Social Networks, Anonymity vs “Real Names”

It has been very clear to me for a long time that there is a blindingly obvious case for anonymity.  The ‘use cases’ are many and various and they have been detailed in a series of posts.  For example:

Ingram Jan 2011 on Techcrunch “Anonymity has value, in comments and elsewhere”

Ingram July 2011 on Techcrunch “Google+ and the Loss of Online Anonymity”

York on EFF “A Case for Pseudonyms”

A cynical observer may buty the relationship between an unambiguous identity and online commerce spelt out by Semil Shah “Another Reason Facebook Wants a Web of Real Identities”  In short, big companies want clear online identity because it makes highly targeted advertising and next generation online commerce much much easier.

In this context Danah Boyd’s recent post is a breath of fresh air. ’ “Real Names” Policies are an Abuse of Power’ August 2011.  The piece goes beyond listing the use cases and probes deeper into the way the imposition of a real names policy has a very different impact on different social groups.  The key assertion is that such policies aren’t empowering; “theyre an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people.”

It’s essential reading.

Next generation user generated content

Hundreds of millions of people participate online.  Their participation takes many forms - bulletin boards, email, blogs, chat rooms, online commenting systems, social networks, twitter - and the volume of user generated content of all media types continues to grow exponentially.  It may seem, therefore, that we live in a world in which any user can express him or herself with respect to anything at any time.  But this is far from the truth.  The reality of today’s online environment is that despite appearances to the contrary our ability to participate, to truly engage with content, is remarkably limited.  Users participate with online content on the terms set by the content publisher.  Your content must conform to the means, places and times the publisher stipulates. Even your identity is in play as some publishers question your right to post anonymously.

If we step back for a second from the status quo it becomes obvious just how hamstrung our online participation really is.  Why then do we accept such a compromise?  

Baby elephants are tethered to a stake which they cannot rip from the ground.  They learn it is useless to fight the stake and tether.  And having learned this constraint they do not unlearn it as adults when they are more than strong enough to free themselves.  In like manner we accept our lot and passively submit to a world in which we feel privileged to be treated like slaves.

But these are rules that are made to be broken.  So I say…

Viva la revolucion.’

Social Media - personal & professional lives

There are many people who contribute valuable content and hence I want to follow but sadly Twitter and Google+ circles does not provide a way of distinguishing between their personal and their professional contributions.  Example - I follow Bill Gross.  I love his industry views but I don’t share and am not interested in his interest in photography. I’m impressed that Larry kite surfs.  But I don’t follow him to see pictures of him doing it.

In these cases I want to mute out personal content and focus on professional content.  This is not unusual.  Lots of contributors have great stuff to share but the signal has to be picked out of the noise of their personal interests.

My suggestion is that we can tag something as personal or professional and let people mute out content at will.

Google+ Circles and the future of privacy and sharing on Social Networks

The launch of google+ has occasioned a plethora of posts discussing the circles.  This discussion has raised interesting and important questions about the design of present and future social networks.  Having read people’s theories and projections about the future of circles and any such social grouping as a basic capability of SNs I have come to the conclusion that the arguments presented are premature and the truth is we simply don’t know how people will respond.  What I have not seen discussed however, which we do know to be fact is that there are many counties in the world with very different ideas about privacy, and hence perhaps the necessity for groups, than we do and a failure to recognize this can easily result in conclusions that will look ridiculous outside the culture that spawned them.

To set the scene it is helpful to mention (again) the influential work of Paul Adams.  Adams discuss the relationship between offline group behavior and online models of such behavior in talks such as ‘The Real Life Social Network‘ - His key point is that social networks such as Facebook that lump everyone together as ‘friends’ treat everyone in a homogenous way that is quite unlike the way people behave in the real world.   Offline relationships, he argues, are much more clustered and nuanced. Adams does not make the point but it is worth noting in passing that such complexity and nuance is universal across human cultures.

So the key argument for circles goes like this:  if Facebook friends doesn’t reflect offline reality and Google circles does then circles is a step forward, right?  It may or may not by itself result in market share shift to google, but it is a better model of offline behavior, providing a better user experience and hence is a better product.

Early reviews have been largely positive, notably with respect to its slick UI, but there are skeptics.  And some of their criticisms are profound - they may or may not be correct, but they go to the heart of the value of sophisticated modeling of offline behavior and hence the value of circles.

The criticisms I have encountered fall into three schools (2 & 3 are related):

  1. sharing isn’t necessary because people don’t actually want it
  2. sharing is just too much trouble to be worth the marginal benefit
  3. sharing can’t work because offline relationships are too subtle and dynamic to model usefully and maintain easily

All of these serve to potentially undercut online social groups and must be taken seriously.

  1. Not necessary

A good example of this was Yishan Wong’s interesting and provocative post on Quora titled ‘How Google+ Shows That Google Still Doesn’t Understand Social”  in which he states that Facebook has observed that unlike power user “nerds” who are prepared to sort friends “into buckets” Facebook’s “casual users” are motivated by “histrionics, narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism”  and such users indicate “increasing desire for more public information sharing.” For Wang the reason Facebook does not put privacy oriented group capability “front and center’ is because of Facebook’s experience with real users.  Their testing convinced them that most people don’t actually want groups.  Regular people are quite happy to publish publicly and use offline social behaviors such as cliques to filter the resultant noise.  Wong further develops his position with what constitutes a theory of individual behavior that he believes explains his position on sharing and groups.

Needless to say, if Wong is right, circles is indeed unnecessary to anyone other than a power user nerd.  From this perspective, any positive early reactions to circles can easily be interpreted as early adopter such nerds finding a SN that meets their needs but don’t expect it to help G+ cross the chasm.

  1. Too much trouble

Kevin Cheng’s post ‘Can we ever Organize our Digital Friends’ is an excellent example of this position. Scrupulously itemizing the alleged advantages of circles ‘Why we need Groups’ Cheng nonetheless has major reservations ‘Why Grouping Sucks.”  He quickly came to the conclusion that “ wasn’t worth the effort to rigorously group everyone.”  This idea that it’s just too much trouble seems in turn to have two variants (i) people are just too idle to learn anything new, and (ii) a form of (c) it’s just too hard to categorize people and maintain such a schema.  The only way we find out if people are too idle to learn anything would seem to be to offer them something hopefully great and discover if it is possible to find ‘the spot’ where it is worth their while or whether all such attempts founder on user indifference.  It seems to me far too soon to consider this process exhausted.  With respect to the argument that it’s just too hard to do properly, this is properly considered under c) below.

  1. Offline too subtle

Cheng alleges that whilst we are incredibly good at navigating the nuances of our social groupings in the real world, the real world is just too complex and constantly shifting for any grouping to either capture it usefully and in any event, attempts to maintain it will be unduly arduous.  Such complexity may be such that we can never usefully model it and “what I really wonder is whether we should be trying to mirror real life interactions at all.  Instead of mapping, wouldn’t it be more interesting to change or create new behavior.’  What that new behavior may be is left as an exercise for the reader.

So what are we to make of these arguments?  Do they spell the death knell not just for circles but for any attempt to group our offline relationships?  Below we examine each argument in turn.

It may be that we will discover that regular people just don’t want privacy, that they would much rather publish what may be intimate details of their lives indiscriminately and that traditional notions of privacy are eroding and fit only for nerds and activists, but even if Wong is right his theory of individual behavior that supposedly underlies this readiness to expose all doesn’t seem to hold water.  He states that  ‘Social network usage is driven by two forces - people’s own desire to share and people’s desire for information about others.” This suggests the default behavior with respect to one’s own behavior is that people want to share; that this is the fundamental propensity; and that it is this drive that may be moderated by various considerations.  But the rest of the post doesn’t proceed from this assumption.  it doesn’t discuss the ‘desire to share’ at all.  In fact the ‘product formulation’ discusses its opposite - a desire for “strong privacy for themselves.”  which is not sharing, which in turn is in stark contrast to his statement that Facebook found people love sharing.

 I see two further areas worth questioning about the argument as presented.  Firstly, this is an area where the user experience matters.  If it is cumbersome to manage groups it may well be that people can’t be bothered, but what if circles is frictionless enough?  Or - as we shall discuss below - algorithmic solutions automate the problem away?  Will users still not care?  IMHO we just don’t know yet.  Secondly, in a world in which Facebook may be ubiquitous but cultures vary enormous, does it not seem a remarkable result that ‘users’ don’t care about privacy?  that ‘users’ are narcissistic and happy to publish their lives to the world.  IMHO this has an implicit assumption about ‘users’ that is probably quite mistaken.  Perhaps cultures are converging and future generations wordlwide won’t care what they publish but that seems a long way away. Facebook is worldwide so they may well have data on such cultural differences but Wong does not discuss them.  And Facebook’s group UI is clunky so is it surprising people didn’t like it.  In the light of these concerns I feel it is far too early to take Wong’s conclusions as definitive.

With respect to grouping being too much trouble it is worth considering the work of the startup Katango that addresses exactly this problem. (Katango’s blog is essential reading Cheng mentions them in his piece and pronounces “I was impressed with how accurately they created logical groups that hadn’t occurred to me.”   Katango ’reached out to’ 9,000 people to arrive at their own assessment of the real situation with respect to sharing and came to two conclusions:


  1. Social sharing is fun and useful, but we don’t want to share *everything* with *everybody* all the time.
  2. Sharing with just the right people usually means putting together email lists or messaging groups to talk with; and that just takes too much time and effort.

In other words they don’t buy the ‘let’s all just publish to the world’ argument but they do buy the ‘it’s just too much trouble right now’ position.  Arguments about the subtlety of our offline worlds are important because if those who claim that such subtlety is forever beyond computer assisted grouping then Katango will fail and even a killer UI may to too much trouble for a subset of users.  How big is that subset?  We don’t know because we have not yet run that experiment.  But Katango has an impressive team so let’s assume they make huge progress.  The question now arises - stipulating a killer UI and effective clustering will users still find groups too much trouble?  The truth is, we don’t yet know, and this points to the broader point that we don’t yet understand what tradeoffs most users will be happy to make.  

It seems to me entirely healthy that Adam’s assumption that the online should map the offline be questioned.  But if we try to sum up the above arguments it is clear to me that conclusions are being drawn extremely prematurely.  We have never seen an SN which makes and will doubtless continue to make a serious attempt to support offline groups.  We know that google is as good as anyone at algorithmic solutions.  If Katango can derive impressive results it is surely fair to assume google will.  We are potentially changing social behaviors and we don’t know what may prove to be a new stable equilibrium.There is a huge amount to learn here.  Furthermore, it is luminously clear to me that arguments that assume that attitudes and behaviors of what clearly represents a subset of the world’s potential SN users is seriously broken.

B2C startups & a literature problem

It has become luminously obvious that startups must be thought about differently than mature businesses.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Steve Blanks, Eric Reis etc for building a corpus of useful work making the difference plain and sketching out a body of theory for how to think about startups.  

A significant challenge however is that a large amount of the literature comes from a B2B perspective.  Steve Blanks’ ‘4 Steps to the Epiphany’ is a case in point.  The process he describes as ‘customer development’ is a valuable insight indeed but as described it is full on B2B.  It is not unusual in this regard.  Many of the classics of high tech marketing have the same orientation.  Geoffrey Moore’s ‘Crossing the Chasm’ is a case in point.  It is predicated on there being classes of customers, with different psychographic profiles, corresponding to the stages of technology/product adoption.  But key characteristics of the concerns of these customer classes are very much those of businesses not consumers.

There are certainly those who have explored how to get a handle on consumer markets.  Andrew Chen recently posted interestingly on the use of google adwords to find niches that have significant demand without too much competition.  But this approach is suitable for incremental innovation, not disruptive innovation.  Such companies often find it difficult or slow to gain traction as they imply changes in consumer behavior.  Hence Twitter for example was much slower to gain traction than was Facebook which was in a well understood product category.

I have been unable to discover particularly insightful ‘theory’ on the challenges of marketing a radically innovative offering into the online consumer space.  And yet at the same time major figures such as Thiel and Levchin bemoan the lack of market entrants with truly novel offerings.  IMHO the task of launching such companies as Twitter will be eased if our valuable startup thinkers pay some attention to this problem

Microsoft, Android and Patent Licensing Cost

There is widespread resentment at MS enforcing its patents against smartphone suppliers using Android.  Such suppliers are rumored to be paying $10 per unit.  I am quite sure that they would rather not be paying it (although the cost can readily be passed onto the consumer over an expected handset life of approximately 2 years i.e. 40c / month) but is this really such a terrible deal?  

How much would it cost suppliers to develop, maintain and support a modern smartphone OS?  How many suppliers would be able to amortize the cost of the kind of volume that Apple enjoys?  And how many of them would have a clue how to develop an OS of comparable functionality.  The fact is that the suppliers are getting a hell of a deal.  Maybe $10 a pop isn’t too bad.  

Early experience with Google+

A few days into it now and I’m liking it more and more.  It’s a clean well thought out layout, very fast and I love the circles functionality.  The ability to create custom streams is exactly what I have wanted and needed for years.  Paul Adams has long argued (and I have long believed him to be right) that users needed the ability to map the offline world onto their online world with ease and better resolution.  I guess we are going to find out if need translates into usage or whether the sceptics are right and most people just don’t care.  My feeling is that usage is intimately related to how frictionless the UI is and circles scores highly here.  Ergo my suspicion is that google+ is a powerful market entrant with staying power.  If they have the stomach for a long drawn out war of attrition with an entrenched competitor fighting for its life I believe google will be able to leverage this beachhead and their existing properties (e.g. gmail) and steadily take market share.  I’m impressed.

Google & user experience (2) - the case of Google+

A while ago, responding to a writer’s criticism of google’s user experience design, I blogged that:

It’s a a good piece which highlights what is perhaps google’s greatest weakness - they just don’t get user experience design.  Too many of their products are horrible to use.  Even extremely successful products such as gmail have a UI that deserves an ‘F.’  And one suspects that other products which featured powerful underlying technology were literally doomed by an incomprehensible user interface and premature release - one thinks of ‘wave.’ The writer tellingly contrasts google’s offerings with Apple’s, which have always been focused laser-like on a superior customer experience.”

How great then that the well received google+ turns out to have been designed by Andy Hertzfeld - “the original mac guy.”  

With colorful animations, drag-and-drop magic, and whimsical interface touches, Circles looks more like a classic Apple program than the typically bland Google app. That’s no surprise since the key interface designer was legendary software artist Andy Hertzfeld.”

I take my hat off to google.  It is an extremely tough thing for a company to change its DNA in this way.  Kudos to Larry Page.

Google+ Circles

A recent post by Ben Parr

outlines Google+ - the google answer to facebook.  IMHO a very important element to this ‘new’ social network is Google+ Circles:

Gundotra explained to me that most social media services (read: Facebook, Twitter) haven’t been successful with friend lists because they’ve been designed as a “tack-on” product rather than being integrated at every level. Gundotra also believes that current friend list products are awkward and not rewarding to use.”

I completely agree with this analysis.  The irony of it however is that the social theorist who has IMHO been most active in promoting this weakness is Paul Adams, who used to work for google and now works for…facebook.

In a series of talks (see him on slideshare - ) and doubtless in his forthcoming book “Grouped: How small groups of friends are the key to influence on the social web (voices that matter)” he has promoted exactly this notion.

No small irony then to see ideas that he was promoting whilst at google now being actively embraced as he works for the “arch enemy.”

Firefox browser extensions & System Security

For those people who buy into google’s vision of browser apps any tools that help build robust browser extensions is to be welcomed.  Google is developing Native Client (NaCl) not only to enhance the performance of such apps but to enhance their security.  It is tricky to analyse large javascript programs to assess their security, most particularly because of their dynamic behavior.  It was therefore particularly interesting and welcome to read of the work of Sruthi Bandhakavi,  a Ph.D. student supervised by Research Professor Marianne Winnslett at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.  The team recently published a paper about an approach to analysis of such programs.

Sruthi built a program - VEX - implementing their approach and used to to discover a previously unknown loophole in the wikipedia extension.  Pretty cool.

Until we get NaCl javascript is the only game in town for browser extensions.  If the developers of other browsers won’t support NaCL or if PNaCl proves tricky to get off the ground it will remain the only game in town.  As such programs get bigger the challenges of developing in javascript will grow.  One such problem is assessing security risks.  In this context tools such as VEX are a blessing.

Facebook’s Censorship Problem

Michael Zimmer -  assistant professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and co-director of the Center for Information Policy Research - recently posted an interesting piece on Facebook censorship.

He followed this up with another piece.

His key point is that facebook has become an empire responsible only to itself, imposing what is tantamount to censorship enforcing polices which are frequently opaque and arbitrary, with no accountability or mediation.

The incident he discusses is one of the removal of a photo of two men kissing.  But this is but one of a rising tide of such incidents.  The question arises, why?  What is the underlying problem here?

The obvious answer is that FB is concerned to manage the user experience.  But that could mean anything.  So what is guiding the way they are going about it?

IMHO there are two related issues.  The first is facebook’s advertising business.  Advertisers do not want their ads appearing next to “inappropriate” content.  This is particularly important as sites struggle to win brand advertising.  The second is the highly public nature of facebook.  Controversial content would not be such a problem if it  were it not the case that the privacy management regime of facebook tends to make so much content is so widely available.  

This combination of huge amounts of public material that advertisers may find inappropriate is a huge management problem for facebook.  The scale of this management problem is going to result in inconsistencies, inequities and lack of responsiveness to the concerns of censored users.  It is a mammoth task to manage the ‘user experience’ of more than 700 million people and to attempt to do so in a way that maintains the illusion of an online version of the magic kingdom - a land of the nice happy people where facebookers ‘like’ things but don’t ‘dislike’ them, where heterosexual kisses are inoffensive but gay kisses are offensive and all advertisers can sleep easy at night.

Stability vs Change in browsers

Chrome has been in a state of rapid continuous deployment for some time.  Firefox has felt the heat and has moved to a more rapid update schedule.  The model here is to race ahead with technologies to make web apps as powerful and as exciting as they could possibly be.

IE, by way of contrast, has followed the old model of infrequent releases.  A version is increasingly seen as archaic and is then replaced with a shiny new version and the pattern repeats.  It is easy to see this process as outdated, as a schedule which condemns IE to lengthy periods of obviously inferior functionality.  But is this necessarily a bad thing? 

A recent public spat has highlighted the issue.  As I understand it, things started with a post by Mike Kaply in which he stated “As person involved in the corporate deployment of Firefox, I think it’s a really bad idea. Companies simply can’t turn around major browser updates in six weeks (and each one of these is a major update). ”  and that “For corporate deployments, there has to be a stable branch.”

The flames were fanned when Mozilla’s Asa Dotzler, in response, seem little interested in such problems of corporate uses.

For a summary:

So there we have it - enterprise customers crave stability and everyday users crave state of the art.  The contradiction is real.  IE offers stability.  Firefox and Chrome state of the art.  But wait…maybe Mozilla can afford to blow off enterprise customers, but Google?  That doesn’t seem right.  So the question arises - how will Google square the circle of continuous deployment with breakneck adoption of new browser technologies with its desire to be in the enterprise when such customers crave stability?


more of same concerns re firefox’s update policy

Why Chrome Extensions Execution Environment (CEEE) matters?

It was with surpassing joy that I recently learned of Google’s Chrome Extensions Execution Environment (CEEE).  The arrival of code was announced fairly recently:

For those unfamiliar with this technology it offers the ability to run chrome browser extensions within Internet Explorer.  CEEE may be seen as an offshoot of Frame.  For an overview see:

Sadly this project has gone very quiet lately and I believe it may have been shelved.  This makes me sad beyond measure and this post is an attempt to explain why.

Modern browsers need to support extensions and google’s vision for a modern browser absolutely requires extensions.  The problem for extensions developers is that there is no standardisation for the model for extension support.  Hence writing cross browser browser extensions is murderously difficult (and expensive).  Whilst writing extensions across firefox and chrome isn’t too bad IE and Safari are worlds of their own.  Suffice it to say that writing the kind of non-trivial extensions that running significant web apps promises is a problem.

Google’s vision requires dragging older browsers kicking and screaming into the 21st century.  The Chrome Frame project exists to enable reasonable modern browser functionality on old versions of IE so that this huge installed base does not act as an anchor slowing down innovation for all other browsers.  CEEE is a completely logical development of this vision.  If you don’t want IE to be a drag on progress you have to find ways to make it work in the modern world and if that means extensions you have to find a way to make extensions work on old versions of IE and ideally in a cross browser way.  If possible this would have a huge impact on the feasibility of developing extensions.

CEEE is then a logical piece of the google vision for web apps.  And I would love to see it come to fruition.  Watch this space.


CEEE was an experiment which has been terminated.  Woe is me.