Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Fuck the cloud – a reminder

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… worth making in these troubled times:

Insult, berate and make fun of any company that offers you something like a “sharing” site that makes you push stuff in that you can’t make copies out of or which you can’t export stuff out of. They will burble about technology issues. They are fucking lying. They might go off further about business models. They are fucking stupid. Make fun of these people, and their shitty little Cloud Cities running on low-grade cooking fat and dreams. They will die and they will take your stuff into the hole. Don’t let them.
Jason Scott of ASCII in Fuck the Cloud

The menace of targetted advertising

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My friend Brian has a marvellous rant about advertising, with a respectful nod towards my anti-advertising rants that he has had to listen to for years now. :)

And if it [an advert] is targetted at me, then to hell with it. If someone is only saying this to me, then I’m almost certainly not interested. What I want to know about is what someone rich thinks it worth his while to say to everybody. It is exactly the untargetted nature of old-fashioned adverts, Real Adverts in Real Advert Space, that makes them so useful and amusing to me. Untargetted adverts are Real Adverts. Targetted adverts are visual spam.

An interesting perspected on tragetted or behavioural advertising based on the assumption that Real Adverts, as Brian calls offline advertising, worked because it implied that a) many people may think this is worthwhile to buy and b) someone had enough money to pay for the ads.

He also makes a very important distinction that I haven’t seen elsewhere about the offline advertising happening in a public space whereas the internet and especially one’s web surfing is de facto (if not de jure, as it were) a private space.

Advertising still works, in Real Advert Space, in such places as the Underground or Trafalgar Square or an airport or beside the motorway – in the sense, as I say, that it does not induce active hostility. But the internet is not a “public space”. It is my personal space, or something, or I don’t quite know what. Whatever it is exactly, the internet is certainly not a giant collection of Undergrounds and Trafalgar Squares. What works on the internet is someone talking to me, or writing talkatively for me, in a manner that I can easily switch off and can choose to go on listening to.

There is no doubt what Brian thinks about ‘targetted’ advertising. :)

What absolutely does not work is some hired twat dripping with insincerity, whom I know nothing about except this, standing right next to me and the person who is now talking with me so amusingly, and shouting into my ear – because the hired twat has “targetted” me.

That’s what Adblock Plus is for…

Bonus link: Political Blogs’ Double Whammy: Post-Election, Deep Recession

Enabling vs Providing

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Talking to Doc earlier this week, I tried to explain my unease with various interpretations of VRM that come thick and fast as the concepts gain traction by identifying the fundamental problem.*

It is the assumption that “the individual needs to be provided for” that I see everywhere other than on the social (or live) web where the demand side can, and often does, supply itself, where users can and often do become creators, where the audiences have become distributors, and intermediaries of all kinds are melting away from decentralised networks and direct connections. Alas, even on the web, it’s not all P2P roses – my online existence is scattered across many platforms, Google, WordPress, Flickr, Dopplr, Twitter, and many more.

Most VRM approaches or implementations I have seen involve a third party as a provider. I believe we first need to focus on changing the relationships between individuals and companies or institutions. First comes redressing the balance – manually, as it were – by helping individuals relate to companies in ways that change companies’ behaviour.

Most of all, I want to avoid using technology to address a non-technology problem, using automation or aggregation for the aspects of relationships which should be processed by a human mind. I want to avoid jumping straight into ‘industrial’ processing of data treasures found on the customer side. We need a more balanced relationships with vendors and institutions, with different tools and possibly rules of interaction. Then we can look at ways to rationalise the technology and processes that help us create and maintain those relationships.

The most common solutions for providing individuals with online services are based around centralised databases or platforms. They are suspect on security and privacy grounds even though they may be created by a trustworthy party. So, any framework or structure provided by a third party that is meant to provide a place for individuals to create, gather, manage and share data as well as allowing a degree of aggregation, connectivity, will have to have in-built checks and balances as it may ultimately expose individuals to potential data-mining (whether the more private among us like it or not!). The challenge is to separate the data storage provider and a services/application provider. If I let someone store or back up my data – reluctantly admitting it may still be necessary for now – I would want them to store my data only, and not push or even provide any other apps based on that data. I should then be able to choose and apply whatever application I want, to my data, at my convenience.

Jason Scott of ASCII has a juicy way of putting this:

This is about your data. This is about your work. This is about you using your time so that you make things and work on things and you trust a location to do “the rest” and guess what, here is what we have learned:

  • If you lose your shit, the technogeeks will not help you. They will giggle at you and make fun of your not understanding the fundamental principles and engineering of client-server models. This is kind of like firemen sitting around giggling at you because you weren’t aware of the inherent lightning-strike danger of improperly bonded CSST.
  • Since the dawn of time, companies have hired people whose entire job is to tell you everything is all right and you can completely trust them and the company is as stable as a rock, and to do so until they, themselves are fired because the company is out of business.
  • You are going to have to sit down and ask yourself some very tough questions because the time where you could get away without asking very tough questions with regard to your online presence and data are gone.

And his advice further into the wonderful rant is even juicier:

  • Insult, berate and make fun of any company that offers you something like a “sharing” site that makes you push stuff in that you can’t make copies out of or which you can’t export stuff out of. They will burble about technology issues. They are fucking lying. They might go off further about business models. They are fucking stupid. Make fun of these people, and their shitty little Cloud Cities running on low-grade cooking fat and dreams. They will die and they will take your stuff into the hole. Don’t let them.

…but is no less sound for it!

Please, let’s have more of enabling and less of mere providing.

* as described in the paper A VRM journey.

cross-posted from VRM Hub

Quote to remember

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When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.
- Gordy Thompson, manager of internet services at the New York Times in 1993 quoted by Clay Shirky in Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

Brands are not good for your health

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Two paragraphs explaining why (brand) websites are dead:

Look at this. It’s a Bovril website. With a breath-taking circularity of irony (or perhaps secret plea for help from a web designer), the site’s strapline (and perhaps the brand’s slogan) is ‘give me strength’. And, indeed, what on God’s earth is the point of all this? And who thought it was a good idea (apart from the agency that created it)?

Don’t get me wrong, once you’re there, it’s quite nicely done, graphically interesting etc. But why would anyone ever go there? Even if it wasn’t difficult to use, I still wouldn’t treat it as my number 1 source of information about Bovril itself (that would be Wikipedia), Bovril recipes (is that a thing?) (I’d start in Google and since the site isn’t search engine-friendly, it doesn’t show up), outdoorsiness (ditto, you’d never get there and if you did you wouldn’t stay long because of the thiny veiled comtempt for this audience), or even gurning cows. It’s just bizarre.

Come to think of it, brands are bizarre too. This is what Tom Hopkins has further to say about brands:

But they are a method of communication not an issuer of communication. They are talking points, they are social tokens, they are items of self expression.

I disagree. There is a lot of earnest talking – mostly by marketing and advertising people – about how people want to engage with brands. I certainly don’t want to engage with brands.

I want to talk to – not ‘engage’ with – the person I may be buying things from, or someone who can help me learn more or get me more information about product or service I am interested in. And that is invariably not the brand, with its useless websites, ad and marketing campaigns that interrupt and annoy the hell out of me.

I want to talk to an expert who’ll educate me about food, wine, travel, fashion, cameras, plumbing, perhaps even washing powder, if that’s what I am interested in. And agencies just get in the way of such interactions. Just look what they have done with websites – a pandemic of branded flash-ridden monstrosities, eating load time and bandwidth, with a graphic designer’s wet dream splashing across your screen. Grrrr.

I want to talk to and possibly relate on an ongoing basis with people – individuals, not departments! – within organisations that I might choose to supply me with products and services. My advice to them is know who you are and what you are trying to do, then understand what people – individuals, not consumers! – do and want, and then treat them with respect and understanding. You will get the same in return. That is far more valuable for the long term health of your business (and customers!) than any brand campaign.

Quote to remember

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The World Wide Web sits on top of a turtle, and then below that is an older turtle, and that sits on the older turtle. You don’t have to feel fretful about that situation — because it’s turtles all the way down.
- Bruce Sterling in What Bruce Sterling Actually Said About Web 2.0 at Webstock 09

Quote to remember

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Cloud computing becomes fog when it goes down.
- Todd Spraggins on Twitter regarding Ma.gnolia data failure

The creepiness factor

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Yesterday at one of my client workshops I was explaining the benefits of Twitter – I use the term ’synchronicity maximised’ to describe the ad hoc organisation of encounters, connectivity and sharing that makes Twitter so useful and addictive. I mentioned an example of twittering my location – let’s say I am in New York having brunch with a friend and I let the ‘world’ know about it. One of the attendees remarked how creepy this seemed to her. And here we have the ‘creepiness factor’ – which usually refers to someone not necessarily violating our privacy legally but to the ability of others to gather our public details (as private data would be a privacy violation), piece together data and information about us that allow them to act in ways we don’t expect. It is the realisation that someone knows so much about us by deliberately gathering information and using to behave in a way that implies familiarity. It feel like a violation of autonomy and privacy, even though existence of either is a delusion in our mind.

There is a difference between me ‘broadcasting’ on Twitter that I am having brunch with a friend plus the exact location, and learning the hard way that someone is ’scraping’ or gleaning such information from places that I, probably very foolishly, consider private or even semi-private, such as Facebook. It comes down to me knowing what happens to my data. The creepiness comes from realising that someone is gathering and piecing together information about me for purposes that don’t directly involve me and/or are not in my interest. Twittering my location is not a problem if I am doing it with awareness of my network and audience.

Sometimes it seem that the vision of web of document turning into web of people has gone the other way around. It is turning the web of people into the web of information about those people without their ability to do much about it.

And of course, all this contributes to all the talk about privacy. And the view that the web is eroding it and that the younger generation don’t appreciate or value it or give it away and, and, and… I have a different view. I am a privacy freak myself and value my privacy highly although I have considerable online presence. That is because privacy is behaviour according to your own preferences – it’s a policy, not a system.

Below is my response to an overly legal approach to privacy on the project VRM mail list thread, where privacy was seen as a legal agreement and to be guaranteed by a contract. Here is what I said:

Yes, the whole legal thing is not addressing or even originating from the way people interact. Bemoaning the fact and trying to build systems, processes or tools that force people to ‘behave in their best interest’ or to ‘protect their privacy’ is not going to work and/or deal with the problem.

Privacy is a policy, not a system. ToS is a creature of systems, platforms and silos not of the individual/user/customer.

I, as an autonomous individual, am the best judge of my privacy requirements. When I talk to my friends, I know what to tell them and what not to share – and if I mess up, I suffer the consequences and learn not to gossip with those who betray confidences.

In a larger context, beyond my immediate social circles and when money or reputation or other value is at stake, in order to manage my privacy I need to understand the context and consequences of information I share or other have about me. But if my privacy is not up to me to manage, there can be no reasons or demand for such knowledge to be available or for me to find out easily. Hence, many people have no idea about how their data is used and abused. So that will is part of the challenge in which the web has helped enormously – it is now possible for a dedicated or persistent person to find out what’s going on most of time.

But there is little they can do to act on that knowledge – and I have said this elsewhere many times before – our privacy options are rather binary. Either you participate in transactions, exchanges, communities, etc and you give up some of your privacy or you don’t. However unacceptable I find the former, the latter is not the way to live either.

The best ‘privacy settings’ are in my head, but I need ways/tools that help me to ‘execute’ my privacy policy. And as it’s been pointed out these are not necessarily of the legal world. It helps not to assume it and start building tools that help individuals manage their data and help them to determine their privacy behaviour themselves.

On email, logins, idenfiers and identity

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David Cushman asked for my thoughts on his post about finding a way to express our id and metadata outwardly just as broadly and effectively as your email account can collate it centrally.

My first impression was that the question might be about logins or GUID* management based on this:

So if I asked you to write a list detailing what and where, you wouldn’t be able to complete one. And if I asked you to confirm your username and password for each of these – you’d struggle even more.

For the sake of order, let me run through some implications of using email as your GUID to log on everywhere.

  1. your email accesses all web services a la google, which allows me to use gmail to sign in to greader, gdocs etc with the same email/password combo. That’s possible because it comes from the same provider and relatively safer. Obviously, this can’t easily be scaled to other providers of web services or platforms.
  2. I could use my gmail/email as a handle for single sign-on a la OpenID but unless I have a similar infrastructure as OpenID (i.e. a bit of magic in the URL, with my password management under my control) I’d still have passwords stored on other sites and would be back to the same problem as now – too many usernames and passwords… apart from the fact that we eliminate usernames (and have just email instead) and have (potentially) just too many passwords.

But I think David might be trying to get at something else here. I am not sure I see email as my identity or identifier in the sense he describes. It’s certainly a store of my communications and important information from my contacts etc. But to paraphrase an ubergeek: “all applications progress to the point where they can send e-mail”. Danny O’Brien talked about this in the first lifehacking presentation and he had the corollary that people use e-mail for everything, including to-do lists, and even as virtual hard-drives. Resources get used for other than their intention – so looking at e-mail as a “hub”, some sort of nexus of your information might be wrong way around. Instead it’s a resource and it exhibits properties that are useful for many tasks. Your e-mail repository is no more a badge of your identity than is your car or your house.

The closest thing to my ‘identity’ is a mesh of my blogs/blog posts/flickr photos/twitter/dopplr/friendfeed/socnet de jour etc etc. Alas, this ‘identity’ is all fractured across many platforms and in my view needs a unifying point. And those who read my blog already know what my solution to the problem is.

I am not sure a handle (whether URL, username or email) would fundamentally fix my online identity as it’s the stuff I create and distribute that is my identity. I see usernames/passwords/handles/GUID in general as meta-identity or shortcuts to my identity. Just like passport or driving license is not my identity, merely a proxy for it vis-a-vis a particular kind of system or record.

And finally, there seems to be an implicit assumption in what David (and not just him I hasten to add) is saying and that is that my existence on the internet requires a GUID. I don’t think that’s necessarily true but that’s a topic for another post…

*GUID = global unique identifier

Quote to remember

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Oscar Wilde would have loved the Internets – ‘It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information’.
- Andy Coughlan via Twitter

Quote to remember

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So my advice to Chris [Messina] is, if it isn’t already obvious, don’t explain why the BigCos aren’t following your lead, shrug your shoulders and let them do the explaining. Eventually if you do your job well, they will follow, they’ll have to. They will never follow out of the goodness of their hearts, because (sorry to say) that’s not what they do.
- Dave Winer in Advice to Chris Messina

Identity online: implications for healthcare

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Last week I visited Boston, MA where I gave a talk at the Future of Healthcare technology summit at the MIT Faculty Club. It was a tough one to prepare as the calibre of speakers and audience was rather intimidating for a mere social web guru like me. One of the keynotes, delivered by an HP Laboratories scientist was about: Maintaining Your Health from Within: Controls for Nanorobot Swarms in Fluids. The dinner was accompanied by conversations with Prof. Marvin Minsky of the AI fame and a NASA astronaut Daniel T. Barry.


The safest option was to stick to what I know and talk about online identity, with the aim of helping people see it from a different perspective and enabling them to apply that understanding in their own areas of expertise. VRM and the Mine! were mentioned in this context as practical approaches to patient-driven healthcare, which I see as one of the major implications of online developments in technology and behaviours.

Here are the slides with detailed notes in the slide transcript, which is visible on the slideshare page.

There is a lot more to cover on this topic but 30 minutes was what I had. I hope to work on the VRM healthcare proposition within VRM Labs with companies experimenting with customer/user/patient-driven models and technologies.

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