• 01Jan

    Anyone who has worked in the technology has heard of Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the World Wide Web. He continues to be a force shaping the Internet, and he sees social media as a threat to the principles of the web, as he notes in an article in the December issue of the Scientific American, “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.”

    According to Berners-Lee, what makes the Web work is the principal of universality, the ability to connect to anything and offer information in a common format that can be read by anyone. Whether the connection is wired or wireless, and the data is written, graphic, or spoken, it should be accessible from any device that can connect to the Internet. Along with universality, the Web calls for decentralization. As with the Internet itself, the Web has no central server or authority that monitors or approves content. In fact, the open nature of the Web has made it a truly democratic world medium. As a recent editorial on Technorati notes:

    The principles of an egalitarian society where all are equal immaterial of race, colour, class, wealth or nation is embodied in the web today. It has become the beacon of democracy and is more vital to free speech than any other medium, because it is perhaps the least censored most used and universally connected resource in the world.

    What Berners-Lee sees as a threat to the openness and democratization of the Web are the increasing numbers of walled off Internet content. We are talking about social media. Emerging business models that are attracting lots of users and inviting them to a private party where information is shared only among those who have been invited to join in. As Berners-Lee writes in his article in the Scientific American:

    Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.

    With the social media explosion, I believe that Web users are confusing social media and the Web. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, ant Twitter are not open platforms. They are proprietary platforms that are operated as businesses, but that fact is becoming obscured by their popularity. Facebook is now the most popular destination on the Internet, even surpassing Google, but it’s still not an open platform. As Berners-Lee notes, the threat of monopoly limits innovation, and freedom.

    The social media and Web explosion has led to mega-monopolies like Google and Facebook. These entities have become so popular that they have developed their own juggernaut-like momentum, and yet they are still not open platforms but businesses. Democracy does not thrive in a business setting, since money is the fuel that drives the business. Granted, companies like Google say they will protect your privacy, and things like Gmail are protected by the company. Google even has the phrase “don’t be evil” as part of their code of conduct. But even a benevolent despot is still a despot.

    Then you have to consider entities like Facebook. If you haven’t seen the film “The Social Network” I recommend it, not only as a good film but to give you some insight into the ethics that went into forming the company. Facebook is in business to make money, billions of dollars in fact, and they do it by maintaining a closed infrastructure and gathering information about its users that they can use for profit. Facebook has had a number of privacy issues arise in the past, and they will sell your information for a profit This from InfoWorld commentator Bill Snyder on “Why Facebook is selling you out – and won’t stop”:

    The root of Facebook’s most recent transgression (allowing third-party apps to harvest user IDs) is greed — greed for the millions of dollars that app developers are pulling from the site. Facebook wants a piece of that action, and if privacy, freedom of speech, or any other trivial concern users may have get in the way, that’s just too bad.

    One of the other guiding principles of Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web is “no snooping.” Content in e-mail and even the TCP/IP data stream need to be considered private, and freedom of speech needs to be protected on the Web. Private entities like Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, and Twitter don’t have to adhere to those principles.

    So what are the implications of all this for marketers? You have to dance with those who bring you to the party, and as long as the party is happening at online locations like Facebook and Twitter, that’s the place you need to be. But be wary. Remember that places like Twitter and Facebook are still a private party and you are there by invitation only, and subject to the rules of your host. Conduct yourself accordingly.

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  • 25Mar

    Over the years, I have worked with a number of companies in the technology security sector. In fact, I am currently working on a project for FaceTime Communications to launch a new software product to secure, track, and archive conversations on enterprise networks, including conversations sent over public IM networks. FaceTime has products that help corporate users secure Web 2.0 conversations on the enterprise, so when you log in to your Facebook or Twitter page from your office computer, you know that Big Brother in the IT department is watching.

    And there is good reason for these Web 2.0 watchdogs. Government regulations are driving corporate paranoia, and legal counsel , CFOs, and others are telling IT they have to keep track of ALL online conversations and data exchanges so they are prepared in case the company is audited for compliance with HIPAA, SOX, FINRA, or whatever regulatory agency matters to you. So private corporations are becoming increasingly concerned about threats from public networks, such as the introduction of some kind of malware, or more likely, some kind of data leak or employee malfeasance that puts the company at legal risk.

    But what if there was a free exchange of web information? What if organizations became less concerned about locking up their corporate data and more concerned with contributing to the greater pool of human knowledge and understanding. What is fascinating about the Internet and the World Wide Web is that is an open, self-policing entity. The reason that Wikipedia works, for example, is that people are inherently seekers of truth and will correct each other’s errors. The Web is a giant experiment in the democratization of data. There is an inherent faith that for every malicious rumor or deliberate lie posted on the Web, there will be hundreds of other posts with opposing views and accurate information, and the truth will find its way to the top of the search engines.

    Which is why I was fascinated by this latest report from the godfather of the web, Tim Berners Lee, who is calling for an open exchange of data between governments, scientists, and institutions. Just as the Web has the power to serve up more accurate information through democratization, by making more information public, there is an even greater opportunity for smart people to combine information to uncover new revelations and greater truths.

    Check out the video and tell me, is it better to lock the data vault and hide the key, or should we be less concerned about data security and more concerned about finding ways to share information in ways that will lead to new revelations, new solutions, and new ultimate truths?

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  • 12Nov

    internetbdayI can’t believe that I forgot the Internet’s 40th birthday. Throughout most of my professional career the Internet has been a steadfast ally; a friend that has helped me stay in touch and brought me new business. I have been writing and talking about Internet technology for 25 years now. Some of my first clients sold TCP/IP stacks for Windows, VMS, and Macintosh (no, the IP protocol wasn’t always bundled with the OS). I worked with early SMTP vendors, including the guys who created the MIME standard that lets us send files by e-mail, and the first SNMP stack vendors selling raw, Internet management goodness.

    The march of alphabet soup has continued over the years, the Internet has become a bosom companion. Who knew that from the early ARPANET days, the Internet would grow from a network of loosely connected college computers to a global infrastructure supporting billions of users? One of the things that continues to amaze me about the Internet is that it is an autonomous entity. There is no central Internet authority. And while the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) remains the harbinger of evolving networking standards, the Internet infrastructure itself has become a self-healing mesh of data arteries that remains incredibly reliable, even though no one entity is really in charge.

    The Internet’s actually birthday is somewhat in question. One group claims that it was born in 1961 when Dr. Leonard Kleinrock presented a paper on packet-switching at MIT. Most acknowledge the Internet was born in 1969 when data was transmitted by two California universities. Wherever you set the marker, the world has never been the same since.

    And it is important to remember that the Internet is not the same as the World Wide Web. The Web has made the Internet more consumer-friendly and commercially accessible, but the Web is only 20 years old. Tim Berners Lee first proposed the concept of the Web to CERN management in March 1989. However, the Web is just another protocol that runs over the Internet, like e-mail of file transfer.

    So with the growth of the Internet and the Web, our world has changed. And as a PR professional, our world has changed dramatically as well. I have been doing PR long enough to remember stuffing envelopes with press releases that were mailed to editors for publication. Today, of course, data is distributed via e-mail, blog posts, Twitter, and any number of other Internet-driven communications. Information access has become virtually instantaneous, which makes our jobs as publicists infinitely more challenging. We have to make our clients’ stories more compelling, more relevant, and more Web-friendly in order to have an impact. We need to engage in the Internet-driven conversation, rather than pitching stories in a one-way channel, pleading with editors to write about our clients.

    The Internet has made the world much smaller, and given us instant access to an unprecedented amount of data. I believe that part of our responsibility as PR professionals is to use the power of this incredible technology for good, and to promote best practices, authenticity, and adopt new methodologies that promote truth and authenticity. And the 40th birthday of the Internet seems to be an appropriate moment to pause and consider what role we can play in shaping the future of the information revolution.

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  • 11May

    When I saw Eli Pariser TED presentation on  has come up with a concept called the “The Filter Bubble,” I was reminded of the old Outer Limits television show and their opening sequence: “We are controlling the transmission… We will control all that you see and hear…”

    What Pariser points out is that your Internet experience is being monitored and, more importantly, managed. Okay, this isn’t really news. If you have a subscription to Netflix or shop on eBay or Amazon you know that they have built algorithms into their systems to offer suggestions based on past shopping patterns and preferences. That actually seems, well, helpful. However, what Pariser points out is that by controlling what is delivered online, we are actually creating islands of Web experience that insulate us from other areas of the Web that may challenge our thinking or desires. Apparently, with the help of search bots and search algorithms, we are all creating our own gated communities of web experience where the online vendors and search providers are serving as the gatekeepers.

    For example, it never occurred to me that Google, Yahoo, and other search engines are tailoring search results based on what they know about me. Apparently the search results are filtered based on IP address (work or home), computer you are using, time of day, and other criteria. Okay, I expect that from advertisers, since microtargeting consumers is not particularly new. However, I am appalled that my search results are being filtered to provide a more personalized and thereby insular experience.

    I was fascinated by the example Pariser offered to prove his point. He had two friends search Google for the term “Egypt,” and one friend retrieved the latest political news while the other retrieved vacation and travel information. Huh? You mean web search is not a neutral playing field? You mean when I look for online information I will get data customized by some robot based on what it “thinks” I am looking for?

    Pariser is correct in his assessment that this kind of controlled experience is dangerous. We need to be challenged regarding our world view and we need to be able to share opposing viewpoints. I know my liberal spouse has spirited debates with her conservative compatriots on Facebook, but everyone appreciates the dialogue. What happens when those conversations get filtered out because those conversing are not “like minded”? Then we all lose. The Web should be used to promote the open exchange of information and understanding – that’s what Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.

    More importantly, Pariser’s observation’s demonstrate that you can’t rely on the web for objectivity. It is not a neutral news source, and the organizations that are promoting the news are for-profit, which means they are tailoring their data to keep you coming back as a user and potential customer. As Pariser notes in his presentation, in the past we have had editors as watchdogs of journalistic standards, to help promote informational integrity and promote fair reporting and access to information. With the free-for-all of the web, bloggers are now being treated like journalists but they are not held to the same standards, and now apparently the webbots are acting as news editors and determining whether we should receive the facts according to the New York Times or Page Six.

    I, for one, like to make my own determinations based on all the available data; not just the information some computer algorithm thinks I might find interesting. How about you?

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  • 26Apr

    I have a client in the social media market who refers to the Holy Trinity of Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Certainly these are the three most popular social media destinations where users flock to hear the latest news and connect with friends, family, and associates. But as I have noted previously in this blog, these are private companies, they are not part of the Web or the Internet, although they certainly use those resources. And while the open structure of the Internet means that the Web is likely to endure, these companies are capitalists after all and will only continue to grow as they become profitable.

    Which brings us to Twitter.

    My wife recently directed me to an article in Fortune entitled “Trouble @Twitter,” and the story read to me like the biography of a typical Silicon Valley startup,with all it’s ups and downs. One of the great things about technological innovation is the ride is never boring, and today’s boom can be tomorrow’s bust. You can have the best technology on the planet, but without a solid understanding of your roadmap and the value your customers get from your service, there’s no guarantee of staying power. (How many remember to dot.bomb bubble a decade ago when the slogan was, “If you build it they will come”?)

    Okay, the concept of microblogging is cool, and Twitter has developed a huge following – 200 million registered users compared to 600 million for Facebook. However, how many of those users are active? But what is Twitter doing to monetize all that traffic? They’ve tried paid tweets, but is that really paying off? This from the Fortune article:

    Just two years ago Twitter was the hottest thing on the web. But in the past year U.S. traffic at Twitter.com, the site users visit to read and broadcast 140-character messages, has leveled off. Nearly half the people who have Twitter accounts are no longer active on the network, according to an ExactTarget report from January 2011. It has been months — an eternity in Silicon Valley — since the company rolled out a new product that excited consumers. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg used to watch developments at Twitter obsessively; now he pays much less attention to the rival service. Meanwhile companies are hungry to advertise, but Twitter hasn’t been able to provide marketers with enough opportunities. Last year the company pulled in a mere $45 million in ad revenue, according to research firm eMarketer. Facebook brought in $1.86 billion.

    It’s interesting that Twitter was born out of chaos. As the article explains, co-founders Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey found their start-up, Odeo, made obsolete by iTunes and were trying to figure out what to do with their venture money when Dorsey Came up with Twttr to let other people know what you were up to. I think any business expert will agree that “throwing it against the wall to see what sticks” is not a sound business strategy, yet that was the birth of Twitter. To this day, Twitter seems to lack a clear business objective, partially because of changes in leadership, but mostly because the vision seems to have been lacking from the start. Mark Zuckerberg has been with Facebook since Day 1, guiding its operations and providing a consistent vision for growth that seems to be paying off. Twitter doesn’t have those same strong roots, and it shows.

    So even the most popular technologies can fail without proper nurturing. Remember the Betamax? Imagine what would happen if Twitter pulled the plug tomorrow because they couldn’t #gettheiracttogether. The short answer is, not much. The world would keep turning and the loss of Twitter would be noticed by a fraction of those 200 million subscribers, but something else would rise in its place. Another platform would emerge to make up the third part of the Holy Trinity of social media.

    I am not sounding the death knell for Twitter. They have a huge market opportunity, but they still haven’t figured out how to make it pay. Once they find the right formula, they could be innovators for years to come, or they could fade away. But the hole they would leave will be filled by another entrepreneur with a better business plan, or by an existing company that can acquire Twitter and take it to the next level.

    Twitter has demonstrated the power of connection. And whether they succeed or fail, they have proven that we want to connect, even at 140 characters. No matter what for it takes, the power of connection will continue to open up new possibilities for marketers.

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