Tag Archive for 'social computing'

It’s all still alpha in my eyes

The invention of hypertext has been the most revolutionary thing since two previous technologies before: the printing press and the alphabet. Combined with computing and the Internet, we have seen a new world represented by the World Wide Web that has transformed entire industries in its mere 19 15 year existence.

The web caught our imagination in the nineties, which became the Dot-Com bubble. Several years after the bust, optimism reawakened when the Google machine listed on the stock exchange – heralding a new era dubbed “web2.0”. This era has now been recognised in the mainstream, elevated by the mass adoption of the social computing services, and has once again seen the web transform traditional ideas and generate excitement.

The web2.0 era is far from over – the recent global recession however has flagged though that the pioneers of the industry are looking for something new. As the mainstream is rejuvenated by web2.0 like the Valley was not that long ago, it’s time to now look for what the next big thing will be. Innovation on the web is apparently flattening. Perhaps it has – but the seeds of the next generation of innovation on the web are already here.

Controversy of the meaning of web2.0 – and what its successor will be – should not distract us. We are seeing the web and associated technologies evolve to new heights. So the question is not when web2.0 ends, but what are we seeing now, that will dominate in the future?

My view:
• The mobile web. The mobile phone is now evolving into a generic entertainment device, becoming a new computing device that extends the reach of the internet. First with the desktop computer, and then with the laptop computer – new opportunities presented themselves in the way we could use computers. The use of this new computing platform will create new opportunities that we have only scratched the surface.
• The 3D web. Visit second life, the virtual world, as you quickly note the main driver of activity is sex and that it’s just a game. However, porn and games have spearheaded a lot of the innovation of technology in the past. The 3D web is now emerging with four separate but related trends: virtual worlds, mirror worlds, augmented reality and lifelogging.
• The data web. Data has now become a focus in the industry. The semantic web, eventually, will allow a weak form of artificial intelligence that will allow computer agents to work in an automated fashion. Vendor Relationship Management is changing the fundamental assumptions of advertising, with a new way of how we transact in our world. Those trends, when combined with the drive for portability of peoples data, is having us see the web in a new light with new potential. Not as a collection of documents, and not as a platform for computing, but as a database that can be queried.

So to get some discussion, I thought I might ping some smart people I know in the industry on what they think: Chris Saad, Daniela Barbosa, Ben Metcalfe, Ross Dawson, Mick Liubinskas, Randal Leeb-du Toit, Stewart Mader, Tim Bull, Seth Yates, Richard Giles as well as you reading this now.
What do you think is currently in the landscape that will dominate the next generation of the web?

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.

The power of feedback

Validation of a persons self-worth is a key aspect of being human. Why do we like praise, but not criticism? Because the former validates our self-esteem, the latter contradicts it. Insecure people tend to seek more validation from other peoples opinions – because they need other peoples opinions to validate their self-esteem. Wonder why the modest don’t boast? It’s because their validation is not derived from having to tell you so that you know. They already know you know, and if you don’t agree, they don’t care – they’re self validated.

However no matter how secure you are with yourself, everyone loves a bit of validation – it’s just some people need it more than others, or possibly, we all have different ways in how we validate ourselves. Some fish for compliments on their looks; others validate themselves through great achievements. Validation of who we are, is what drives almost everything we do. That’s why an atheist should never bag out religion to a believer – the argument about whether God exists is irrelevant; what is relevant, is that by criticising the existance of a religious establishment, you are actually criticising a person’s self-identity that has been built on that establishment, by effectively de-validating their belief system.

Motivation systems are complex, and I by no means claim to be an expert – but I do know, that the power of feedback is one of the most effective ways of motivating an individual, especially when it comes to content creation. In the context of web-services, recognition and validation are key: people will stick around on your site, if they feel a greater sense of self-worth because of it.

There are two ways people feel validated on online communities: analytics and responses. Analytics in the sense of statistics: page and profile views, unique visitors, popular content. Most bloggers arn’t really making money out of their blog – so why is software that provides statistics on their readership so popular? Because knowing people read your blog, is a form of validation. A bit like how an insecure teenage girl feels validated by the attention she myspace profilegets from sleazy older men. Right now, I am writing this blog entry because a reader asked if I could write more about the interaction between psychology and successful web start-ups. His comment validated my opinions, spurring me to write more on the subject.

Likewise, Myspace users will post a “Thanks for adding me” comment on a new friend. Why? Because it means more people will visit their profile. The reason I can say there are ulterior motives to just thank someone, is because they could have said “thanks for adding me” as a private message. So it then begs the question of why do they want more people to visit their profile? Because people get an ego boost seeing their page count go up.

Statistics to something you’ve created, are a quiet form of feedback. The more views, the more validated you feel by that. Popularity is a great feeling!

A second type of validation, is a bit more direct: it’s through the interactions with people. When people create content – photos, blog postings, whatever – nothing is more satisfying for them than a comment.

Features like Flickr’s recent activity are also apparently, what makes it so addictive. Again – it’s a form of validation. By responding to something someone has created, you are giving value to that creation – that feedback can make someone justify the effort, by providing recognition.

Sometimes the most powerful way a boss can keep their employees satisfied, is by a simple “thank you”. Recognition for effort expended by someone, can sometimes be all that someone needs to keep going.

Think you have a killer web2.0 app? You might. But unless a user feels like they are getting feedback on their existance and content creation, their first visit will likely also be their last. Feedback feels good. People want to feel good. So go and make them feel good about themselves.

Social networks as the new e-mail

The other day, I received my first spam message within Facebook, which I thought was reminiscent of the Nigerian scam

Please if you are reliable and Interested in been a commissioned rep with our company we will be glad but you have to be a Trustworthy person. We have sold out to major galleries and private collectors from few parts of the world. We have been facing serious difficulties when it comes to the payment method, i.e The international money transfer tax for legal entities (companies) in Latvia is 25%, whereas for the individual it is only 7%.There is no sense for us to work this way, while tax for international money transfer made by a private individual is 7% .That's why we need you! Branches have been set up in few countries,and the head branch in UK.we are working on setting up a branch in the states, so for now i need a representative in Canada, America,Asia,New Zealand,and Europe who will be handling the payment aspect. so all you need do is cash the Payment,deduct your percentage and wire the rest back.</p> <p>JOB DESCRIPTION? 1. Receive payment from Clients 2. Cash Payments at your Bank 3. Deduct 10% which will be your percentage/pay on Payment processed. 4. Forward balance after deduction of percentage/pay to any of the offices you will be contacted to send payment to(Payment is to be forwarded either by Money Gram or Western Union Money Transfer).

But unlike spam I would get in my e-mail inbox, I could actually check the profile of the user that sent the message to me. It was empty and a dud – which is how I could assess it was spam. Spam through a closed social networking site like Facebook has very different implications to e-mail spam: it’s accountable.

Unlike e-mail spam, you don’t know who is sending it. Sometimes, the e-mail spammers can make it look like it comes from a certain company you trust (like your bank). This also to some extent happens on myspace, whereby spammers do up their profile and deceivingly make it look like a real profile when it isn’t (ie, a pretty girl with her interests filled out – but as soon as you click somewhere, it takes you to a porn referral site). Facebook is different, because people can’t modify their profiles (yet) like you can on myspace, so the person sending the message is a lot more accountable to their true identity. You can judge how real they are by the amount of friends they have, information in their profile, and postings on their profile from other people.

Profile comments are the key aspect – no comments, suggests a fake account – because you can’t fake friends to post real discussions. A spammer would need to create a few dozen profiles, to replicate the thread of discussion via peoples profiles, so that it could make someones profile look “real”: that’s a lot of effort that a computer robot can’t do on it’s own.

A new way of communicating

Aside from this, there is something more interesting: I rarely use e-mail to communicate with friends anymore. Messages or comments/wallposts are now the new way of how people communicate. In the old days, people would forward a funny video – now they “post a bulletin”. People post “notes” and tag their friends if they are mentioned in the note – a bit like writing a story, and alerting those who are involved to have a look. It’s the equivilant to sending an e-mail to a group of people – but leaving it somewhere where all your other friends can have a read as well if they want. That is huge – this open style of communication is something e-mail never did.

I’ve previously written how the “post a comment” feature is one of the most powerful features of social networking sites. When I say these sites are the new e-mail, it’s not just messages that are the means of communicating – it’s actually mostly through these profile comments that people have these discussions. The interesting thing about this new way of communicating, is that two people can be having a discussion, however all their friends can monitor the conversation. For example, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment of a Ukrainian friend of mine on her facebook profile wall, and another mutual (Ukrainian) friend saw the comment and joined in defending Ukrainians!

Social networking sites work because they are creating a community feel, where people interact within a tribe or small village that everyone knows each other, and they communicate in what is like a open forum. If it’s one thing I am sure of, these sites are no longer fads: they are a positive evolution of the Internet as a communications medium. It appear solutions to e-mail spam with clever algorithms that can filter messages arn’t the way forward; the solution is to be found in new ways of communicating, and that is what social networking sites do really well.