Some thoughts on Color with a capital C

colorballmanFirst, I wanted to set this up with a couple of assertions, that location is a signal, as John Battelle defined it, and that this signal will be extremely useful when wrapped around social objects, in the way that Jyri Engestrom intended the term way back in 2005, and it’s every bit as true today.

This is a slightly more structured way of just saying that location becomes meaningful in context.

I think we can all agree that Color flopped its launch. It chose proximity-oriented photos as the social object upon which to base the serendipitous creation of affinity groups. The hope was that this activity would be so engaging that people would be motivated to invite more people to use the app, they’d use it very frequently in many locations and Color would thus have access to a hyperlocalized two-way channel into the lives of their users.

The idea is that they would then use this so-called anonymous data to create user profiles and a rich database from which to launch advertising, local promotions and news-oriented feeds. I say so-called because they neglected to understand just how identifiable photographs of faces are! (Yes, I’m looking at you Facebook.)

Another surprising oversight given the data-driven nature of the founders is that “for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.”

Isn’t it amazing how fast anonymity breaks down?

As if this wasn’t enough, Color’s original user interface was unintuitive in the extreme and absolutely required that you use the the application with at least one other person. So, it flopped big time.

Now that Color has quietly withdrawn from the scene, it’s back to the drawing board to roll out a different application that will feed their hungry proximity algorithms champing at the hyperlocal bit, not to mention their investors looking for gorgeous pivot. How will they deal with privacy and can they find the secret sauce to make me want to share my location with nearby strangers?

My prediction is that they will not. Their approach is all wrong; it’s backwards. You cannot define yourself “much more of a research company and a data mining company than a photo sharing site,” as Bill Nguyen did and expect to have the wild imagination and fire in your belly to create an amazingly compelling social application that lots of people will love. He has some interesting ideas about the social stickiness of proximity, but it’s all wrapped around how much data he’s going to collect and sell to advertisers.

My next post will explore another proximity application…

Update: Well this seems to support my guess… “Confirmed: Co-founder Peter Pham Leaves Color” and “Troubled Startup Color Loses Cofounder Peter Pham“. Trojan horses are not lovable.

Rainmaking via developer communities

A coupla' developers I know, alpha versions ;-)

All online businesses need to be looking for faster, wider and deeper distribution of their content or services. Think about your own strategy. Does your online product or service already have an API? Should it?

Your business is a platform.

In order for this model to work, you will need to attract top independent developers to apply their magical brains and coding chops to your business and to encourage a developer community to grow within the heart, mind, soul and body of your business.

You can call it a developer program, but do not mark it as a technical or support task, put it down as a primary business development strategy because that’s what it is, it’s rainmaking.

What you’ll want to do is to create the conditions for a community to form, thrive, produce and grow.

Think gardening, not engineering. Don’t manage, cultivate.

The goal is to populate your ecosystem with energetic, creative and technically gifted individuals, groups and companies that are highly motivated to invest their own time and money by building new businesses on your platform. As the successful services built on your API’s become important distribution channels for your business they will probably, in the aggregate, grow larger and faster than your own branded distribution.

Let’s get practical. I see five basic phases that must be addressed in order to benefit from a developer program (assuming, of course, that your API actually solves a problem that merits solving): creation, activation, retention, productivity and growth.

Creation: In more traditional business lingo this would be called lead generation or customer acquisition, but here we are concerned with preparing the fertile, accessible and attractive top soil in which to grow a developer community. You will need to:

+ clearly define the value proposition to developers;
+ identify a developer profile likely to understand and to be excited by your business and figure out the best channels in which to strut your stuff: niche blogs, social media channels, industry events, personal networking and SEO for starters;
+ plan self-hosted events and contests; and
+ provide great tools so that developers can kick the tires!

You must have someone in your organization that is fluent in the social skills of a tummler, AKA someone that knows how to guide, encourage/reprimand, engage/ignore, shout/whisper, cajole and generally spark online conversations and communities. You won’t get past this first stage without a tummler!

You are creating the culture in which the community will define and nourish itself. Read: Communities of Yes.

Activation: Once you have the attention and interest of a community, your focus ought to shift — make the community aware of its own existence by offering online and real world opportunities for members to get to know you and each other.

This is the most delicate and difficult phase. The quality of your business proposition and the awesomeness of your technology must be amplified as you make individual developers feel like they are part of an active community, that they have a real opportunity to create a viable business, are important to your company, are respected for their creativity, technical abilities and feedback.

Your program should:

+ allow for fast and easy registration;
+ permit cost-free to access to experiment, no obligation;
+ require payment only for deployed apps with no lockin;
+ offer quick start guides, examples, implementation ideas;
+ have a wide variety of devices available for testing at your hacker events;
+ provide support and direct channels to your team; and
+ be built on a reliable, robust and standards-compliant technological platform.

Sponsor developer pitch contests, hackdays and participation in industry events. Keep in close touch with your developers throughout their participation in order to suss out hiccups before they become problems, turn crazy ideas into tangible products and discover use patterns.

Retention: If you can achieve all this, you will have also built the loyalty necessary to retain the attention of developers that have become part of the community! This is an incredibly valuable driver of the entire program because these developers will begin to spread the word to others in their social and professional networks. The developer community itself can be great generator of buzz and organic marketing.

Productivity: Some developers will innately understand the market, their product ideas and the value of the API as good or better than you do. They will ship successful products and provide incredibly valuable suggestions, improvements and feedback. They will also inspire other developers and create healthy coopetition.

For these developers your job is to make sure that they know you are listening. Respond quickly and positively to their requests and questions and proactively add features that you know they will appreciate.

There will be other developers just as keen to work with you, but who’ll need more guidance and support. This can be very time consuming, so you must make sure to have tools such as wikis, forums or knowledge bases that allow these interactions to be as public and searchable as possible to reach the maximum number of similarly situated developers.

In the beginning is much better to have a lower number of high value success stories than many low value ones. The high value successes, over and above their direct business value, will bring in many more new developers just by word of mouth.

Track the statistics of your developer community based on the metrics that make most sense for your business. At a minimum you should be able to analyze the number of registrations, number of apps and projects, apps per developer, developer churn, support activities, most effective marketing channels and word of mouth growth. Look for bottlenecks and figure out how to improve your performance. Don’t forget to also keep tabs on your brand’s online buzz and reputation in the world outside of your own community.

Growth: If you’re firing on all cylinders, your organic growth numbers should already be happily trending upward. You can encourage further growth by getting better at the activities that I already described and by thinking about new ways that you can make your developers be more successful.

Here’s a list of other things you could consider doing to up your game:

+ promote top developer projects in your company’s marketing campaigns;
+ provide help with app store submissions when needed;
+ open doors to industrial partners that developers may not have access to — mobile operators, handset manufacturers or media companies;
+ provide expert sessions at your hackdays; and
+ provide a place for non-developers (B2B customers and end-users) to post job requests and product ideas. Then help put them in touch with the best developers in the community.

Want to see how it’s done? The most recent Music Hack Day in NYC is a great example. Check out the list of sponsors and the API’s that were hacked. And you don’t need to be in NYC or Silicon Valley to have a successful event, hackers can be found everywhere! Look what Max Ciociola Stefano Bernardi did in Milano: HackItaly was a mega-successful event.

The beauty of this kind of program is that the direct economic benefit is just the start. Your developer community is also resource for market and technological research, recruiting new talent and strengthening your place in the larger ecosystem. And it’s fun :-)

Curation. And ants.

Singing together, curating sound :-)

Harmony is curation, curation is harmony.

The curation is king meme is having a day in the sun. This is the kind of article that editors love to publish — it declares a winner in a zero-sum game between the old champion Content and the contender, Curation. The article posits that Old King Content has been ousted “because it isn’t scarce. It’s everywhere, it’s overwhelming, and it’s gone from quality to noise.” Of course there’s too much for any one person to slog through, but if content is of secondary value, then what are we curating?

But Rosenbaum has got it very right on one crucial point:

@sanchezjb I don’t agree – “Context” can be a smart algorithm – but “Curation” requires a human. I think humans are essential -Tue Jun 15 18:17:20 via TweetDeck

He also seems to be saying that this victory of curation is a recent event. I’d take issue with that. The first Yahoo! directory was, at the time, state-of-the-art curation, not particularly scalable, rather unsocial and opaque, but it was curation. And, of course, Google’s revolutionary insight to use inbound links as a fundamental page ranking metric took people-powered curation into new territory.

Or: algorithm-aided human writing will meet human-aided algorithmic curation; quality will rise.Sun Dec 13 21:51:29 via Twitter for iPhone

Right on. Let’s drill down into the humanity angle.

The word curate derives from the Latin curare, meaning “to take care of“, something that we humans do for people and objects that are meaningful to us.

RT @ethpresso: @heathr it was awesome talking to you yesterday. Got great insight discussing r perspective on curation+human relationship :) Sat Jun 12 21:06:23 via Brizzly

The Tummelvision crew (@heathr, @debs and @kevinmarks) have been exploring this human side of how digital communities and conversations are born and thrive. They’ve adopted “Tummel” as their verb of choice. It’s a Yiddish word used to describe the act of catalyzing others to action and I highly recommend tuning in to their show.

Just as Suw Charman-Anderson blogged about this way back in 2006, it still is fresh and true today:

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

@hrheingold this one by Sviokla on audience curation: http://bit.ly/cuoD3y which is what @debs @heathr and I call tummelingFri Jun 11 19:19:33 via Seesmic

What would I do without Kevin Marks’ curation?

In Three Tips for Curating Your Audience, John Sviokla writes about taking care of your audience, also known as customers if you happen to be in the business of selling stuff. (I’d take issue with the term audience for these reasons.)

Taking care of your curators means finetuning the curation. In socially-powered services like Facebook and Twitter we curate the people that we choose to friend or follow by keeping them interested in what we have to say and we also adjust our flows by un-friending or un-following in a more or less constant feedback loop.

And now, let’s bring on the ants!

Social bookmarking is stigmergic curationSat Jun 12 05:13:29 via Seesmic

Social bookmarking is a shining example of people-powered curation and was brilliantly executed by the creator of Delicious, Joshua Schachter. But what is stigmeric curation, HUH?

Did you ever wonder how ants manage to organize themselves into those superhighways of efficiency to bring the food back to the colony? Well, that’s stigmergy in action and this survival-oriented curation mechanism is how we create our own superhighways of inter-linked information :-)  I actually wrote about this back on October 16, 2003. Take a look at “What do blogs and ants have in common?” to learn more. It’s a much shorter post than this one!

What are the “economics” of curation?

Clay Shirky from Here Comes Everybody to Cognitive Surplus: Creativity & Generosity in a Connected Age http://tinyurl.com/25hytewMon Jun 14 14:05:58 via web

I was talking about this notion of online generosity with my friend ocrampal the other day, and he questioned whether curation was primarily generosity-powered as I was saying. In fact, I think he’s right, the answer is more subtle. Social networks and community-powered curation works not so much from generosity as from the very good deal that participation offers.

Let’s call it fair price curating. In other words, contributing to the system is the price you pay to get value out of the system. More often than not I get more out than I put in. It feels like I am getting my curated information below cost —  that I’m gaining much more than I’m spending in terms of time, effort and satisfaction.

I guess that’s because once everybody contributes their info bits, it costs the system very little to redistribute the information in infinitely variable combinations as requested by huge numbers of people and ever more sophisticated technological tools.

I haven’t yet read Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, but I intend to and would be curious to see how he sees it.

I also think about generosity in the context of personalized Q&A services like Hunch, Quora or Aardvark. Adrian Chan frames the problem this way:

Both questioner and answerer must have a satisfactory experience for the service to work. In fact the service really hangs on the experience of the answerer. The questioner has an immediate and present need or interest — not so the answerer. His or her motives for participation have to be incentivized or contextualized by other means.

Are earning a good reputation and earning increased self-esteem by virtue of knowing the answer sufficient social drivers? Time will tell what the sustaining factors really are as these services grow and evolve.

At the end of the day…

Curation is the central issue of our socially networked culture. This mutual mediating, to riff on Kevin Mark’s coinage, turns the firehose of our collective activity streams into a refreshing drinking fountain.

Call it curating, crowdsourcing, stigmergy, page rank, social networking, lifestreaming or a thousand other terms, its objective is to deliver information and entertainment that may be useful or surprising, silly or serious, funny or annoying — when, where and how we want it.


Thanks also to JP Rangaswami for thoughts that inspired this post:

Curators add to relevance by stripping away the irrelevant and the unneeded and the shoddy.

In order to improve consume-ability and relevance, curators need the tools to do this. There are two ways these tools will come about, the “nice” way and the “nasty” way. In the nice way, the producers and distributors make it easy for people to point to, package and pass on the relevant pieces.

Been there, done that.

The Mayor of

I'm the mayor of this blog. So? Now what?

Location, location, location

If you haven’t heard about Foursquare, Gowalla, Latitude, Scvngr, MyTown, Loopt, Geodelic, Brightkite, WhereCheck.in, and could care less about other location based services, just enjoy the Pongo illustration and don’t bother reading any further! (I want to mention Layar here, even if it is not strictly in this category of applications. If you haven’t seen this yet, you really should check it out. It’s described as an augmented reality browser. Using the geo-location, compass and camera functions of your mobile device, it displays information about the stuff around you as you aim your camera from place to place.)

This guy with the crown has checked in here lots of times, using an application on his mobile phone. In order to keep him coming back here, I let him earn a crown and the title of mayor. That may be enough for the honeymoon period, but I’ll probably need to start offering him free drinks as long as he keeps coming back and keeps on broadcasting his presence to his friends.

What is the business model that will emerge from this scenario? I’m just going to wait and see, quite a few come to mind…

Hyperlocal, not hype-local

But there are three startups that are coming at the issue from a different perspective and I wanted to mention them here, Lasso, PaperG and BlockChalk. They all are focusing on the hyperlocal experience, the places where we spend most of our time and, not incidentally, most of our money.

Lasso and PaperG are quite interesting from a business point of view because they are sitting at the crossroads of a very real problem — local newspaper advertising revenues are shrinking, yet local media still have a sales force to sell advertising (and other promotional services) to small local businesses that a digital pure-play would have a hard time reaching due to the high overhead of selling to small advertisers.

First up, Lasso, who are building a kind of self-help hyperlocal ad server with a dash of Google AdWords:

Lasso is a platform positioned to enable local media companies to reach small and medium-sized businesses with attractive new offerings: integration with social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and distribution through customizable widgets throughout a media company’s website…

“We [Lasso] have combined internet marketing expertise plus newspaper DNA. An effective product has to have the right metrics, and in terms of landing it appropriately, it has to be done in terms that newspaper ad sales people understand,” Treadaway said. “If people don’t feel like they’re getting value, the churn will be very high. The product demos very well, looks very slick by newspaper standards. Most of the response has been: ‘when will you come train our people.’ (from LostRemote)

PaperG takes a different approach:

PaperG is testing a software system called PlaceLocal that automatically generates ads for local businesses by crawling the Web. The system scrapes the Web for basic information about a business such as its address, phone number, and opening hours. Even if the business doesn’t have its own Web page, data can often be pulled from third-party services such as Yelp or Google Maps. The system then uses semantic analysis to find and extract photos and positive reviews, and it builds an ad automatically using Adobe’s Flash software. The business owner or newspaper ad sales representative can customize the ad, so if PlaceLocal didn’t choose the best photo or review, it’s easy to select another.

Lee expects PlaceLocal to help representatives sell ads in the first place. “The sales rep can have a beautiful ad designed for every lead sheet,” Lee says, “which makes a real difference in the conversation.” (from MIT’s Technology Review) (The NYT writes about it here.)

BlockChalk is taking a much different approach, the social media classic — build traffic and figure out how to make money once they get traction. The only reason I’m putting them in this post is because of their unique usage model. You don’t have to sign up to the service to use it, and you remain anonymous until such time as you decide to share your identity on a case-by-case basis with other users of the service.

Since anonymity opens the service up to spam and all sorts of abuses, and denies the service a registered user base and profiled social graph, I am really interested to see what kinds of checks and balances they build into the system. But the really cool part to watch will be to see what kind of behavior users will adapt on their own in this wild west of a service. What will be the equivalent of the Twitter hashtag, what cultural norms will people develop and adopt?

That is if it lasts long enough for a culture to develop…

Cool tools

The Cool Tool, aka hammerhead

The Cool Tool, aka hammerhead

Is it a good strategy to base your web business idea on a cool tool? Well, if you’re the talented Loren Brichter, the answer is probably YEAH. He created and distributed the premier Twitter client for the iPhone, an application that cost me €2.39 on iTunes. His 1-man shop made a good income from sales and then was acquired by Twitter and he was hired on, in a presumably pretty sweet deal.

Yet the percentage of developers who are able to make a living from the sales of client applications is rather small and once a few big applications gain traction, it’s going to be very difficult to compete. And let’s not forget that in most segments there are a plethora of good enough clients being distributed for free.

It makes a lot more sense to think of your cool tool as facilitator, one that does not call attention to itself, but that enables, simplifies or reveals an experience in a way that is better than what currently exists. The business opportunity will be found in the value that you can create in the experience, not necessarily in the tool itself.

As an example, this is what Foursquare, Facebook and the other slew of mobile location-centric applications are all about. The holy grail here is to help connect local businesses with existing customers and for them to be introduced to potential new customers. Putting it together correctly, businesses will be happy to pay for more, and more frequent, customers while users of your cool tool enjoy the benefits of social discovery, special deals and the nearly magical power to know the best nearby places even if you’ve never been there before.

A neutral mask

A Neutral Mask

A Neutral Mask in Pongo, by me.

The future is wearing a neutral mask.

If I were to characterize the world right now, the operative word would be liminal — not quite here anymore and not quite there just yet. We exist in a threshold hurtling through space, in a future in the past tense world in which the present never seems to catch up to itself.

Sometime between 1948 and 1956 Jacques Lecoq, the influential French acting instructor created the neutral mask in collaboration with the Italian sculptor Amleto Sartori. By putting on the neutral mask, an actor could enter into liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”), a transitional state of in-betweenness in which identity is ambiguous and meaning must be gleaned from context and movement.

I bring this up because as I was sitting in a conference room last week, listening to a panel of experienced, well-informed and well-spoken people trying to explain the social media to a business audience, I was doodling in 3-dimensions with a hunk of white plasticine modeling clay. My best stuff comes out when I stop thinking and let my fingers take over. I realized that I had made a sort of neutral mask, shown above.

Well, of course it would be… The panel discussed issues, alternately hailed as panaceas or condemned as mirages, such as the contradiction between the desire for online popularity and that for privacy, the ethical issues raised when public-facing brands use Facebook or Twitter profiles and the growing power of the people formerly known as the audience. But from the exchanges during the Q&A, it became clear that different people were experiencing these concepts each in their own way.

Check it out, check it in.

Once upon a time, the verb to check-in was something that you did at a hotel or an airport, and only at a hotel or an airport. Not any more. Popularized by foursquare, the check-in is becoming a standard gesture, one that will be baked in to many social applications, to indicate your physical presence at a specific location. And, OY, the once innocent verb, like, is now poised to take over the civilized the world!

So maybe grammar is a helpful framework to think about the future of this device-mediated social future of ours. We will follow, like, dislike, share, bookmark, invite, post, buy, listen to, broadcast, check-in, read, create, delete, favorite, join, leave, gift, friend, play, connect, tag, save and tummel around issues, articles, lists, photos, videos, music, people, groups, applications, events, discounts, games and more. And we will do some of these things online and publicly, and others privately with physical tools or else in an endless variety of combinations.

Jyri Engeström has been talking about building services around social objects and the verbs we use to animate them for quite some time. I’ve recently started to follow the work of the activitystrea.ms group, another instance of the object/verb approach for describing and standardizing the evolution of online behavior as observed in the wild.

Yet despite all the observing and describing, many ambiguities remain. Remember, on the Internet nobody knows if you’re wearing a mask.

That will bring us back to Do-Re-Mi.

Is the pace of change going to remain so frenetic as to create a state of permanent liminality? Will we always be betwixt and between?

@everybody: stop drinking the Kool-aid

Fail Whale Pale Ale label

Twitter has become a valuable asset to me and a part of my everyday reading and writing. So, I’m a fan. But.

By now you’ve probably read the fawning Time magazine article by Steven Johnson, “How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live“. Now I don’t want to be contrarian just for the hell of it, but enough is enough.

OK, sure the media outlets love the Hollywood story that is Twitter. Of course Twitter’s high profile investors have a vested interest in evangelizing the phenomenon. And who could expect less from the Twitter-addict community? Even I have tasted the holy Kool-aid!

But when Twittermania flavors serious journalism, we need to be more critical.

For starters the article asserts that Facebook’s audience “is still several times as large as Twitter’s”. In fact Facebook’s audience and user base are most likely 20 times larger than Twitter’s, the churn of new users on Facebook is considerably lower than Twitter’s and Facebook is still growing much faster in absolute numbers.  “Several times as large” is just misleading. This is neither pedantic nor picayune.

And why is it that Johnson makes no mention of the Nielsen study about user retention?

Currently, more than 60 percent of U.S. Twitter users fail to return the following month, or in other words, Twitter’s audience retention rate, or the percentage of a given month’s users who come back the following month, is currently about 40 percent… Compare it to the two heavily-touted behemoths of social networking when they were just starting out. Doing so below, we found that even when Facebook and MySpace were emerging networks like Twitter is now, their retention rates were twice as high. When they went through their explosive growth phases, that retention only went up, and both sit at nearly 70 percent today.

The Nielsen study is not perfect and raises more questions than it answers, but it surely merits examination in any discussion of the Twitter phenomenon.

Another recent study (published too late to be included in the Time article), “New Twitter Research: Men Follow Men and Nobody Tweets” by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski, adds fuel to the fire.

Twitter’s usage patterns are also very different from a typical on-line social network. A typical Twitter user contributes very rarely. Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.

twitter research 2.jpg

At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production… This implies that Twitter’s resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network.

Again, a lot more research needs to be done, but as one of those Twitter members in the active 10%, I do get the sensation that we are projecting the value that we get from Twitter onto the greater Twitterverse, without a shred of evidence to support this thesis.

It is paradoxical that the openness that Twitter, the company, says it embraces, from its API’s to its user-generated feature set, is so lacking when it comes to sharing their proprietary statistics, the politics of their suggested follow list or their plans with respect to providing access to their firehose and archives. Twitter is a privately held company and does not owe this to anyone, but then it should stop sending its executives around saying that they want Twitter to be like a public utility. They can’t have it both ways, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

The article correctly points out that Twitter’s deceivingly simple forumla — “the follower structure, link-sharing, real-time searching” — will become part of the fabric of our communication web regardless of how the Twitter the company fares.

They didn’t really invent any of the individual elements that make the service compelling, but they did stumble upon the recipe for mixing them together to create a tasty soufflé. Note that this word means “to blow up” or “puff up” and, of course, once taken out of the oven a soufflé tends to fall rather quickly.

Is this an apt analogy? Discuss.

Everybody’s gone surfin’

I thought I’d take a shot at riffing on Google Wave, “a new tool for communication and collaboration on the web”, according to its creators. But before we get into the details, just to get into the mood, check out this BBC video — a gorgeous slow motion view of a surfer on the perfect wave. Wow:

Or see the high definition (HD) version here. It’s worth it.

That was also my first reaction to Google Wave, well, “wow” in lower case. It’s an evolutionary step that rhymes with so many parallel developments all around the net that it already seems inevitable just a week after its presentation.

I am most interested in watching just how open source the Wave platform will actually be. And just how open the API’s and protocols will be. I think we have good reason to be optimistic that they will remain true to the spirit of openness because it is also in their interest to do so.

Why is that? Well, the more that Wave’s protocols and syntax are open, the faster it will grow with a developer community going out there and building tools, containers and services with wild abandon. Do you think that Google might be positioned rather well to provide search within the Wave universe? Messages, media, documents, location and social graphs all crawlable. This looks to be an, um, a challenge for our privacy protection. Can we get some of you smart developers thinking about that now? Thanks, and please revert soonest!

Compare this scenario to today’s realtime darling Twitter. (Sarcasm? yeah just a little bit, but I am a Twitter member and have gotten a huge amount of value from it.) The Twitterverse consists of a central platform, a basic hosted service on the platform and an extremely active ecosystem of third party clients and applications that make it just barely usable.

In what other environment is there great competition among free client applications? Email comes first to mind and let’s not forget instant messaging. In both cases there is huge value obtained from the fact that the protocol is standard and open. It was not always so in instant messaging land, and still not universally the case, but today I can use Pidgin, Meebo, Digsby, Adium or Trillian to talk to my Jabber, MSN, ICQ, Yahoo, iChat and AOL friends on one roster. So that seems to be where Twitter is headed — to be a protocol, and the biggest platform on the block adhering to that protocol.

I am hoping that Wave will be the catalyst to bring about the birth of a thousand new Twitters, truly open protocol and evolving realtime micro-messaging services, accessible through third party clients. XMPP has worked this way for years and it’s not for nothing that underneath Wave you find the XMPP protocol.

Anonymity in a connected world

I was reading this article Your Morning Commute is Unique: On the Anonymity of Home/Work Location Pairs, by Arvind Narayanan, and it got me thinking. (Thanks to @jamespage for pointing to this article.)

He starts out by citing this study by two PARC researchers and concluding that “for the average person, knowing their approximate home and work locations — to a block level — identifies them uniquely.” Isn’t it amazing how fast anonymity breaks down?

Cover art for new Penguin edition of Orwell's 1984 (Shepard Fairey)

Now just having those two data points alone would leave your anonymity intact, but the potential danger comes in if this information is able to be shared by or among mobile connectivity providers, credit card companies, government agencies, advertisers and social networking services.

It could be that my paranoia level was increased after having seen this article in New York Times describing the amount of data mining and interpretation currently being used by the credit card industry.

The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year… Martin’s measurements were so precise that he could tell you the “riskiest” drinking establishment in Canada — Sharx Pool Bar in Montreal, where 47 percent of the patrons who used their Canadian Tire card missed four payments over 12 months. He could also tell you the “safest” products — premium birdseed and a device called a “snow roof rake” that homeowners use to remove high-up snowdrifts so they don’t fall on pedestrians.

By the time he publicized his findings, a small industry of math fanatics — many of them former credit-card executives — had started consulting for the major banks that issued cards, and they began using Martin’s findings and other research to build psychological profiles.

So when people start to use their cell phones to pay for merchandise, location information will be added to the database, too. Conspiracy theorists, novelists and filmmakers, rejoice! There are some great storylines to be made from this stuff. But, seriously, should we be worried about these developments?

Late breaking: With respect to U.S. constitutional law, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that tracking a suspect via the global positioning system without a warrant violated his right to privacy. A stalker could be uniquely linked to the victim by GPS tracking, for instance. Hat tip to @stoweboyd for the lead. [Added 15 May 12:30 CET]

Familiar strangers

I came across this slide deck today and thought I’d post it here and make a few comments. David Reed is the Reed of Reed’s Law, a person with genuine visionary status.
He sketches how the technologically-mediated public social fabric might look in the future. In slide 2 he postulates that in order to be well-connected we will need to feel safe, establish trust with “familiar strangers” and to share and collaborate with people in the same location. I am particularly interested in the term “familar strangers,” a seeming oxymoron.
I was first reminded of a quote by Diane Arbus, “Nothing is ever the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.” But then I learned that it’s a term is commonly used in studying social networks and is generally defined as “an individual who is recognized from regular activities, but with whom one does not interact.”
In the future, however, I think the definition can be extended. The recognition can take place via machine-readable data. It all comes down to context, what elements we pour into the concept of context and how we weigh these elements in relation to each other. But it will never be really useful or trustworthy until our digital lives are tagged with open metadata and semantic protocols.
Since the people we don’t know will always be more numerous than those we do, we can gain much more from social search and discovery tools that tap into the knowledge of familiar strangers, applying rules learned from examining our declared identity and our relationships with people we do know and applying them to people that we don’t know.
Yet.