Ambient intimacy

I made my first visit to Defrag a few weeks ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I spoke on a panel about serendipitous online content and played the role of resident crank for some reason. I came just short of yelling at the audience to get off my lawn, and couldn’t put my finger on precisely why the subject made me so cranky. Until just a couple of hours ago, that is. And it ties into a concept I heard discussed during another panel at Defrag, ambient intimacy.

Ambient intimacy, coined by Leisa Reichelt last year, is the modern phenomenon of keeping in touch with people with a level of intimacy not normally possible without technology. It works on a couple of levels: there are my real-world friends, those folks I went to college and high school with, that I keep up with electronically. We exchange pictures of the kids and keep up with each others’ lives via Twitter and Facebook wall posts. And then there are people I now call friends who I have yet to meet face-to-face; I know when their kids are sick, when they’re looking for work, and what color hose they wore with their high school prom dress (an unfortunate monochrome red outfit in the last case). In many cases, I know more about both these groups of friends than my own mother. She and I email regularly and talk on the phone once a week but I don’t know what she’s feeling at a given moment, what articles she’s reading, what memes are running through her head these days.

So let me take it back for a moment to the Defrag panel, Finding Serendipitous Content Through Context. I thought the title of panel to be incongruous, that any sort of context automatically cancels out serendipity. As my fellow panelist Chris Law found, though, the dictionary definition of serendipity is “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.” The key word there is ‘aptitude,’ which implies that some have better skill than others in stumbling upon lucky outcomes. The a-ha moment in this mess of semantics? That working to achieve serendipity shouldn’t be our goal online. In striving to discover new content, sites, tools, and connections, we can let our existing connections stagnate. The whole idea behind consumer technology, after all, is to enrich our lives; how much true benefit is there in setting up network after network, looking for the serendipitous needles in the haystack? I think that’s where my crankiness came from – that we’ve lost sight of the original intent of technology. We’re having discussions about finding even more content online when most people can’t figure out how to absorb their current influx of content.

Honest show of hands here: how many of you feel you have a manageable handle on your content influx? Come on, really? Don’t tell me you haven’t recently marked all as read in Google Reader because you’re just too busy/tired/overwhelmed to sort through it all.

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A Foil-Hatted Follow Up

I learned a good lesson yesterday: when writing about something as contentious and hot-button as online privacy, don’t just dash something off in under 30 minutes. Though I stand by my original thesis, it was clear that I didn’t explain said thesis very well.

It hit me like a lightening bolt last night – when and how this attitude about privacy was born. I can even pinpoint the exact date: June 5, 2002. (Stick with me for a minute. I promise I’ll connect it in the end.)

June 5, 2002 was the day I got mugged. It was in the middle of the day, on a weekday afternoon, in a grocery store parking lot teeming with people. Really, the least likely timing one could imagine. There was no gun, thank goodness, but the bastard did put his hands on me and throw me to the ground. (The funny part: as he was running off with my purse, my wallet fell out. Ha ha!) I skinned up a leg pretty badly and lost my passport and cell phone, but it could have gone much much worse. As any crime victim will tell you, though, it’s the emotional damage that gets you. It took me years to feel relatively safe in my own skin again and I can assure you that I have a decidedly different view of parking lots now.

There’s another common thread any crime victim may share with you: at a certain point, you must accept the randomness of the universe. Otherwise, you’ll continue to believe that you could have done something different to prevent the crime. And that’s simply not the case. In fact, any psychologist will tell you that it is downright detrimental to believe you could have controlled the outcome of the situation. That’s the insidious nature of crime: it snatches control of your being right out of your hands.

To keep yourself from going batty, you do as much as you can. You lock your doors at night, keep your children close, and avoid dark alleys. But if you spend too much time exploring all the different ways in which something could go wrong, you end up agoraphobic and surrounded by cats.

In case it’s not already painfully obvious, this is how my attitude about online privacy developed. You do all you can – and let me be clear that I’m not suggesting you don’t do all you can – and then you let go. And if you can’t let go, it very easily becomes a fetish.

If you agree to be an active member of society, you recognize that there is a risk. And you recognize that the benefit of living your life is worth the risks. If you’re unfortunate enough to be mugged, you don’t blame the grocery store for the fact that you had to buy toilet paper.

If you agree to be an active member of online society, you recognize that there are risks. And that the current – and especially eventual – benefit of sharing at least some of your life online is worth the risk. Just as you avoid dark alleys, you shouldn’t share anything online that you’re not ready for the world to see. You trust they won’t, and you do what you can to protect yourself, but you should be prepared for the eventuality. And should that unfortunate eventuality occur, you don’t blame the site for the fact that you wanted to share pictures of your kids.

I’m not declaring privacy dead. I don’t think anyone concerned about it is a “Luddite.” But I do think that the conversation we’re currently having is out of date and ignoring some painful truths.

The Tyranny of the Foil Hatted

Anybody got a pen? Someone should mark this in the calendar as the day I agreed with Michael Arrington. Though he approaches it with his usual deft touch (‘Mice nuts,’ anyone?), he hits the nail squarely on the head regarding online privacy.

A quick re-cap of how we got here: you may remember Facebook changing its privacy settings a few weeks back. Tech geeks were horrified and began deleting their accounts, while your non-techie friends likely posted something in all caps in their status, then moved on. Over the past weekend, Arrington had a quickie Q&A with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the ensuing headline – Privacy is Dead! – raised everyone’s hackles all over again. This morning, Arrington called us all Luddites for caring. And a good morning to *you* too!

I met with a company a few days ago that deals in data and one of the execs said something I had to scribble down immediately. “Why should your privacy fetish impinge on my need for data usefulness? There is a very real danger here of the tyranny of the minority.” Privacy fetish – I love it.

Arrington raises a very salient point in his post: if you’re a participant in the 21st-century modern world, your privacy has already been compromised past the point of hope. Unless you’re living off the grid in a mud hut – in which case you’re not reading this – ‘they’ know everything about you. So any personal campaigns you’re waging to protect your Facebook quiz results are, well, something of a fetish. Further, as the data exec points out, some very real benefits lie in the exploitation of said data. All the screaming we’re doing about making Google work better and ending the glut of information that’s thrown at us? Not going to be solved without using our personal data.

Now let me beat you to the punch: won’t someone please think of the children? Yes, there is a separate raft of concerns when it comes to kids online. But if you’re under any illusions that ‘they’ know less about your kids simply because they’re small – well you’re wrong about that too.

I realize that it’s out of character for me to say, essentially, “They’ve already won. Just give in.” But I’m afraid that’s the case here. While I’m not advocating you start taking naked pictures of yourself and using them as profile pics, I am saying that if you want to participate in technology as it stands today, you have to let go of a few illusions. And key among them is that you’re currently in control of your online data.

Color Me Confused

Mine was beige, with flowers.  Which, as the evening wore on, proved to be one of the more boring updates. (I especially loved the person who asked, “Why is everyone posting synonyms for tan in their status?”) But what occurred on Facebook last night and this morning was, in my opinion, pretty amazing. A meme took hold in a matter of minutes and, perhaps most impressive, had no explanation directly attached to it. You had to Google it or scan comments in your friends’ posts to find out what the hell was going on. But the number of people participating was overwhelming, nonetheless.

What also took mere minutes was the indignant faction who were either annoyed, offended, or downright angry. While watching the BCS game (which is an entirely separate argument we won’t discuss), I found myself in a heated debate with a friend as to the effectiveness/harm of posting your bra color for breast cancer awareness. Her key point was that “hollow gestures threaten to undermine substantive action” and she circled back to her favorite rant topic: the aligning of twitterers with the Iranian democracy revolt last summer. I disagree strongly; people turning their avatars green has no effect – negative or positive – on Iranians’ fight for democracy, just as typing the word “beige” next to my name on Facebook isn’t going to set breast cancer research back 10 years.

What it does do however is a couple of other important things. It serves a very real sociological need for affiliation. Humans define themselves, at least partially, by their causes. “I’m against Prop 8; therefore I am liberal and open-minded.” “I’m a member of the NRA; therefore I am conservative and like to kill things.” (Sorry. I’m only human.) So when you glom onto to one of these silly online memes – and yes, they are mostly silly – people feel they’re defining themselves a little bit.

The second point is one that’s much more salient. Last night’s bra-color game was a hint of what is possible when you combine social causes with social networks. Even those who were offended as hell have to admit: we’re talking about breast cancer now. Yes, of course, we were talking about it before. On occasion. In October when every household object on the market is tinted pink. But it did in fact, achieve precisely what it set out to do – raise awareness. The Huffington Post wasn’t focusing on the anger and raw emotion of a breast cancer survivor last week. The rage that cancer engenders was not getting ink in the Washington Post. And the Komen fan page on Facebook, for whatever good it does, had far less fans yesterday morning. Now the efficacy of ‘awareness’ is most definitely up for debate. But if one little meme involving a color can take hold that quickly, and make that much of a splash in less than 12 hours, what’s going to happen when someone – and I’m betting it will be a political candidate – figures out how to really utilize our personal networks?

Because I’ve argued enough this week, I’ll let my friend have the last word. Kind of.

If tech and social media wants to be taken seriously as a potential cure for that ill, action has to make a leap from status updates to the real world.

I couldn’t agree more. She goes on to posit, though, that online actions make people feel they’ve done their part and therefore won’t contribute more substantive action in the real world. Perhaps, with some people, yes. But I can pretty much guarantee those folks weren’t going to contribute much to begin with.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in emerging technology, it’s that you can’t start at the top. You lay the groundwork at the very bottom and hope that subsequent companies and technologies will build on it in your wake. No, we didn’t cure breast cancer last night. But I’m certainly willing to keep playing these little games until we do.

The Vortex Grows Up

The Vortex is our bastard child here at The Guidewire, always changing names and directions and never quite knowing where it belongs. The heavy focus on the foibles of the technosphere – its most recent iteration – grew tiresome. The industry seems to be growing up again, and the little boys that ran around marking their territory have been forced to mature in a down economy.

Chris nailed it the other day, calling it the “Post Web 2.0 Malaise.” We’re in a valley between tech revolutions right now and during valleys, the power structure shifts and new voices arise. The tonal shift will be away from egos and individuals and toward revolutions, innovations, ideas. There are some exciting winds stirring in the tech world. In 2010, I think we’ll all be focused on bigger pictures.

So in keeping with all that bluster, I’m evolving this weekly wrap-up into something broader. At its simplest, it’s nothing more than a look at my Read It Later list from that week – stuff I thought was interesting and bookmarked for later. But a larger value is to take all those links and look at what ties them together. So what did the week of December 14 reveal about the tech world? Well…

*Facebook has a potential catastrophe on its hands. Or a goldmine; depends on how smart they are. The release of its new privacy policies this week raised the hackles of many, primarily because it caused uncomfortable realizations. I doubt I’m alone in saying that both my business and personal life are starting to revolve more around the service. (Lack of access to my account on Wednesday literally prevented me from working.) Marshall Kirkpatrick’s call for a release of the data is the first drumbeat, I think, in what could be a long and potentially ugly saga. We’ve handed over a large portion of our lives to these folks; what are they going to do with it?

*A shakeup in online music looks to be on the horizon. Apple acquired Lala and Spotify made a splash at LeWeb. (Louis Gray is raving about Spotify.) All signs are pointing to the end of stored music on your devices.

*You’re going to be on the phone a lot next year. In one way or another. The 2010 prediction pieces are starting to hit and ‘mobile’ is littered about them like confetti. Ravit Lichtenberg offers her thoughts on social media trends for next year while Milennial Media held mobile as its sole focus. And to keep you on your toes, the security sector has threat predictions.

*You should watch some Christmas specials next week. If you’re not a Charlie Brown fan, amble through bizarre specials from Christmas past on Mental Floss. (And be sure to watch the groovy 70s commercials.)

Oh and a Simpsons arcade game from EA is coming soon to the iPhone. Happy Holidays!

An Intervention

I feel I should start this post by getting one thing straight – Louis Gray is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He’s super smart, genuine, thoughtful, and honest. He’s a rare tech pundit who isn’t all about ego and self-aggrandizing. We all love Louis, right? Right.

However.

This post yesterday is about 10,000 kinds of wrong.  Now don’t yell at me – we all love Louis, remember? But that doesn’t mean we’re required to accept this level of hyperbole. Facebook didn’t fail your family, Louis. You have about five trillion friends on there, making it quite easy for updates from family members to get lost in the shuffle. I get it, really I do. You wanted the site to be smart and know which people are important to you. But it can’t do that yet. Oh it very likely will in a couple of years, once somebody figures out what to do with all this personal data with which we’ve flooded the Intertubes. In the meantime, you’re going to have to choose human interaction instead.

And that’s really my central point: all this technology that we spend 80 hours a week with, that has become our go-to activity during downtime, that is the hub of an ever-more-frantic daily existence – all these tools and services are not the endpoint. Or at least they shouldn’t be. All these gizmos and software should be improving our actual real worlds, not creating entirely separate ones in the clouds.

I’m really not one to talk. I check TweetDeck at stoplights. I talk to friends more on Facebook than on the phone. I’ve caught myself enjoying a good book or movie and immediately wondering how best to share it online. And when you work in emerging tech, you’ve got a ready-made excuse. “This is my job! I have to tweet!” In actuality, it’s damn addictive and can easily overtake real-world existence.

With other addictions, you know you’ve hit rock-bottom when you forsake all other aspects of your life in search of the high. In technology, I’d say it’s when you blame a social networking site for not telling you you’ve become an uncle. Step away from the computer, Louis. Go outside and read a book under a tree. Or, better yet, go see your sister and the new baby. It will all be here when you get back.

Bang the Drum: Social Media As Analytics

Earlier this year, at a TIEcon panel on the business of social media, I spoke about social media as an analytics machine.  Millions upon millions of people announcing what they had done, what they are doing, what they plan to do.  The Social Web is an observation tower for human behavior.

The highest tower among many is Twitter, yet when I asked Twitter’s VP of Business Operations Santosh Jayaram how many developers were working on analytics he mumbled, “We have a couple of guys looking at it.”  No doubt, Twitter has its hands full just keeping the lights on, but folks – analytics is the value of Twitter.

I’ve beaten this drum in dozens of conversations throughout the summer yet the focus always comes back to things like social graphs and crowd marketing.

Then, today, a guy with a bigger drum made a bang at Defrag. Eric Marcoullier, CEO of Gnip, Inc., has a booming voice and a big personality, and his brief talk this morning — ‘The business world doesn’t give a shit about your lifestream app” — resonated throughout the room.  Fundamentally, Eric argued, social media (for business) needs to “make the leap from marketing to business intelligence.”

Exactly.

Business is beginning to pay a lot more attention to Twitter and other social media as a megaphone and a listening post, and that’s a start.  We now have ample examples of small businesses announcing that the donuts are fresh from the oven and large companies responding to disgruntled customers to convince businesses of any size that there is something to this social media thing.

Typically and perhaps understandably, these now-enlightened companies gravitate toward selling and marketing.  Yet they are missing the big opportunity of social media by not taking the further step to understand the meaning behind the collective voice.

These organizations need a new set of tools and new approaches to data to gain that insight.  Fellow Defrag attendee  Nathan Gilliatt, whose practice is focused on working with corporate clients to bring them meaning to social data, described this as the need to break down the “measurement silos” to blend social media into business intelligence.

Indeed, social analytics brings a deeper understanding to customer engagement. It allows organizations to create the right product, drive the right relationships, structure a more responsive organization, and – yes – market and sell.

Most importantly, as Eric put it this morning, it allows business to “move beyond data and seek meaning.”

The Vortex: The First Round’s on Me

Mr. Hyde it is. Dr. Jekyll was always the boring one, don’t you agree?

News from the Social Media Vortex

The technosphere was thrown into a tizzy (no really, they were) over the news that Facebook will include @mentions in your status updates. It’s being spun as an !attack on Twitter! So everyone choose your side. There will be no mercy for ambivalence.

–David McCandless has developed the fascinating and fun Hierarchy of Digital Distractions. Print it out, laminate it, and carry it in your wallet for those moments when you’re not sure whether to retweet or answer the phone.

–I was going to mention this last week but thought the post was already too Twitter-laden. Check out What The Trend, a super-handy reference that explains the reasoning behind mystifying Twitter trends. The minds behind it are also not above editorial comments; check out the explanation for “Michael” today.

–So you know Julia Allison? Yeah, I don’t really either. But she’s managed to make a name for herself as… um, I honestly don’t know what to call her. An Internet celebrity? The point is -  and this is admittedly coming solely from her – she is paid $4 a word for writing… something. We’re not quite sure what that is either. So to sum up: someone you’ve never heard of is being paid an obscene amount of money to write some sort of column for an unknown entity. That, my friends, is what The Vortex is all about!

Apps on the Radar

Yes, there were new Apple releases this week but they were pretty boring. I think the biggest “announcement” to come out of Wednesday was that Steve Jobs continues to soldier on.

–Flickr finally arrived on the iPhone, letting you shoot pics and video on your phone and upload directly to the site.

–Football season is here (woo hoo!) and my favorite sports app, Sportacular, had a nice recent upgrade for the iPhone that includes push notifications. Louis Gray prefers ESPN’s app but he’s just plain wrong. Shall we settle it with a duel?

Facebook Lite is here, for those times when you… I don’t know, need more white space. Do with it what you will.

–And if you’re like me, you love a good pandemic, so check out CNET’s round-up of swine flu apps for your iPhone. When the media isn’t whipping you into enough of a frenzy, fire up the CDC News Reader or, even better, Outbreaks Near Me to complete your hysteria.

Tweet of the Week

–Alex Iskold wins the prize, with a tweet sent mere moments ago. And one that makes me wonder where he’s choosing to school his children.

Picking up kids from school. Weird, it smells like scotch around here.

Here’s hoping your weekend is filled with inappropriately placed scotch fumes.

Wait!! I almost forgot to mention – if you own a Kindle, do me a solid and fill out this survey. I’m doing a usability study for a client and could really use your opinions. Once you’re done with that, you can resume your drinking.

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The Vortex: There’s a Curse Word in This One

Perhaps it’s the end-of-summer quiet but there wasn’t a lot of technosphere silliness this week – just actual news! Don’t get too comfortable; September is just around the corner.

News from the Social Media Vortex

–It’s America’s Funniest Home Videos for the 21st century. YouTube is now giving revenue share to uploaders of hit videos. Once a video gets a certain number of viewings, YouTube will offer to put ads around it and give you a cut of the profits. So get that cat on the piano pronto and start counting the dollars.

–The big kerfuffle of the week resulted in the word “skank” being tossed around with abandon. So that’s fun. Model Liskula Cohen won a lawsuit against Google, forcing the company to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who called her a skank and other unseemly things. The ruler could have much broader ramifications for blogging; could this be the beginning of the end for trolling?

Apps on the Radar

–If you haven’t already heard that the new Facebook iPhone app is here, you likely don’t need it.

–If you’re a hardcore Firefox user, check out SmarterFox. It has a plethora of browser tricks that will make IE seem even quainter. (Jessica’s slideshow here gives a good overview.)

–Frequent fliers should check out WorldMate, an app that creates automatic itineraries from your fowarded travel confirmations. There’s a free and paid version, the latter of which gives push notification of flight delays. Yeah, you think you won’t need this. And then you meet the Dublin airport.

–The unfortunately named CommuTweet (aren’t you expecting updates from Karl Marx?) lets users tweet about traffic jams in which they’re sitting. Kind of a “it’s too late for me but save yourselves” sort of thing.

16Apps pokes its nose into your Twitter stream (or Last.fm or FriendFeed) and then recommends iPhone apps for you. From my updates, it surmised that I curse, drink beer and am into politics. Wow. I sound like a real winner.

Tweet of the Week

–Why didn’t I think of this? Some enterprising fellow created the Twitter id @shitmydadsays and it’s as funny as you think it will be. I had a hard time picking just one tweet so go read the whole stream. But this one made me giggle a bit more than the others: “Your brother brought his baby over this morning. He told me it could stand. It couldn’t stand for shit. Just sat there. Big let down.”

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The Vortex: The Agony of Success

I’ve been awash in home-selling negotiations this week so I’m particularly cranky. You’ve been warned.

News from the Social Media Vortex

–As you’re well aware by now, Facebook acquired FriendFeed this week. Allow me to couch that: you’re well aware of this news only if you live in your browser. For those who frequent FriendFeed, though, it was like George Bush had been elected to a third term. Teeth were gnashed, tears were shed and exclamation points were employed with abandon. With characteristic good humor, FriendFeed set up a FestivusFeed on its site to allow for the airing of grievances.

I’ve been a long-time fan of FriendFeed and certainly understand the disappointment of a service’s community insiders. But the bottom line is that FriendFeed is a business that needs money to survive. Anyone who assumed that the site would exist as is in perpetuity needs to sign up for Economics 101 at your local community college. FriendFeed is an ingenious technology with a super-smart team that deserves to be seen and utilized by a much larger audience. Congratulations you guys – very well deserved. I can’t wait to see how far you go in Facebook.

–Marco Arment, Tumblr developer and Instapaper creator, took on Jason Calacanis this week, dissecting Calacanis’ I’ve-Decided-to-Hate-Apple post, picking apart the vast amount of circular, confusing and sometimes preposterous reasoning. There may have been a sound point or two in Calacanis’ post but those were overshadowed by his suggestion that we should activate multiple wireless services for one phone. Rather than defending his assertions, Calacanis instead “zinged” Marco by saying he needed a Wikipedia page and ending with a “for realz.” The really fun part? Jason did this on his personal Tumblr page.

–In related news, a Pear Analytics study found that 40% of Twitter updates are “pointless babble.”

Apps on the Radar

–Customers of USAA Bank will soon be able to deposit checks via iPhone, by taking a photograph of the front and back of the check. The actual check never even needs to be submitted. USAA is a small bank but their customers are primarily military personnel so they’re smartly adapting to fit client needs. Tech companies should take heed.

-AppsFire hasn’t been approved by iTunes yet but I’m hoping they jump on it. The iPhone app allows users to share favorite apps via email, something I’m surprised Apple didn’t come up with to begin with.

Tweet of the Week

–I fully admit to lifting this from the top slot on tweetingtoohard. But can you blame me? “I swear to g-d I can’t relate to most of society. I’m on a whole different level of consciousness.Its all so [censored] obvious. Wake the [censored] up.” – Loren Feldman

Wow. I need a shower after writing this one. Happy weekend, all.

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