lot of the guesswork is not required any more – and quite frankly, advertising on the Net looks bad but the reality is that the truth has now been set free.

This is looking at it from an accountability point of view, but looking at it from a practical view as well, there are issues. The holy grail of advertising, is targeting. The reason being, if you can target an ad better, you are more likely to get a conversion. However there is a natural friction with targeted advertising and it’s called privacy. As I’ve said before, privacy is the speed hump for the attention economy.

Advertising on the net technologically offers a great ability to target, with marketers licking their lips at the opportunity. However this is coming with a complete misunderstanding, that technology may be an enabler but culture and society will be a breaker. People do not want better targeting. The thought that some company profiles you scares the crap out of people. Yes, I’ve even convinced myself that when advertising is relevant, it’s useful – but this is looking at it after the fact. The problem with targeted advertising, is that whilst it may run a world record 100 metre dash, it might not get the chance to actually get off the starting blocks. Just ask Facebook if you don’t believe me.

The structural impact the Internet has had to ruin advertising
The Internet is great for measuring – but there are a few too many measures. The lack of a consistent measurement system creates several problems. More significant is the fact that different types of Internet services compete based on what model works best for them. For example, pay per action is something advertisers love because they are getting a better return on their investment by seeing a follow through. This works with contextual advertising like the kind Google uses – it’s actually in Google’s interest for you to click off their pages.

Contrast that with video sites where a person is engaged with the content for ten minutes. An advertiser can’t compare ten minutes of engagement on a video site easily with click-actions on contextual advertising sites. What this creates is a vacuum, where the ad dollars will bias those that offer a better likelihood of making a sale. After all, why would you care about capturing someone’s attention for ten minutes, when you can simply pay for someone clicking on a link which is directly linked with an e-commerce sale on your site.

This creates a real problem, because it’s not an equal playing field to compete for the advertising. Certain types of services do better under different models. Banner advertising will die, not just because people are realising the usability issues surrounding banner blindness , or the fact that banner advertising is simply a copy and paste model of the mass media days , but because competing advertising models that better link them better to final sales will become more popular. When we hear about the great growth rates in online advertising, don’t forget to dig a little deeper because the real growth comes from search advertising which makes up about half of that.

There’s another structural problem with the Internet: there’s too much competition. In the mass media days, the media had an established relationship as "the" information distribution outlets of society. With the Internet, anyone can create a blog and become their own publisher. Additionally, the Internet is seeing growth not just in New Media ventures, but utility and commerce ventures as well. Same advertising pie theoretically (ignoring the long tail effect for a second, where small advertisers can now participate), but a lot more "distributors". This creates a fragmentation, where advertising dollars are being worn thin. It’s for this reason the larger internet services tend to manage to get by . Just looking at the face of it though, you know there’s a problem in the longer term even for the bigger players when you operate in such an environment.

It’s not just other Internet services to worry about however: it’s the advertisers themselves. In a world of information, democratised by search engines judging quality content – you as a publisher are on the same foot as the company paying for the ads. Why would Nike want to advertise on your website, when it can just improve its own search engine ranking? Companies can now create a more direct relationship with their customers and future customers – and they no longer need an intermediary (like the media) to facilitate that relationship. That’s a Big Deal. It’s not just search though – the VRM Project is doing exactly that, creating a system that will facilitate those relationships.

Concluding thoughts
I could just as much put an argument in favour of online advertising, don’t get me wrong – there will be a lot of growth occuring still. But what I want to highlight, is that taking a step back at the facts, there is something seriously wrong with this model. If advertisers no longer need that intermediary to facilitate a relationship; if advertisers are chasing the industry down the tail of measureable ads that better link to a final sale; if the entire industry is not consistent and competing with each other both in inventory and in methods, in an infinite battle; and if consumers are no longer captive to the content distribution experience – it makes you question doesn’t it?

According to Nielsen over a year ago, about a third of all U.S. online advertising dollars spent in July came from the financial sector–with mortgage and credit reporting firms representing five of the top ten advertisers. Together, those companies spent nearly $200 million on search, display and other Web advertising, meaning that a slowdown would degrade fairly significant annual revenue streams. The writing was on the wall that long ago, what analysts are only now saying are troubled times for online advertising.

Just like we knew a year ago about the credit crunch, before a drastic turn of events turned it into the most dramatic economic shift in our world in our collective memories, so too will the advertising bubble burst. It will be years – perhaps decades – before this happens. However one thing is for sure – the Internet has not only ruined the newspaper, music and traditional software industries, but it’s also ruining the world of advertising. Like how newspapers, music and software are currently evolving into new models which we still are not sure where they will end up, so too will advertising be transformed.

Mr Online Advertising and Ms Media Company relying on it as a revenue model – you are growing on the basis of some very shaky foundations.

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.

Advertising on the Internet needs innovation

On the weekend, I caught up with Cameron Reilly of the Podcast network , and he was telling me about his views on monetising podcasts. It got me thinking again about those things I like to think about: how content can be monetised. Despite the growth in online advertising which is tipped to be $80 billion, I think we still have a lot more innovation to go with revenue models, especially ones that help content creators.

Advertising is a revenue stream that has traditionally enabled content-creators to monetise their products, in the absence of people paying a fee or subscription. With the Internet, content has undergone a radical changing of what it is – digital, abundant, easily copied – whilst the Internet has offered new opportunities for how advertising is done. However, the Internet has identified the fundamental weaknesses of advertising , as consumers can now control their content consumption, which allows them to ignore embedded advertising altogether. Content on the other hand, still remains in demand, but means of monetising it are slipping into a free economy which is not sustainable. I make that point to illustrate not that professional content creation is a sunset industry – but rather there’s a big market opportunity as this massive industry needs better options.

time mag

"Hey man, there’s this new thing called the Internet. Sounds pretty cool"

One of the biggest innovations in advertising (and enabled by the Internet) is of contextual search advertising. This has been popularised by Google, which now makes 98% of its $17 billion revenue from these units. This advertising dominates online advertising (40% of total) because of its pull nature, whereby key-words stated by a consumer in effect state their intention of what they are interested or would like to purchase. Whilst this is a highly efficient form of advertising, it also has its weaknesses – for example, it is not as effective outside of the search engine environment. Google makes 35% of its revenue from the adSense network , where these contextual ads are placed on peoples personal websites. Evidence from high traffic bloggers suggests they barely make enough money through this type of advertising. Another point to consider is that aspects of the Google network include significant partnership agreements like the one with AOL which accounts for 10% of Googles revenue (this is a 2005 figure which has likely changed, but Google does state in their 2007 report "Our agreements with a few of the largest Google Network members account for a significant portion of revenues derived from our AdSense program. If our relationship with one or more large Google Network members were terminated or renegotiated on terms less favorable to us, our business could be adversely affected.". AOL most recently reported for Q1 2008 half a billion dollars largely from search advertising ).

Other attempts at creating more efficient advertising which have existed for over a decade, have come in the form of profiling or behavioural tracking. However, these forms of advertising has also highlighted the growing awareness of consumer privacy being eroded, and is under heavy scrutiny by activist groups and government. Facebook is a company that is best posed to deliver new forms of advertising because of the rich profiling data it has, but it itself has faced massive backlash .

My view is that the majority of online advertising for successful individual publishers at least, has largely come from traditional approaches to advertising – a masthead blog with a sales team that uses display advertising. How effective this display advertising is is debateable with widespread banner blindness and consumer control over their content, but it would appear that this is more a case of advertisers seeing this as the least bad on the overall scale of opportunities. The fact it replicates the mass media approach of number of unique consumers viewing the content, and not the types of users, means this isn’t anything new other than being done in a digital environment.

Digital content is in need of a better monetisation system.
Targeted advertising is the most efficient form, yet consumer privacy is a growing force preventing this. What we need, is not a new advertising technology, but a new way of thinking about advertising – in a way that can help the content economy rather than riding on it without giving benefit. Contextual advertising sounds great in theory as it calculates key-word frequency of words on a website, to match it to a key word ad – but it’s proving in practice these ads are not very relevant. Yet trying to think of a smarter way to advertise, may be the wrong question – perhaps half the problem itself is advertising as a concept?

perspective

Are we running down a tunnel, only to find there is nothing there?

Content which comes in the form of news (historical and breaking), analysis, and entertainment can be monetised via a persons attention or through a transaction (ie, subscription, fee, etc). Both this approaches have different barriers.

– Attention: The key driver is increased dollars per unique person, over a period of time. The barriers to this approach is the challenge of identifying the individual in a way that gives advertising that is highly relevant and will result in a conversion. In other words, privacy privacy privacy.

– Alternative payment: Requiring consumers to pay for content is a barrier due to the paid wall. What is more problematic for digital content, is that the ability to replicate it freely makes it not just easy to do for the masses but has created a culture of if it’s not free, it’s not worth purchasing unless its really necessary. There needs to be a strong value proposition for a consumer to purchase content, and in the absense of a brand and marketing, the restriction of what value the content offers is a barrier for consumer demand as they don’t know what they are missing out on.

So as you see above, content creators are in a difficult position. Charging people reduces their opportunity unless they are really established, but even then, due to the digital environment they don’t have any control over subsequent distribution (with rampant piracy). Yet advertising is fraught with being irrelevant and hence not effective (so advertisers go to other forms) and any attempts to make it more relevant, gets held back by the concerns of privacy advocates (and rightly so). Whilst the Internet parades itself as an advertising growth machine, it’s growing in new areas but not the old areas that have traditionally been the medium for advertisers.

This advertising growth is largely being driven through utility computing products that aim to make information retrieval more efficient (ie, search). However, the growth for the content creators, is not happening. As Cam was telling me, in a market like Australia – small content organisations like TPN and Bronwen Clune ‘s Norgs , don’t have access to the big end of town for a sales team. And he didn’t have to tell me, those Google ads for the smaller guys, are not enough to pay the bills. That small to middle end is not being really catered for.

But before you jump on the phone and create some mid-tier advertising network that caters for a niche, think about the real problem: content creators need a better solution to monetise their content. But advertisers also need a better way of selling, other than some slick-talking sales person who can sell ads on pageviews (a broken model with weak alternatives ) They need advertising that is suited for their product, but the market now includes other products media outlets never had to compete with like marketplaces now happening online and utility computing products. Whilst the technology community obsesses about search , let’s also remember we have yet to see a new way to monetise content that is superior to the old world. Contextual advertising of text is the latest new thing area, but that technique is nearly a decade old. As I prove above, outside of the search environment, it is showing to not be that effective.

Where is the innovation going to come from? Not through technology but with a new paradigm shift like how content creators operate . New ways of thinking about the way we ‘sell’ like what the VRM Project is challenging. But perhaps more fundamentally, is an understanding that the holy grail of targeted advertising has got a speed hump called privacy – and that may actually be a sign of not going faster towards better targeting, but changing the vehicle all together.

Emerging trends? Nope – its been a long time coming

When I read the technology news, concepts about cloud computing still seem to be debated . I think to myself: you are kidding me right? I take a step back and think maybe the future won’t be like the current mantra, but then again, trends take time to materialise.

Scanning through my hard-disk, I could not help but laugh after I found a document I wrote to a friend in February 2006 – and as I said in the document "Those six points, as rough as they are, form core elements in my thinking on how I approach business on the Internet …[I’ve been thinking about it] since November 2003"

So below, is literally a copy and paste of that document that has seeds from way back in 2003 when I submitted a grant application for a business idea (ahem, no response obviously…). The fact that nearly half a decade has passed since I first synthesised these ideas (and no doubt, from reading of the thinkers of the day not just me being imaginative) means they are not flake predictions: they are real. Ready?

1. Digital future. All information – news reports, television shows, educational text books, radio shows – are being digitalised, coexisting with their analogue versions. Whether the digital replicas replace their analogue counterparts is pure speculation. But one fact we cannot ignore is that the possibility is there – all content is now digital. And consumers will switch to the digital version if the value of the content consumed is better realised in digital form

  • Quick case study. Many pundits believe newspapers will not exist in 15 years. I know they won‚Äôt exist in 15 years, and I have spent three years thinking about this very point. At first I used to think digital replicas, as shown by http://www.newsstand.com, was what was going to transform the newspaper business. What I didn‚Äôt realise, is that the current newspaper experience far exceeds the digital replica (I was hung up on the idea of electronic paper [www.eink.com] ‚Äì which still remains a big possibility). But I knew the digital future was going to make the current newspaper business obsolete ‚Äì there is more value out of digitial. It only just hit me recently by observing my own behaviour‚Äì traditional newspapers are not going to be replaced by digital versions ‚Äì rather, the method¬¨ that people receive their news is going to change. And this fact is embodied by the recent acknowledgment of the world‚Äôs great newspapers of not being in the newspaper business anymore, but in the information business now. I used to read every single major newspaper, and several international newspapers, as I was a debater ‚Äì I was a heavy news consumer, and I still am. Today, I still follow the news very closely ‚Äì but I have not read a newspaper all year. Why? I receive all my information needs through websites, RSS feeds and blogs. A new method, made possible by the digital future. People means of consuming content will change because of digital.

2. Internet as infrastructure. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the internet will be the core infrastructure of anything to do with information and communications. The power of the internet as infrastructure to communications and information unlocks opportunities that are transforming the world. Radio, TV, phone calls – you name it – can be done via the internet protocol now.


3. Content is king, distribution is queen – but advertising is what pays for the cost of that sting. Google now makes more revenue than the three prime time television stations in the USA. In monetary terms, that’s about $10 billion a year. And yet, 99% of that revenue comes from one thing – Google’s click-through advertising (about 45% from Google results, the rest from the Google network of publishers through adsense). HarperCollins announced last week that they are trialling a new business model of providing books for free but supported by advertising – the consumer book business up until then was literally the only segment of media not reliant on advertising as a revenue model. Whilst broadcasting organisations make money from several sources, advertising is literally the backbone of their revenue. To make money out of any content, you place a huge reliance on advertising.
In short, if you want to make money out of content, you need to understand advertising

4. One-to-one advertising is the superior form of advertising. Partly due to technological factors, the mass media could only advertise through a one-to-many medium – meaning one message to many. The digital-internet future has transformed that ability, by customising content on a one-to-one basis. If advertising, and content can be targeted to an individual’s personality profile and preferences, it allows for the value of the content to be maximised, with 1-to-1 advertising returning a higher return on campaigns Рfar superior than any other form of advertising. Superior because it can make advertising more relvant for consumers (ie, higher response rate), it can increase advertising inventory (mass media advertising is a bit like throwing pamphlets out of a plane, hoping the right people catch them Р1-to-1 means the right people get it at minimal cost and best of all, it creates better accountability which is what advertisers now demand.

5. The best business practice for one-to-one advertising is not there yet. The internet is the platform that enables one-to-one advertising, and yet, this opportunity has still not been fully exploited. There is a massive need in the market, for a means of providing personalised advertising far superior to the current technologies and methods. Google populised an innovative form of advertising through click-throughs. However internet click-throughs, despite providing more accountable and better targeted advertising, still lacks the ability to unleash the real power of one-to-one advertising. The power of the internet as a one-to-one advertising platform is still in its infancy

6. Privacy matters. Privacy is the right to determine what information is available about you, when you want it to be available, and to whom you want it available to. Current practices of companies who gain as much information about you through your sales history, your activity on the web, and the like – are often doing so without the full knowledge of the consumer. It is information collected by spying on a consumer, and whilst some people retaliate by various measures (ie, fake information, anonymous proxies), there is great mistrust by the public in providing personal information, or rather, too much to one organisation. If information is to be used about people, there needs to be proper approval – both for legal reasons (a business model cannot rely on consumer stupidity) but also for the integrity of the data (ie, a cooperative consumer will provide more reliable data)

  • Companies like Double Click who would collect your surfing history relied on placing a cookie on your computer ‚Äì what happens if you delete that cookie? And what happens if your dad, mum, and cousin from Brazil, use the same computer as you? That creates a fairly inconsistent ‚Äúprofile‚Äù of a person that is to be targeted

I had totally forgotten I had written that. And reading it now it’s a bit lame and I could probably extend on things a little bit – actually there are things I have actually written in blog posts this last year. Better still, I can provide actual evidence that validate these trends as advancing like the existence of the VRM project for advertising, the big clash with Facebook and privacy (and lets not forget the first time ), and Microsoft’s recent announcement about moving away from software (to pick but a few examples).

If this is what I was seeing in November 2003 as a naive university student absorbing what the industry trends were back then; February 2006 when I wrote to my friend what I thought he needed to consider about the future; and the fact I still agree with it in May 2008 – I think things are beyond speculation: these are long-term trends that are entrenched.

Information overload: we need a supply side solution

About a month ago, I went to a conference filled with journalists and I couldn’t help but ask them what they thought about blogs and its impact on their profession. Predictably, they weren’t too happy about it. Unpredictably however, were the reasons for it. It wasn’t just a rant, but a genuine care about journalism as a concept – and how the blogging “news industry” is digging a hole for everyone.

Bloggers and social media are replacing the newspaper industry as a source of breaking news. What they still lack, is quality – as there have been multiple examples of blogs breaking news that in the rush to publish it, turns out it was in fact fallacious . Personally, I think as blogging evolves (as a form of journalism) the checks and balances will be developed – such as big names blogs with their brands, effectively acting like a traditional masthead. And when a brand is developed, more care is put into quality.

Regardless, the infancy of blogging highlights the broader concern of “quality”. With the freedom for anyone to create, the Information Age has seen us overload with information despite our finite ability to take it all in. The relationship between the producer of news and consumer of news, not only is blurring – but it’s also radically transforming the dynamics that is impacting even the offline world.

Traditionally, the concept of “information overload” has been relegated as a simple analysis of lower costs to entry as a producer of content (anyone can create a blog on wordpress.com and away you go). However what I am starting to realise, is the issue isn’t so much the technological ability for anyone to create their own media empire, but instead, the incentive system we’ve inherited from the offline world.

Whilst there have been numerous companies trying to solve the problem from the demand side with “personalisation” of content (on the desktop , as an aggregator , and about another 1000 different spins), what we really need are attempts on the supply side, from the actual content creators themselves.

info overload

Too much signal, can make it all look like noise

Information overload: we need a supply side solution
Marshall Kirkpatrick , along with his boss Richard McManus , are some of the best thinkers in the industry. The fact they can write, makes them not journalists in the traditional sense, but analysts with the ability to clearly communicate their thoughts. Add to the mix Techcrunch don Michael Arrington , and his amazing team – they are analysts that give us amazing insight into the industry. I value what they write; but when they feel the stress of their industry to write more, they are not only doing a disservice to themselves, but also to the humble reader they write to. Quality is not something you can automate – there’s a fixed amount a writer can do not because of their typing skills but because quality is a factor of self-reflection and research.

The problem is that whilst they want, can and do write analysis – their incentive system is biased towards a numbers system driven by popularity. The more people that read and the more content created (which creates more potential to get readers) means more pageviews and therefore money in the bank as advertisers pay on number of impressions. The conflict of the leading blogs churning out content , is that their incentive system is based on a flawed system in the pre-digital world, which is known as circulation offline, and is now known as pageviews online.

A newspaper primarily makes money through their circulation: the amount of physical newspapers they sell, but also the audited figures of how many people read their newspaper (readership can have a factor of up to three times the physical circulation ). With the latter, a newspaper can sell space based on their proven circulation: the higher the readership, the higher the premium. The reason for this is that in the mass media world, the concept of advertising was about hitting as many people as possible. I liken it to the image of flying a plane over a piece of land, and dropping leaflets with the blind faith that of those 100,000 pamphlets, at least 1000 people catch them.

It sounds stupid why an advertiser would blindly drop pamphlets, but they had to: it was the only way they could effectively advertise. For them to make sales, they need the ability to target buyers and create exposure of the product. The only mechanism available for this was the mass media as it was a captured audience, and at best, an advertiser could places ads on specialist publications hoping to getter better return on their investment (dropping pamphlets about water bottles over a desert, makes more sense than over a group of people in a tropical rainforest). Nevertheless, this advertising was done on mass – the technology limited the ability to target.

catch the advert

Advertising in the mass media: dropping messages, hoping the right person catches them

On the Internet, it is a completely new way to publish. The technology enables a relationship with a consumer of content, a vendor, a producer of content unlike anything else previously in the world. The end goal of a vendor advertising is about sales and they no longer need to drop pamphlets – they can now build a one on one relationship with that consumer. They can now knock on your door (after you’ve flagged you want them to), sit down with you, and have a meaningful conversion on buying the product.

“Pageviews” are pamphlets being dropped – a flawed system that we used purely due to technological limitations. We now have the opportunity for a new way of doing advertising, but we fail to recognise it – and so our new media content creators are being driven by an old media revenue model.

It’s not technology that holds us back, but perception
Vendor Relationship Management or (VRM) is a fascinating new way of looking at advertising, where the above scenario is possible. A person can contain this bank of personal information about themselves, as well as flagging their intention of what products they want to buy – and vendors don’t need to resort to advertising to sell their product, but by building a relationship with these potential buyers one on one. If an advertiser knows you are a potential customer (by virtue of knowing your personal information – which might I add under VRM, is something the consumer controls), they can focus their efforts on you rather than blindly advertising on the other 80% of people that would never buy their product). In a world like this, advertising as we know it is dead because we know longer need it.

VRM requires a cultural change in our world of understanding a future like this. Key to this is the ability for companies to recognise the value of a user controlling their personal data is in fact allowing us new opportunities for advertising. Companies currently believe by accumulating data about a user, they are builder a richer profile of someone and therefore can better ‘target’ advertising. But companies succeeding technologically on this front, are being booed down in a big way from privacy advocates and the mainstream public. The cost of holding this rich data is too much. Privacy by obscurity is no longer possible, and people demand the right of privacy due to an electronic age where disparate pieces of their life can be linked online

One of the biggest things the DataPortability Project is doing, is transforming the notion that a company somehow has a competitive advantage by controlling a users data. The political pressure, education, and advocacy of this group is going to allow things like VRM. When I spoke to a room of Australia’s leading technologists at BarCamp Sydney about DataPortability, what I realised is that they failed to recognise what we are doing is not a technological transformation (we are advocating existing open standards that already exist, not new ones) but a cultural transformation of a users relationship with their data. We are changing perceptions, not building new technology.

money on the plate

To fix a problem, you need to look at the source that feeds the beast

How the content business will change with VRM
One day, when users control their data and have data portability, and we can have VRM – the content-generating business will find a light to the hole currently being dug. Advertising on a “hits” model will no longer be relevant. The page view will be dead.

Instead, what we may see is an evolution to a subscription model. Rather than content producers measuring success based on how many people viewed their content, they can now focus less on hits and more on quality as their incentive system will not be driven by the pageview. Instead, consumers can build up ‘credits’ under a VRM system for participating (my independent view, not a VRM idea), and can then use those credits to purchase access to content they come across online. Such a model allows content creators to be rewarded for quality, not numbers. They will need to focus on their brand managing their audiences expectations of what they create, and in return, a user can subscribe with regular payments of credits they earned in the VRM system.

Content producers can then follow whatever content strategy they want (news, analysis, entertainment ) and will no longer be held captive by the legacy world system that drives reward for number of people not types of people.

Will this happen any time soon? With DataPortability, yes – but once we all realise we need to work together towards a new future. But until we get that broad recognition, I’m just going to have to keep hitting “read all” in my feed reader because I can’t keep up with the amount of content being generated; whilst the poor content creators strain their lives, in the hope of working in a flawed system that doesn’t reward their brilliance.

DataPortability is about user value, fool!

In a recent interview, VentureBeat asks Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg the following:

VB: Facebook has recently joined DataPortability.org, a working group among web companies, that intends to develop common standards so users can access their data across sites. Is Facebook going to let users — and other companies — take Facebook data completely off Facebook?

MZ: I think that trend is worth watching.

It disappoints me to see that, because it seems like a quick journalists hit at a contentious issue. On the other hand, we have seen amazing news today which are examples of exactly the type of thing we should be expecting in a data portability enabled world: the Google contacts API which has been a thing we have highlighted for months now as an issue for data security and Google analytics allowing benchmarking which is a clear example of a company that understands by linking different types of data you generate more information and therefore value for the user. The DataPortability project is about trying to advocate new ways of thinking, and indeed, we don’t have to formally produce a product in as much maintain the agenda in the industry.

However the reason I write this is that it worries me a bit that we are throwing around the term “data portability” despite the fact the DataPortability Project has yet to formally define what that means. I can say this because as a member of the policy action group and the steering action group which are responsible for making this distinction, we have yet to formally decide.

Today, I offer an analysis of what the industry needs to be talking about, because the term is being thrown around like buggery. Whilst it may be weeks or months before we finalise this, it’s starting to bother me that people seem to think the concept means solving the rest of the world’s problems or to disrupt the status quo. It’s time for some focus!

Value creation
First of all, we need to determine why the hell we want data portability. DataPortability (note the distinction of the term with that of ‘data portability’ Рthe latter represents the philosophy whilst the former is the implementation of that philosophy by DataPortability.org) is not a new utopian ideal; it’s a new way of thinking about things that will generate value in the entire Information sector. So to genuinely want to create value for consumers and businesses alike, we need to apply thinking that we use in the rest of the business world.

A company should be centered on generating value for its customers. Whilst they may have obligations to generate returns for their shareholders, and may attempt different things to meet those obligations; they also have an obligation to generate shareholder value. To generate shareholder value, means to fund the growth of their business ultimately through increased customer utility which is the only long term way of doing so (taking out acquisitions and operational efficiency which are other ways companies generate more value but which are short term measures however). Therefore an analysis of what value DataPortability creates should be done with the customer in mind.

The economic value of a user having some sort of control over their data is that they can generate more value through their transactions within the Information economy. This means better insights (ie, greater interoperability allowing the connection of data to create more information), less redundancy (being able to use the same data), and more security (which includes better privacy which can compromise a consumers existence if not managed).

Secondly, what does it mean for a consumer to have data portability? Since we have realised that the purpose of such an exercise is to generate value, questions about data like “control”, “access” and “ownership” need to be reevaluated because on face value, the way they are applied may have either beneficial or detrimental effects for new business models. The international accounting standards state that you can legally “own” an asset but not necessarily receive the economics benefits associated with that asset. The concept of ownership to achieve benefit is something we really need to clarify, because quite frankly, ownership does not translate into economic benefit which is what we are at stake to achieve.

Privacy is a concept that has legal implications, and regardless of what we discuss with DataPortability, it still needs to be considered because business operates within the frameworks of law. Specifically, the human rights of an individual (who are consumers) need to be given greater priority than any other factor. So although we should be focused on how we can generate value, we also need to be mindful that certain types of data, like personally identifiable data, needs to be considered in adifferent light as there are social implications in addition to the economic aspects.

The use cases
The technical action group within the DataPortability project has been attempting to create a list of scenarios that constitute use cases for DataPortability enablement. This is crucial because to develop the blueprint, we also need to know what exactly the blueprint applies to.

I think it’s time however we recognise, that this isn’t merely a technical issue, but an industry issue. So now that we have begun the research phase of the DataPortability Project, I ask you and everyone else to join me as we discuss what exactly is the economic benefit that DataPortability creates. Rather than asking if Facebook is going to give up its users data to other applications, we need to be thinking on what is the end value that we strive to achieve by having DataPortability.

Portability in context, not location
When the media discuss DataPortability, please understand that a user simply being able to export their data is quite irrelevant to the discussion, as I have outlined in my previous posting. What truly matters is “access”. The ability for a user to command the economic benefits of their data, is the ability to determine who else can access their data. Companies need to be thinking that value creation comes from generating information – which is simply relationships between different data ‘objects’. If a user is to get the economic benefits of using their data from other repositories, companies simply need to allow the ability for a user to delegate permission for others to access that data. Such a thing does not compromise a company’s competitive advantage as they won’t necessarily have to delete data they have of a user; rather it requires them to try to to realise that holding in custody a users data or parts of it gives them a better advantage as hosting a users data gives them complete access, to try to come up with innovative new information products for the user.

So what’s my point? When discussing DataPortability, let’s focus on the value to the user. And the next time the top tech blogs confront the companies that are supporting the movement with a simplistic “when are you going to let users take their data completely off ” I am going to burn my bra in protest.

Disclosure: I’m a hetrosexual male that doesn’t cross-dress

Update: I didn’t mean to scapegoat Eric from VentureBeat who is a brilliant writer. However I used him to give an example of the language being used in the entire community which now needs to change. With the DP research phase now officially underway for the next few months, the questions we should be asking should be more open-ended as we at the DataPortability project have realised these issues are complex, and we need to get the entire community to come to a consensus. DataPortability is no longer just about exporting your social graph – it’s an entirely new approach to how we will be doing business on the net, and as such, requires us to fundamentally reexamine a lot more than we originally thought.