One of the recurring themes at Foo Camp East was the need for social networking systems that more closely accomodated the nuances of real-world social relationships. Linda Stone called for retiring the word "friend" which, as danah boyd described, does not match the many and varied form of human relationships. Chris Messina described efforts such as OpenID and DiSo to address the problem by making social networking systems (SNS) more open and interconnected. One problem is that identity itself is not well understood by the individuals who use these systems. In a social network, identity is often as simple, and as brittle, as the account one has created on a system such as Facebook or Twitter. That identity is useful to other people to the extent that it is connected by a social graph to other identities in the same system, i.e. you are who your friends say you are. The fact that a person's identiy on one such system may be difficult to match up with that same person's identity on another system is either a bug or a feature, depending on whether you are trying to preserve your privacy or whether you are trying to keep track of your friends (or customers) as they migrate from one system to another.
While we debate how easy or hard it should be to unify these personae, and while various efforts arise to allow them to be unified, some technical developments may render the issue moot. Tim O'Reilly introduced me to the concept of Information Shadows, the digital representation and associated data of a physical object, including a person. As originally described by Mike Kuniavsky, information shadows are things like Amazon's ASINs, the airlines' e-tickets and Ulla-Maaria Mutanen's Thinglink - that is the digital data that refers to, and provides information about, real-world entitites. As more people and objects acquire digital identities, the information shadows become the primary way we deal with the objects and define how we understand them, much as the shadows in Plato's Cave became the reality for the prisoners observing them.
In another development, Arvind Narayanan and Vitaly Shmatikov of the University of Texas recently showed how an analysis of one's friends in a social network could be used to unmask one's identity. In their paper, De-anonymizing Social Networks, they describe how a third of the people who have accounts on both Flickr and Twitter can be matched up with only a 12% error rate, even though the overlap in the relationships for these members is less than 15%. What this implies is that we don't need to wait for One Social Network to Rule Them All - that the computer will help us find our "friends" even if they move from one SNS to another and assume a new persona in each. Whether this is good or bad depends on whether you value privacy or connectivity, but the result is inevitable so to paraphrase Scott McNealy, you might as well get over it.
The first East Coast instantiation of O'Reilly's Foo Camp wrapped up today at Microsoft's New England Research and Development Center. The event brought together 150 or so of the Boston/New York information technology brain trust and their west coast counterparts, including industry veterans, entrepreneurs, and a good number of people from Microsoft's Cambridge research operation. It also put the facility itself, now known affectionately as NERD, on the map as the venue of choice for events of this nature. Spanning two floors connected by a grand staircase, NERD has a combination of large open spaces and a variety of smaller meeting rooms, which was ideally suited to the "un-conference" format of user-generated sessions.
Some personal highlights:
Nina Simon talking about how museums could use technology to connect visitors more closely to the exhibits and to each other.
This event is taking place today and tomorrow at the DoubleTree in Boston.
In the photo, Chris Carfi talking about Vendor Relationship Management.
About forty people in the room including a lot of the local social media marketing community: @reneecallahan, @just_kate, @ccarfi, @brdavids, @christamiller, @lizstrauss, @jeckman, @clarashih, @jimstorer, @memeticbrand.
Branko Gerovac led off the discussion with some data about how the increased availability of bandwidth and storage have finally made the Internet a viable alternative to over-the-air and cable television. He pointed out that we are still in the early stages: YouTube represents 19 billion minutes of video viewing per month in the US, but that's about the same as one month's worth of American Idol or one showing of the Super Bowl. While the panel and the audience agreed that the viewer would ultimately not care how video was delivered, its availability on a variety of screens and devices had the potential to create a more immersive and interactive experience, benefiting both viewers and advertisers trying to sell to them. As Matt Cutler pointed out, a viewer that clicked through a car ad was arguably more valuable than one that sat passively on the couch.
Vasu Srinivasan asked why videos on the Internet were so often shorted than those on broadcast television, which kicked off a discussion of the differences among the three screens: TV, PC, and Mobile. To some extent, the differences are artifacts of the limitations of the smaller devices. Andy Roberts pointed out that mobile presented the most extreme challenges, which companies such as his met by chopping video into small segments which can be more easily handled. The other panelists pointed out that while the length of an individual clip might be shorter on a PC, that the amount of time spent in a typical YouTube session was similar to that watching a TV show. The difference was that the Internet viewer was actively selecting the clips and determining the sequence in which they were viewed, a phenomenon that indicated a higher level of engagement and potentially more utility to an advertiser.
Neal Goldman asked why the consumer needed to deal with so many different devices and vendors just to get content on his family's television. The panel agreed there was no good reason, at least not one that would appeal to the consumer, but that the business models of the various players were complex and not necessarily aligned. An example was the Hulu-Boxee controversy in which the content providers were trying to keep the Internet apart from broadcast television. It wasn't that all of the players couldn't see that the two worlds would inevitably converge, but that the existing relationships would take time to realign and that no incumbent wanted to risk disrupting a lucrative business in the interim.
Near the end, Speaker Series organizer Doug Levin asked the panelists if they thought Boston was a good place to build a company in this business. They all said that Boston was a good place to recruit the talent they needed, although several talked of frequent trips to visit customers in New York. Matt Cutler was particularly bullish on Boston. He said his ability to provide high quality service to his customers was a key differentiator and that Boston was an especially good place to find people who embodied that ethic.
I asked the final question, which was what would each panelist hope that people in the audience would do? Branko said the most important thing was to go out and create job - the rest would follow. The other panelists encouraged people to watch video on the Internet, be vocal about what they liked, and share their opinions with their friends. (Bobbie Carlton compiled a good list in the form of a quiz).
In keeping with the real-time nature of video, here's a list of some people in attendance who Twitter on this topic:
Tonight's panel on Internet video is shaping up to be really interesting. As I am talking with the panelists I'm learning more about how TV promises to be much more immersive than what we are used to on the big screen, and much more entertaining than cats dancing on the piano.
The final lineup:
Christopher Herot, Chief Product Officer, VSee Labs (Moderator)
Wednesday's panel on the State of Video on the Internet will look at what's happening in the Boston area that is changing how we produce, watch, and pay for video. Just as the move from analog to digital broke up The Phone Company, hollowed out Eastman Kodak, and upended the music industry, the Digitization of All Media promises great changes in video as well.
As happened in many industries, television first adopted digital technology deep inside its infrastructure, in the form of time-base correctors, titlers, and editing suites. As Moore's law worked its inexorable reduction in cost, the digital frontier moved out to the edge to encompass camcorders, DVD players, and televisions themselves. Along a parallel path, video became another data type sent over the Internet and more recently wireless networks, offering the potential to watch whatever one wants, anytime, anywhere.
Despite the fact that almost all video these days is created, transported and stored as bits, the worlds of broadcast television and the Internet are still largely separate, although this separation appears to be more arbitrary with each passing day. The most recent example is the dust-up between Hulu and Boxee. Hulu, a joint venture of NBC Universal and News Corporation, operates a Web site that lets people watch current television shows in a Web browser. Boxee is an open-source platform that can be loaded on devices such as Apple TV to allow Hulu content to be played on a conventional television. Apparently the companies that provide content to Hulu want to keep those two domains separate, and prevailed upon Hulu to block Boxee's access. The expected measure/countemeasure/counter-countermeasure battle rages on, but the content providers are fighting evolution. One wonders if they learned anything from the lost opportunity when the record labels refused to negotiate a business deal to provide content to Napster and sued them out of business, only to see BitTorrent taked their place.
In the meantime, people are watching more video than ever. According to the most recent Nielsen Three Screen Report, watching video on the Internet and mobile devices is increasing as well. Most interesting is that teens are the heaviest users of mobile video, young adults the most likely to watch on the Internet, and older people to watch conventional TV.
The advertising dollars are also shifting from conventional TV, radio, and print to Internet and mobile. According to BIA Advisory Services, local spending is rising for interactive advertising, although not as fast as conventional advertising is falling. This trend may affect local news coverage in much the same way that the shift in print advertising to interactive has affected the newspaper business.
We will explore these issues and more on Wednesday. You can register here. (Free)
With the pending completion of the transition to all digital transmission, television will join music, photography, the telephone and the written word in becoming primarily digital media. This transformation not only changes the way we receive media, but is already changing how it gets created and who profits from it. While most people may think of Los Angeles or New York when they think of video production, Boston is the source of much of the technology that is used in the production, distribution, and consumption of video, and a hotbed of innovation in how video is moving to the Internet and to mobile devices.
To explore what's going on in the Boston area and how that will affect our future, I am moderating a panel session this Wednesday, March 18, on the state of internet video in the Boston. It is part of the Vilna Shul Speaker Series.
In his column yesterday in the New York Times, When Everyone’s a Friend, Is Anything Private?, Randall Stross explored what he calls the Law of Amiable Inclusiveness and its growing practice on Facebook. He observed that the average number of "friends" on Facebook has grown from 100 to 120 in the past few months as more people routinely accept friend requests, even from people they don't know.
I've found I am moving in that direction as well. When I first joined Facebook I only accepted friend invitations from people I had met, and occasionally sent replies to those I didn't recognize asking if we knew each other. After a few of those people reminded me of a conversation, typically at a computer industry event, I adopted a more permissive attitude, usually looking at whether we have any friends in common. This heuristic is obviously vulnerable to serial frienders, but then it's only Facebook so who really cares?
Stross goes on to describe the debate between people who think Facebook's default privacy settings are too loose and those who point out that if users really cared they could change the settings. Since most don't bother, he concludes that with the concept of "friend" being so all-inclusive, it seems pointless to distinguish between private and public.
I draw a somewhat different conclusion. Most of the information people post on Facebook is innocuous if not downright uninteresting to anyone but one's real friends. This is especially true now that Facebook's membership has been open to the post-college crowd who presumably have settled down to less colorful private lives. Still, it seems creepy to some people that a total stranger would be interested in such things, and puzzling that more Facebook posters aren't concerned. (Obviously they haven't been watching much "reality" television.) One way people that people can be made to feel more comfortable with the potential exposure is to limit it somehow, even if that limitation is arbitrary. The requirement that people had to be in one's "network" to see one's profile is one such safeguard, as if one was safer if the person looking at the profile was from the same town. (Personally, I would be more concerned about being stalked by someone in my own town than someone a continent away.) The requirement that someone be a "friend" may serve a similar purpose. Even though these friends may not be people one has actually met, there is at least some semblance of control, which is good enough for most people.