October 3

The Increasing Price We Pay For The Free Internet

The Price of Freedom is Visible HerePicture : Rhadaway.

This is a follow-up on my previous post, A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers. A key point in that post was that we need to be customers, not commodities.  In the cases of Facebook, Google and the vast majority of free web resources, the business model is to provide a content platform for the public and fund the business via advertising.  In this model, simply, our content is the commodity.  The customer is the advertiser.  And the driving decisions regarding product features relate more to how many advertisers they can bring on and retain than how they can meet the public’s wants and needs.

It’s a delicate balance.  They need to make it compelling for us to participate and provide the members and content that the advertisers can mine and market.  But since we aren’t the ones signing the checks, they aren’t accountable to us, and, as we’ve seen with Facebook, ethical considerations about how they use our data are often afterthoughts.  We’ve seen it over and over, and again this week when they backed off on a real names policy that many of their users considered threatening to their well-being.  One can’t help but wonder, given the timing of their statement, how much new competitor Ello’s surge in popularity had to do with the retraction. After all, this is where a lot of the people who were offended by the real names policy went.  And they don’t want to lose users, or all of their advertisers will start working on Ello to make the Facebook deal.

Free Software is at the Heart of the Internet

Freeware has been around since the ’80’s, much of it available via Bulletin Boards and online services like CompuServe and AOL. It’s important to make some distinctions here.  There are several variants of freeware, and it’s really only the most recent addition that’s contributing to this ethically-challenged business model:

  • Freeware is software that someone creates and gives away, with no license restrictions or expectation of payment. The only business model that this supports is when the author has other products that they sell, and the freeware applications act as loss leaders to introduce their paid products.
  • Donationware is much like Freeware, but the author requests a donation. Donationware authors don’t get rich from it, but they’re usually just capitalizing on a hobby.
  • Freemium is software that you can download for free and use, but the feature set is limited unless you purchase a license.
  • Open Source is software that is free to download and use, as well as modify to better meet your needs. It is subject to a license that mostly insures that, if you modify the code, you will share your modifications freely. The business model is usually based on providing  training and support for the applications.
  • Adware is free or inexpensive software that comes with advertising.  The author makes money by charging the advertisers, not the users, necessarily.

Much of the Internet runs on open source: Linux, Apache, OpenSSL, etc. Early adopters (like me) were lured by the free software. In 1989, I was paying $20 an hour to download Novell networking utilities from Compuserve when I learned that I could get a command line internet account for $20 a month and download them from Novell’s FTP site. And, once I had that account, I found lots more software to download in addition to those networking drivers.

Adware Ascendant

Adware is now the prevalent option for free software and web-based services, and it’s certainly the model for 99% of the social media sites out there.  The expectation that software, web-based and otherwise, will be free originated with the freeware, open source and donationware authors. But the companies built on adware are not motivated by showing off what they’ve made or supporting a community.  Any company funded by venture capital is planning on making money off of their product.  Amazon taught the business community that this can be a long game, and there might be a long wait for a payoff, but the payoff is the goal.

Ello Doesn’t Stand A Chance

So Ello comes along and makes the same points that I’m making. Their revenue plan is to go to a freemium model, where basic social networking is free, but some features will cost money, presumably business features and, maybe, mobile apps. The problem is that the pricing has to be reasonable and, to many, any price is unreasonable, because they like being subsidized by the ad revenue. The expectation is that social media networks are free.  For a social network to replace something as established as Facebook, they will need to offer incentives, not disincentives, and, sadly, the vast majority of Facebook users aren’t going to leave unless they are severely inconvenienced by Facebook, regardless of how superior or more ethical the competition is.

So I don’t know where this is going to take us, but I’m tired of getting things for free.  I think we should simply outlaw Adware and return to the simple capitalist economy that our founders conceived of : the one where people pay each other money for products and services. Exchanging dollars for goods is one abstraction layer away from bartering. It’s not as complex and creepy as funding your business by selling the personal information about your users to third parties.  On the Internet, freedom’s just another word for something else to lose.

September 27

A Tale Of Two (Or Three) Facebook Challengers

Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 8.20.31 PMFor a website that hosts so many cute pet videos, Facebook is not a place that reeks of happiness and sincerity. It’s populated by a good chunk of the world, and it’s filled with a lot of meaningful moments captured in text, camera and video by people who know that, more and more every day, this is where you can share these moments with a broad segment of your friends and family. And that’s the entire hook of Facebook — it’s where everybgoogleplusody is.  The feature set is not the hook, because Google Plus and a variety of other platforms offer similar feature sets. And many of those competitors, including Google’s offering, are more sensitive to the privacy concerns of their users and less invasive about how they share your data with advertisers.

Many of my professional acquaintances are on both Facebook and Google Plus. But they comprise only about a third of my Facebook friends. So I check Facebook most every day.  I go to Google Plus on rare occasion.

Facebook has a well-known history of overstepping.  From the numerous poorly thought out schemes to court advertisers by letting them tell the world what lingerie we’re buying to use our photos in sidebar advertising, to the constant updating of security settings that seems to always result in less security, it’s clear to most of us that Facebook is trying to please it’s advertisers primarily, and we are more the commodity that they broker than the clientele that they serve.

A few years ago, some people who valued Facebook but were fed up with these concerns developed Diaspora, the anti-Facebook — a network that is built on open source software; distributed, and highly respectful of our right to own and control our content. Diaspora does this by storing the data in “podEllos“, which are individual data stores hosted by users.  You can join a friend or neighbor’s pod, or start your own.  The pods, which work a lot like peer-to-peer apps like BitTorrent, communicate with each other, but the people who run Diaspora do not control that data.  You can blow away your Pod from your file manager or command line if you care to, and nobody is going to stop you. If these networks were fictional, Facebook would have been created by Andy Warhol and Diaspora by Ursula LeGuin.

And this week’s big news is Ello, which, like Diaspora, has defined itself in relationship to Facebook as the user-focused alternative.  Ello is, at present, a rough beta network that shows glimmers of elegance.  Their manifesto is poetry to BoingBoing readers like me:

“Your social network is owned by advertisers.

Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.

We believe there is a better way. We believe in audacity. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.

We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce, and manipulate — but a place to connect, create, and celebrate life.

You are not a product.”

But let’s be clear about Ello. It’s centralized, like Facebook; not distributed, like Diaspora.  It was built with about half a mil of venture capital funding. It will need to make money at some point in order to return on that investment.  As we watch Twitter get more and more commercialized, we know that this is a story just waiting to happen.

So, what am I saying?  That we should skip Ello and proceed to Diaspora?  Sadly, no.  While Diaspora has the model that I believe is viable to sustain a non-commercial, user-focused network, Grandma isn’t going to host her own server pod.  Peer-to-peer technology is not ready for prime time yet.  So I don’t see a Facebook killer here, or there, or anywhere in sight.  I see people who understand that the crass pimping of our personal lives that Mark Zuckerberg calls a business model is problematic and worthy of replacing.  We can’t replace it with something too geeky for the masses, nor can we replace it with a clone that kinda hopes that it will have a better business model (but likely will only have a less abrasive version, much like Google Plus).

I have a lot of high hopes lately.

I hope that we can curtail this trend of training our local police to be paramilitary units and champion nationwide community policing, as a community controls and reduces crime, while a military goes to war.

I hope that we can reverse the damage that was done when TV News programs became subject to Neilsen ratings.  I consider that to have been a dark day for our society. It was the hard turn that steered us to a place where news is available for whatever biased lens that you want to view it through.

And I hope that somebody will develop a Facebook competitor with a viable business model and a compelling feature set that will yank all of my friends and family out of their complacent acceptance of Facebook’s trade-offs. In this digital era, this is insanely important. We commune online; we share our most treasured moments. We sway each other’s attitudes on important matters.  The platform has to be agnostic, and it has to be devoted to our goals, not those of a third party, such as advertisers.  We have enough problems with societal institutions that have a stated purpose, but answer to people with different aims.

These are all realistic dreams.  But they seem pretty far away.

July 31

Why You Should Delete All Facebook Mobile Apps Right Now

fblogoIt’s nice that Facebook is so generous and they give us their service and apps for free. One should never look a gift horse in the mouth, right? Well, if the gift horse is stomping through my bedroom and texting all of my friends while I’m not looking, I think it bears my attention.  And yours. So tell me why Facebook needs these permissions on my Android phone:

  • read calendar events plus confidential information
  • add or modify calendar events and send email to guests without owners’ knowledge
  • read your text messages (SMS or MMS)
  • directly call phone numbers
  • create accounts and set passwords
  • change network connectivity
  • connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi

This is a cut and pasted subset of the list, which you can peruse at the Facebook app page on Google Play. Just scroll down to the “Additional Information” section and click the “View Details” link under the “Permissions” header. Consider:

  • Many of these are invitations for identify theft.  Facebook can place phone calls, send emails, and schedule appointments without your advance knowledge or explicit permission.
  • With full internet access and the ability to create accounts and set passwords, Facebook could theoretically lock you out of your device and set up an account for someone else.

Now, I’m not paranoid — I don’t think that the Facebook app is doing a lot of these things.  But I have no idea why it requires the permissions to do all of this, and the idea that an app might communicate with my contacts without my explicit okay causes me great concern. Sure, I want to be able to set up events on my tablet.  But I want a box to pop up saying that the app will now send the invites to Joe, Mary and Grace; and then ask “Is that okay?” before it actually does it.  I maintain some sensitive business relationships in my contacts.  I don’t think it’s a reasonable thing for Facebook to have the ability to manage them for me.

This is all the more reason to be worried about Facebook’s plan to remove the messaging features from the Facebook app and insist that we all install Facebook Messenger if we want to share mobile pictures or chat with our friends.  Because this means well have two apps with outrageous permissions if we want to use Facebook on the go.

I’ve always considered Facebook’s proposition to be a bit insidious. My family and friends are all on there.  I could announce that I’m moving over to Google Plus, but most of them would not follow me there.  That is the sole reason that I continue to use Facebook.

But it’s clear to me that Facebook is building it’s profit model on sharing a lot of what makes me a unique individual.  I share my thoughts and opinions, likes and dislikes, and relationships on their platform. They, in turn, let their advertisers know that they have far more insight into who I am, what I’ll buy, and what my friends will buy than the average website.  Google’s proposition is quite similar, but Google seems to be more upfront and respectful about it, and the lure I get from Google is “we’ll give you very useful tools in return”.  Google respects me enough to show some constraint: the Google+ app on Play requires none of the permissions listed above. So I don’t consider Facebook to be a company that has much respect for me in the first place.  And that’s all the more reason to not trust  them with my entire reputation on my devices.

Do you agree? Use the hashtag #CloseTheBook to share this message online.

September 25

The End Of NPTech (.INFO)

After eight years, I’ve decided to shutter the nptech.info website, which will also disable the @nptechinfo twitter feed that was derived from it.  Obviously, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus have made RSS aggregation sites like nptech.info obsolete. Further, as Google ranks links from aggregators lower and lower on the optimization scale, it seems like I might be doing more harm than good by aggregating all of the nptech blogs there. It will be better for all if I spend my efforts promoting good posts on social media, rather than automatically populating a ghost town.

Long-time Techcafeterians will recall that NPTECH.INFO used to be a pretty cool thing. The history is as follows:

Around 2004, when RSS first started getting adopted on the web, a very cool site called Del.icio.us popped up.  Delicious was a social bookmarking site, where you could save links with keywords and descriptions, and your friends could see what you were sharing (as well as the rest of the delicious userbase). Smart people like Marnie Webb and Marshall Kirkpatrick agreed that they would tag articles of interest to their peers with the label “nptech”. Hence, the origin of the term. They let about 50 friends know and they all fired up their newsreaders (I believe that Bloglines was state of the art back then — Google Reader was just a glimmer in some 20%er’s eye).

Understand, referring information by keyword (#hashtag) is what we are all doing all of the time now.  But in 2005, it was a new idea, and Marnie’s group were among the first to see the potential.

I picked up on this trend in 2005.  At lunch one day, Marnie and I agreed that a web site was the next step for our experiment in information referral.  So I installed Drupal and registered the domain and have kept it running (which takes minimal effort) ever since.  It got pretty useless by about 2009, but around that time I started feeding the links to the @nptechinfo Twitter account, and it had a following as well.

Yesterday, I received an email asking me to take down an article that included a link to a web site.  It was an odd request — seemed like a very 2001, what is this world wide web thing? request: “You don’t have permission to link to our site”.  Further digging revealed that these were far from net neophytes; they were SEO experts who understood that a click on the link from my aggregator was being misinterpreted by Google as a potential type of link fraud, thus impairing their SEO.  I instantly realized that this could be negatively impacting all of my sources –and most of my sources are my friends in the nptech community.

There is probably some way that I could counter the Google assumption about the aggregator.  But there are less than three visitors a day, on average. So, nptech.info is gone, but the community referring nptech information is gigantic and global.  It’s no longer an experiment, it’s a movement.  And it will long outlive its origins.

May 31

Everything That You Know About Spam Is Wrong

Image: Vince LambImage: Vince Lamb

At least, if everything you know about it is everything that I knew about it before last week. I attended an NTEN 501TechClub event where Brett Schenker of Salsa Labs spoke on how the large mail services identify Spam emails.  It turns out that my understanding that it was based primarily on keywords, number of links and bulk traits is really out of date.  While every mail service has their own methods, the large ones, like GMail and Yahoo!, are doing big data analysis and establishing sender reputations based on how often their emails are actually opened and/or read. You probably have a sender score, and you want it to be a good one.

Put another way, for every non-profit that is dying to get some reasonable understanding of how many opens and clicks their newsletters are getting, Google could tell you to the click, but they won’t.  What they will do is judge you based on that data.  What this really means is that a strategy of growing your list size could be the most unproductive thing that you could do if the goal is to increase constituent engagement.

As Brett explained (in a pen and paper presentation that I sadly can not link to), if 70% of your subscribers are deleting your emails without opening them, than that could result in huge percentages of your emails going straight to the spam folder.  Accordingly, the quality of your list is far more critical than the volume. Simply put, if you send an email newsletter to 30,000 recipients, and only 1000 open it, your reputation as a trustworthy sender drops.  But if you send it to 5000 people and 3500 of them open it, you’ve more than tripled the engagement without soiling your email reputation.

I know that this goes against the grain of a very established way of thinking.  Percentage of list growth is a simple, treasured metric.  But it’s the wrong one.

Here’s what you should do:

  • Make sure that your list is Opt-In only, and verify every enrollment.
  • Don’t buy big lists and mail to them. Just don’t! Unless you have solid reasons to think the list members will be receptive, you’ll only hurt your sender score.
  • Put your unsubscribe option in big letters at the top of each email
  • Best of all, send out occasional emails asking people if they want to keep receiving your emails and make them click a link if they want to.  If they don’t click it, drop them.
  • Keep the addresses of the unsubscribed; inviting them to reconnect later might be a worthwhile way to re-establish the engagement.

Don’t think for a minute that people who voluntarily signed up for your lists are going to want to stay on them forever.  And don’t assume that their willingness to be dropped from the list indicates that they’ll stop supporting you.

Even better, make sure that the news and blog posts on your web site are easy to subscribe to in RSS.  We all struggle with the mass of information that pushes our important emails below the fold.  Offering alternative, more manageable options to communicate are great, and most smartphones have good RSS readers pre-installed.

One more reason to do this?  Google’s imminent GMail update, which pushes subscriptions out of the inbox into a background tab.  If most people are like me, once the emails are piling up in the low priority, out of site subscriptions tab, they’ll be more likely to be mass deleted.

April 20

Techcafeteria Blog Facelift

If you visit the blog (as opposed to just subscribe), you’ll note that I did a little cleaning.  My old WordPress site had gotten a bit corrupted, so, instead of trying to fix it, I just installed a new copy of WordPress, found a simple theme, and selectively imported the important things from the database. It was about four hours work.

If you ever visited Techcafeteria.com, without the “/blog” appended, that was actually a site that I created in a little-known content management system called Frog CMS. I ditched that; now techcafeteria.com simply points to the blog.

So, nothing fancy – I’m not here to rack up page views and compete with Yahoo!  Do let me know if I broke anything.

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March 15

Google Made Me Cry

Well, not real tears. But the announcement that Google Reader will no longer be available as of July 1st was personally updating news.  Like many people,  over the last eight years, this application has become as central a part of my online life as email. It is easily the web site that I spend the most time on, likely more than all of the other sites I frequent combined, including Facebook.

What do I do there? Learn. Laugh. Research. Spy. Reminisce. Observe. Ogle. Be outraged. Get motivated. Get inspired. Pinpoint trends. Predict the future.

With a diverse feed of nptech blogs,  traditional news,  entertainment, tech, LinkedIn updates, comic strips and anything else that I could figure out how to subscribe to,  this is the center of my information flow. I read the Washington Post every day,  but I skim the articles because they’re often old news. I don’t have a TV (well, I do have Amazon Prime and Hulu).

And I share the really good stuff.  You might say, “what’s the big deal? You can get news from Twitter and Facebook”  or “There are other feed readers.”

The big deal is that the other feed readers fall in three categories:

  1. Too smart: Fever
  2. Too pretty: Feedly, Pulse
  3. Too beta: Newsblur, TheOldReader
“Smart” readers hide posts that aren’t popular, assuming that I want to know what everyone likes, instead of research topics or discover information on my own. There’s a great value to knowing what others are reading; I use Twitter and Facebook to both share what I find and read what my friends and nptech peers recommend.  I use my feed reader to discover things.
Pretty readers present feed items in a glossy magazine format that’s hard to navigate through quickly and hell on my data plan.
The beta readers are the ones that look pretty good to me, until I have to wait 45 seconds for a small feed to refresh or note that their mobile client is the desktop website, not even an HTML5 variant.

What made Google Reader the reader for most of us was the sheer utility.  My 143 feeds generate about 1000 posts a day.  On breaks or commutes, I scan through them, starring anything that looks interesting as I go.  When I get home from work, and again in the morning, I go through the starred items, finding the gems.

Key functionality for me is the mobile support. Just like the web site, the Google Reader Android app wins no beauty contests, but it’s fast and simple and supports my workflow.

At this point, I’m putting my hopes on Feedly, listed above as a “too pretty” candidate.  It does have a list view that works more like reader does.  The mobile client has a list view that is still too graphical, but I’m optimistic that they’ll offer a fix for that before July.  Currently, they are a front-end to Google’s servers, which means that there is no need to export/import your feeds to join, and your actions stay synced with Google Reader (Feedly’s Saved Items are Google’s Starred, wherever you mark them).  Sometime before July, Feedly plans to move to their own back-end and the change should be seamless.

July is three months away. I’m keeping my eyes open.  Assuming that anyone who’s read this far is wrestling with the same challenge, please share your thoughts and solutions in the comments.

 

 

September 4

Get Your IT In Order — I Can Help

While I look for that new job (see below), I’m available for IT consulting gigs.

Not every NPO has a full-time IT Director, and outsourced services can provide some guidance, but many of them aren’t focused on the particular needs of nonprofits.  I’ve had considerable experience running IT Departments, consulting and advising NPOs, and developing strategies for maximizing the impact of technology in resource-constrained environments. This gives me a unique skill set for providing mission-focused guidance on these types of questions:

  • What should IT look like in my organization? In-house or outsourced, or a mix? Where should It report in? How much staff and budget is required in order to get the desired outcomes?
  • What type of technology do we need? In-house or cloud-based? How well does what we have serve our mission, and how would we replace it?
  • We’re embarking on a new systems or database project (fundraising/CRM, HR/finance, e-commerce, outcomes measurement/ client tracking, virtualization, VOIP phones – you name it). How can we insure that the project will be technologically sound and sustainable, while meeting our strategic needs?

The services and deliverables that I can offer include:

  • Assessments
  • Strategic plans
  • Staffing plans
  • Immediate consulting and/or project management on current projects
  • Acting CIO/Director status to help put things in order

If you want some tactical guidance in these areas, please get in touch.

 

November 4

Talking NPTech in Marin

Yesterday I joined my frequent collaborators John Kenyon and Susan Tenby at the Marin Nonprofit Conference, where we presented a 90 minute panel on nptech, from servers to tweets. John deftly dished out the web strategy while Susan flooded us with expert advice on how to avoid social media pitfalls. I opened up the session with my thesis: You have too many servers, even if you have just one”. I made the case that larger orgs can reduce with virtualization tech and smaller orgs should be moving to the cloud. The crowd in Marin was mostly from smaller orgs, so I focused the talk more on the cloud option, and that’s where I got all of the conversation going. My goal with the slides was to do a semi “ignite”, given that I only had 25 minutes and I value the Q&A over the talking head time.

Category: nptech, software, strategy, techcafeteria, virtualization, Web | Comments Off
September 26

Two Thoughts On The New FaceBook Timeline


Photo by
smemon

Facebook announced that, on October 3rd, our profiles will all turn into “Timelines” that describe our lives (as Facebook knows them) in a glossy, magazine like format. And, as of right now, you can enable magazine apps (for WaPo and Guardian, more to come) that will randomly post what you’re reading to your wall without asking your permission first.I have two thoughts on this:

First, I feel sorry for the early adopters. I came to Facebook late, long after I had reason to distrust Zukerberg and co, in response to the cajoling of some of my more notorious nptech friends. I never believed that anything I posted there was private, and I had been well trained in online reputation management by my prior years of activity on bulletin boards, Usenet, mailing lists and Twitter. For many of you, all of your early mistakes are about to be unearthed and offered for everyone to see, from new friends that you’ve made since you got your FB voice modulated, to advertisers who are eager to know that, three or four years ago, you were really into SpongeBob.

Second, this new API feature that allows an app to post your activity when it wants strikes me as the epitome of anti-social networking. I really appreciate that I can peruse my wall and see articles, pictures and clips that my friends, co-workers and family thought I might like to see. This is, perhaps, the biggest boon and focus of social networking: curated sharing. It’s not random; it’s not based on a metric; it’s based on someone I like enough to call a friend saying “I found this worthwhile”. But, were I to install the WaPo app, it would decide which articles I want to share with my community for me. So I might click on some very boring report on a White House policy effort, or a review of some TV Show that I’m checking to verify that I was right to ignore it, and WaPo will happily tell my friends that I’m reading about this or that. This sucks the value out of social networking and turns me into a spammer.

Reports came in today that Spotify, the popular online music service, now defaults to posting every song that you listen to to your FB profile. If I have twenty friends who listen to Spotify all day and do this, I’m afraid that I’ll never bother to read my FB feed again. It’s cool if you’re listening to that awesome Gillian Welch cover of Radiohead’s “Black Star” and want to share the occasion; it’s not if you follow it up with the Hall and Oates hit, the Eddie Veder Beatles cover and the Indigo Girls or Beyonce or Five for Fighting song that follows. I’m not THAT interested.

So Facebook is apparently about to take sharing into the realm of spamming, and make all of us the perpetrators. Nice move…

Category: nptech, techcafeteria, Web | Comments Off