Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Take My Social Network, Please

As we look around at the social landscape at the beginning of 2012, we see that social network participation on popular sites is booming.  For instance, Facebook currently has over 800 million members and Twitter has over 100 million members worldwide.  Both are still growing.  And, if you are like me, you look in on one or both of those sites on a daily basis, and contribute content when the urge strikes you.  Likewise millions of us also use our smart phones multiple times a day to stay connected in other ways: to send messages, check email, and in general stay in touch with family and friends.

What would your reaction be if government turned all those things off off for a while? Just shut them down completely. No Facebook; no Twitter, no texing, and probably no access to the internet.  Would you feel annoyed? Inconvenienced? Disgusted.  Perhaps even outraged?  Would it even matter *why* they were shut off?

Surprisingly enough if you live in Britain, your reaction might be “content,” if a recent poll is to be believed. You will recall that last August there was some civil unrest (i.e., rioting) in some of the larger cities in the UK.  Prime Minister David Cameron suggested at the time that the government might consider shutting off access to social media and messaging services like Blackberry messaging in times of civil unrest.  And how did the good citizens of the UK react to that suggestion?  According to polls taken at the time, nearly 70% of people responding agreed that during periods of civil unrest, social media services (including Blackberry messaging) should be shut down! 70%!!

I don’t find it too difficult to believe that some people would  think this would be a good action to take.  But I find that the level of support for such an action incredible, and I wonder how Americans might respond if asked the same question.  Would there be overwhelming support for the idea (70% is pretty darn overwhelming IMHO)? I would like to think there would be an uproar against such an idea in a “free” society, but I could be wrong.  While often cited as an enabler of civil unrest, social media and Blackberry messaging weren’t responsible for the Arab Spring last year, nor were they responsible for the rioting in the UK.  Actually in the UK, a study suggested that Twitter and Facebook weren’t even particularly factors in fueling the riots (but Blackberry messaging seemed to be). 

Would shutting off access to these services even be effective against a populist uprising?  I suspect not.  After all, civil unrest has been around a lot longer than texting and social networks have, and I have a feeling that shutting off access to those means of communication wouldn’t have much effect.  It might temporarily impair the ability of groups to organize, but I think that people would find ways around the blockade pretty quickly.  They have done it before; there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t do it again.

But governments have a natural tendency to think that by disabling the most convenient ways for groups to communicate, they can solve the problem at hand.  You will recall that in Egypt, access to the internet was almost completely blocked by the government in an attempt to quell the uprisings.  And of course you all remember how well that worked.

Social Networking in 2012

Originally published 12/19/2011

Last week I went over the predictions I made for 2011 to review what I got right and what I got wrong.  In yet another triumph of hope over experience, this week I’ll boldly give you my predictions on what’s to come in social networking in 2012.

Migration to Mobile:  Everyone and their uncle will be offering tablets next year: Apple will update the iPad (and maybe even offer a 7” version to compete with the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet and dozens other similar models).  Google will likely jump into the tablet market (you didn’t think they bought the mobile division of Motorola just to make phones, did you?) and Amazon is likely to expand the Kindle line to include a 10” color tablet to compete more directly with the Apple iPad(s).  Certainly the “killer apps” for these tablets will include social networking: Twitter, Facebook, Groupon, etc.  In 2012, consumer social networks will find that their traffic from mobile devices, both tablets and phones, will surpass their traffic from all other devices.

Facebook: Facebook will go public in 2012, probably in the late-Winter, early-Spring timeframe.  That’s a given considering their investment history.  What isn’t a given is what they’ll be doing with all the money they’ll presumably rake in with their IPO.  My prediction: they’ll use a lot of that money to solidify Facebook as a platform, and likely acquire (or build) functionality to compete with some of their current partners (like Zynga).  Offering games and movies through Facebook is a lucrative prospect, and probably one Facebook would like to own outright.  And the most likely end game for this strategy: a Facebook App Store, coming to your computer in 2012. Perhaps even a Facebook phone and tablet.

Google +:  The fastest growing social network of all time will finally get some traction in 2012 as people defect from Facebook and Twitter.  Not necessarily because Google + will have the superior platform, but because advertisers will be increasingly driving traffic to Google + to integrate with the analytics they already collect.  The ability of Google to sell targeted advertising based on what they know about the consumer from searches and from their social network interactions will be too valuable to knowledgeable marketing organizations to pass up.  By actively driving traffic to Google +, they’ll be making their own marketing efforts that much more effective.

Apple:  In addition to new iPads and new iPhones next year, Apple will jump into the television business.  Not with Apple TV, but with actual television sets. Leveraging Apple’s Siri interface, you’ll be able to speak to your TV and it will learn what you like to watch and serve it up to you when you want to watch it.  And what we’ll likely learn from it is that we’ll have thousands of things we can watch at any given time, but there still won’t be anything interesting on.

The election: There will be a big election in the United States in November. All politicians running for office will have a *huge* presence in social networking, all hoping to capture your attention and get your vote (or more accurately, convince you that the other guy is awful and that you would have to be a complete moron to vote for him/her—and the funny thing is, most of the time they will be right about that).  The cacophony of voices that are fed up with the political system will also take to the social netways in the US as they did last year in the so-called “Arab Spring” (boy, I wish I had predicted *that* in last years’ blog).  Whether that makes any difference or not in the United States remains to be seen.  My prediction: look for a summer of unrest unlike anything you’ve seen since the civil rights movements in the 1960’s…all enabled, fed and amplified by social networks.

The decline and death of “social” as a prefix: I’ll have to change the title of the predictions blog next year to something else, because the hype cycle around all the terms prefixed with the word “social” has run its course.  Terms like “social networking,” “social media,” “social gaming,” “social buying,” and so on are now officially redundant and will be replaced by other terms in 2012.  Organizations will stop thinking about “social” as a special aspect of their business strategy and realize that, just like the internet and telephony, the collaborative elements collectively referred to as “social” are just another aspect of doing business in a connected world.  And they’ll begin to realize that having a Facebook page or a Twitter account (or even an internal or external private-label “social network”) is in and of itself of limited value.  What they’ll come to realize is that they need to leverage their human networks in ways that are unique to their organizations in order to maximize the value created. Just what we’ll eventually come to call this evolution of “social” is anyone’s guess at this point.

And my final prediction: By late next year we’ll all be so sick of hearing about the Mayan calendar and the end of the world in December that we’ll all secretly be hoping that it actually happens sooner just to get people to shut up about it.  And what do I think of the Mayan Calendar end-of-the-world hype?  Y2k was a much more realistic doomsday scenario, and we all know how that turned out.  I guess you’ll have to tune in this time next year to find out if I was right.

Have a safe and happy holidays and I’ll see all of you in a couple of weeks.

2011 Predictions -- Hits and Misses

Originally published 12/12/2011

Last December I made some predictions about what was likely to happen in the social networking scene this year.  There were a few hits and a few misses. This week, I’ll review what I got (sort of) right and what I got (really, really) wrong.

First the hits and missed from last year:

Hit: I wrote “The largest social network on the planet, Facebook, will continue to be the 800-pound gorilla in social networking next year. The biggest challenge they Face (sorry, couldn’t help myself) will be to not shoot themselves in the foot over privacy concerns.”  And lthough there were a few minor kerfuffles with Facebook privacy in 2011, they certainly didn’t make any fatal mistakes.

Miss: I wrote “Facebook is poised to kill location-based services like Foursquare and Gowalla. Facebook will take over as the 800-pound gorilla in the “check in for rewards” category of applications.”  Hmm, not so much.  Facebook places didn’t overtake Foursquare; in fact Foursquare integrated their check-ins with Facebook.  Gowalla was actually acquired by Facebook late in the year, apparently for the people working on it and not the application: Facebook promptly killed it.

Hit (Kind of): I wrote “The aspiring gorilla in social media—Google—will release Google Me sometime in the first half of 2011 to much fanfare and pundit praise.  The public, however, will once again scratch their collective heads trying to figure out what it’s good for.” Google did indeed release a social networking platform in 2011: Google+.  It shot out of the gate with millions of people jumping on board in the first few weeks, making it the fastest growing social network on record.  The jury is still out on whether or not it will ever threaten Facebook for dominance in the space.

Hit: I wrote: “Twitter, left to its own devices, will continue to be a rising star in 2011 as more and more people figure out what it’s good for: news and entertainment. Twitter will be the “go to” site whenever there is breaking news anywhere on the planet or whenever they are in the need for a bit of quick humor.”  Twitter obviously continues to thrive, even releasing a new interface late in the year.  Unlike other revamps, the New Twitter doesn’t seem to have offended users in droves.

Hit: I wrote: “Like Google Wave before it, Apple’s musical entry into social networking—Ping—will languish in obscurity until Apple finally gives up on it late next year (seriously, does anyone really care what music Steve likes to listen to?).” I don’t think Ping is in any danger of becoming massively popular anytime soon (and RIP, Steve Jobs).

Swing and a complete miss: I wrote: “The biggest social change (but not really in the area of social networking) will come in June when Apple releases the iPhone 5 with NFC (Near-Field Communication) capabilities.  NFC will let people program their phones to behave as wireless credit cards, enabling people to leave their wallets at home.  Other phone manufactures will follow with similar functions some months later.”  Turns out Apple will be late to the game with NFC, as it did not appear in the iPhone 4S released this year.  My suspicion is that although the technology appears to be ready for prime time, Apple won’t jump in with NFC until it has an entire payment ecosystem (that they control) in place.

Next week: My predictions for 2012.

The Role of Government in Social Networking

Originally published 10/27/2011

It has been an interesting year for politics and social networks.  It began early in the year with the so-called “Arab Spring” when several countries in the Middle East found themselves in the midst of a social network-fueled demand for regime change that spilled over into the real world.  A few weeks ago something similar began in New York and has since spread rapidly to other cities in western democracies: the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Again, largely using social networks to spread the word, these protests against economic injustice have quickly grown from a few, largely-ignored “fringe” elements to a much more recognized political faction (just as the Tea Party did a couple of years earlier).

While I don’t expect the OWS movement to lead to the overthrow of western democracies, it does give one pause to wonder what the role of the US government should be when faced with a rising tide of voices demanding change to “business as usual.”

We all certainly hope that our government listens and responds to legitimate criticism.  It may be telling, though, to read through what some think the US government should be able to do within social networks.  I had occasion to review a Broad Agency Announcement (sort of a pre-RFP) from DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) entitled Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC).  Just so you know, this BAA is a matter of public record and freely available on the web (or at least it was as of this writing), so I’m not divulging anything secret or even remotely confidential.  Here are some of the things DARPA was interested in having someone develop:

“The general goal of the Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. In particular, SMISC will develop automated and semi‐automated operator support tools and techniques for the systematic and methodical use of social media at data scale and in a timely fashion to accomplish four specific program goals:
1. Detect, classify, measure and track the (a) formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes), and (b) purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation.
2. Recognize persuasion campaign structures and influence operations across social media sites and communities.
3. Identify participants and intent, and measure effects of persuasion campaigns.
4. Counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations.”

In other words, DARPA wants the US government to have the ability to monitor social networks to detect “threats,” then identify individuals connected to the “threats,” and to inject “counter messaging” into social networks to disrupt “threats.”  Now ostensibly this capability is supposed to be used to provide sort of an early warning radar to detect “events of strategic as well as tactical importance to our Armed Forces.”  And, since the US Armed Forces are not supposed to be operating within the borders of the United States, this capability is presumably intended to monitor and defuse threats on foreign soil. 

I think, though, that this would be a very difficult genie to put back into the bottle if it were ever unleashed.  To begin with, social networks aren’t greatly confined by geographic borders.  It’s a slippery slope from detecting and deflecting threats on foreign soil, to detecting threats originating on foreign soil to assets in the US, to detecting threats within the US to assets within the US.  Furthermore, what constitutes a “threat?” Certainly acts of violence constitute a threat, but what about threats of a more political nature; demands threatening protests and unrest if something isn’t done to change “business as usual?” 

In short, is what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street something that politicians (the people who will have the keys to anything DARPA builds in this arena) would perceive as a threat?  And if they do, would they be tempted to unleash countermeasures to marginalize and ridicule those messages as a means of defusing them.

Is this a capability that we want our government to have? And if so, how do we “ring fence” that capability so that it isn’t used domestically to stifle unwanted political opposition?

My Top 5 iPhone5 Wish List

Originally published 9/29/2011

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that Apple is poised to announce something about their new iPhones next Tuesday October 4th. As my iPhone 3GS is about to shuffle off this mortal coil (well, its battery is anyway) I’m going to be very interested in what Apple has to say next week about its new iPhone 5 (or whatever they end up calling it).  Here is a list of some of the items I hope they include.

Number 5: Format compatibility. I’ve owned every single iteration of the iPhone that has come out (well, my wife has the iPhone 4 although technically it’s registered to me).  As a result, I have lots of accessories that I’ve used at one time or another with one of the phones.  Probably the one I use the most is the clock radio dock from iHome on my bedside table. That’s where my iPhone parks (and charges) overnight while generating some nice white noise for sleeping. I am not going to be a happy camper if I have to buy a new docking station because the iPhone 5 doesn’t fit into the docking port.

Number 4: More Storage. In every iteration of the iPhone up until the iPhone 4 released last year, the maximum amount of storage doubled: from a maximum of 8 gig in the original iPhone to 16 gig in the iPhone 3G to 32 gig in the iPhone 3GS.  One of my big disappointments with the iPhone 4 was that the maximum memory stayed at 32 gig.  I hope that the iPhone 5 bumps that up by at least double.  I’d like a minimum of 62 gig in a new phone, if not 128 gig (which would allow me to keep all my music on the phone and have all the apps I want).  Somehow I’m guessing 128 gig is not going to happen next week, but perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Number 3: Increased Voice Recognition. The Voice Control in the 3GS and 4 is incredibly cool as far as it goes (and one of my favorite features to show iPhone owners who don’t know it is there).  There’s been much speculation that the iPhone 5 will have even more ability to interact via voice commands with Apple’s purchase of Siri and deep embedding of the Nuance voice recognition technology in iOS5.  It would be nice to be able to pick up the phone and say “send a text to my wife that I’m going to be late,” or have my phone read emails to me while I’m driving.

Number 2: Battery Life. Perhaps I’m spoiled by my old non-smart cell phones that would last up to a week without having to be recharged.  Even when brand new, none of my iPhones have ever lasted more than a day (and sometimes significantly less).  Yes, I know to shut off background programs, location-based services and the wireless technologies you aren’t using at the time (Bluetooth, WiFi and even 3G).  It would be nice to have a phone that would last from the time I get up in the morning until the time I plug it into the bedside dock at night without having to manually manage power functions to eek out a few extra minutes of use. And it would be nice not to have to drag around an extra battery pack or two for those occasions where I have to be able to use the phone for extended periods of time without being near an electrical outlet (or USB port).  I know having a user-replaceable battery isn’t in Apple’s ecosystem, but having a battery that lasts 24 hours when using the phone as intended doesn’t seem that much to ask.

Number 1: Ability to Make Phone Calls. As I’ve said many times before, the iPhone is a marvelous pocket computing device; I just wish it was better at making phone calls.  Perhaps this isn’t entirely Apple’s fault; perhaps the fault lies mainly on the shoulders of my carrier (cough, AT&T, cough).  I can’t count the number of times that my phone has been in my pocket at home and chirped that someone has just left a message without ever actually ringing to tell me they were calling in the first place!  Or dropped a call in the middle of a conversation. More than once. In the same conversation.  The good news is that if reports are correct and multiple carriers will be offering the iPhone 5, I’ll at least have a choice of finding a different carrier (notice I didn’t say better…in my experience they all suck, the just tend to suck at different things at different times).

Will any of this come to pass next Tuesday?  We’ll all find out together.