The Guardian Monster

London Underground roundel logo
Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

Oh the Guardian, that normally well-regarded major UK newspaper, has had a ****ing brilliant idea. You see, if you read a story in the online version of the paper, you can share it on Facebook using their app.

Actually if you are logged into Facebook – even in another browser window you’ve forgotten is still open – it automatically posts the article you’re reading. It does say when you install it that the app will share what you read, but I don’t think the casual user will immediately realise this means “without even asking”. I certainly bloody didn’t.

So at long last, the Guardian has managed to fully automate the process of having someone reading over your shoulder. In this way online readers all over the world can partake of the authentic crowded London tube experience.

But that’s not even the worst part. The link it posts doesn’t actually go to the article, it – yes – offers to install the app. So you accept because you want to read the story. All your friends will then see what you’ve read and install the app so they can read it, which will tell all their friends what they’ve read… This thing is going to spread exactly like a virus.

Indeed the figures seem to be bearing that out. Two weeks ago, after being out only a month, they had their millionth install. At that rate we have about one week left to enjoy Facebook before it collapses under the sheer weight of Guardian links.

Join The Irish Diaspora

Have you or any member of your family ever been a member of the Irish nation? Then you should join the great new social network, WorldIrish.com. This was launched to coincide with the Global Irish Economic Forum held this week, and its purpose is to… is to… Actually, I’m not quite sure. Why would Irish people need our own special social network. Were we not talking enough?

This Is Me

Well the site looks and works well. You can create an account there (I’m “Richard”, I came early), add a 600-character bio and a few links. And you pick your five ‘values’, which generates a kind of little avatar. It’s trickier than it sounds though, because you have to choose your five from a list of sixteen things that are all about equally good and wholesome:

  • Ambition
  • Community
  • Compassion
  • Courage
  • Creativity
  • Diversity
  • Equality
  • Freedom
  • Imagination
  • Individuality
  • Integrity
  • Knowledge
  • Openness
  • Practicality
  • Progress
  • Tradition

You think you can’t go wrong, just picking five sugar-and-spice items out of a list of sixteen? How little you know. If I check tradition but leave out progress, I could be taken for a die-hard republican. Vice versa, and I’m a property developer.What if I plump for community but leave out diversity? Big ‘ol racist. What use is compassion without courage, openness without knowledge? Do I choose between creativity and imagination, or pick both and sacrifice ambition?

Such is life. In the end, I left the final decision to what made the avatar come out prettiest.

I really have only one question about WorldIrish.com – how exactly is it a social network? You can browse people’s profiles and you can contact them, but there is no real space for open interaction. There are a couple of pages where you can upload a video, but you can hardly have real conversation through video clips, and though commentary is allowed it’s to the page as a whole rather than the individual video so there is little opportunity for dialogue there either. (What’s more, to make such comments you log in not with your account but with another social networking system such as Facebook.)

In feeling therefore it’s really much closer to a new-media magazine like TheJournal.ie, more about controlled presentation than spontaneous interaction, top-down instead of ground-up. How that turns into social networking eludes me. I’ve joined anyway – networks are what you do with them after all – but I can’t help feeling that this was one of those laudable efforts where someone went “Wouldn’t it be great if we…” and everyone agreed, but no one really knew what the point was.

Another Google+ Bug

Nude Sea Sirens
I can't find any relevant image for this article, so here is a completely irrelevant Russian mercouple

I didn’t speak too soon anyway. The Dow just fell off. Well, had its worst plunge since the crash of 2008. Double-dip recession then? I think that’s far too complacent – why the hell should it stop at two? All we’ve seen since 2008 is an economic system trying to get up off the canvas. It’s not getting up.

But sorry, back to Google+. It’s a bit unfair of me to call it a bug, but “An Aspect Of Google+ Which Users Coming From Facebook May Find Misleading” just doesn’t cut it as a headline. Blame the sub-editors. This isn’t entirely Google’s fault, but I think they need to do something about it.

A lot of people coming to Google+ have prior experience of social networking on Facebook. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “all of them, basically”. So there is a natural tendency to think of someone adding you to their circles as analogous to a friend request. If you have reason to think they’re kosher, you’ll probably add them back. But what if you don’t immediately recognise the name? Speaking for myself it could still easily be someone whose name I’ve forgotten, someone I know by an online name, a friend of a friend. So what I do is see what friends they have in common with me; that almost always makes the relationship obvious.

When someone adds you on Google+ you can see the “People in common” they have with you. If there are a lot, your automatic assumption might be that you should know this person. But unlike FB where relationships are agreed by both parties, being in a circle in G+ is of course only one-way, much like being followed on Twitter. So when someone has a lot of “People in common” with you, all it could mean is that they first added one person you know, and then added all their friends.

It happened yesterday among my peer group – people started asking each other “Does anyone actually know X?” We eventually figured out that X was a fake friend. (Oh and Google? He had a perfectly realistic name and profile.) I would guess people are doing this exactly so that they might be mistaken for friends and added – whereupon they can find out more about you, spam you perhaps, misrepresent themselves even. It’s a new type of insidious social network penetration – we could call it “encircling”.

How can Google make this less likely to succeed? I think “People in common” is a misleading label – indeed, a misleading categorisation. It’s really only “People X has in circles who are in your circles”. There should also be a category “People in your circles who have X in circles.” If the latter group is far smaller than the former, you’ll know immediately that something is up.

First Impressions of Google+

The Google+ Profile Page

After using Google+ for a couple of days, it becomes clear that this is far more than a mere carbon copy of Facebook.

It also rips off Twitter, not to mention Diaspora.

To put it more positively, Google have clearly looked long and hard at what social networking does and why it caught on in the way it did. They’ve attempted to combine the best features of both Facebook and Twitter into one product.

The base is very much like an improved version of Facebook with a more open, airy look and no hint of anything that might be construed as fine print.

The differences begin with how people connect. While Facebook is all about equal two-way relationships confirmed by both parties, in Google+ you can follow anyone and read what they share – as long that is as they’re sharing it with the public. In this way it is almost exactly like Twitter.

From there though the user has the option of allowing you into a more intimate ‘Circle’. This is exactly the same idea as ‘Aspects’ in Diaspora. You can make separate circles for work colleagues, family, clients, etc. So you can decide exactly who gets to see the picture of you drinking beer, and who gets to see the picture of you drinking beer, naked, with your swastika tattoo showing.

Complicated? Well, any social networking system is. Even something as apparently straightforward as Twitter quickly gets confusing in use, as you try to figure out the consequences of one ill-judged tweet being retweeted by two or three people. (One interesting aspect of Google+ is that you can mark things as non-shareable, which is very reassuring.) It is however a fundamentally more simple model than that of Facebook.

Does it add anything new to social networking? Facebook and Twitter are distinctly different, and it would be nice to see a third innovative approach. But while it may be a little to early to say – both the others developed in unpredicted ways and Google+ may yet – it really doesn’t seem to. Quite clearly, Google+ is just the main features of Facebook and Twitter combined and cleaned up.

Which is not, to my mind, a good thing. With Google’s wealth and resources behind it, (not to mention the fact that it integrates right in with your Google search results, your Gmail, etc.), it’s really possible that Google+ will take over the markets that these upstarts created. Rather than adding to the possibilities of social networking therefore it may actually reduce them, in the process giving even greater dominance of the Internet to the company that already bestrides it like a colossus.

But even if comes about such dominance is still a long way off, and for now I like the interface and the control, and I like the fact that Facebook has a competitor. I therefore wish Google+ good fortune and success. Just, you know, not too much good fortune and success.

If you’d like an invite to join Google+, or are already there and would like to follow me on it, my address is: Richard.Chapman@Gmail.com

Facebook and Microsoft?

May I be the first to run around the room with my arms flailing? Facebook may merely be working with Skype to introduce video calling, and Skype may have only been recently bought by Microsoft, but it immediately makes you fear that Microsoft are on the point of buying Facebook. And that would be almost unthinkable. The lumbering old PC monopolist, owning the nimble new social network. The folks at Redmond, with their hands on our personal profiles. Shiver.

Yet… It seems a compelling match. Though not officially on sale yet, the estimated asking price of Facebook is The Largest Number You Can Think Of – a sum which Microsoft just happens to have.

Will they? Would they? They may have to. If Google actually begins to rival Facebook with its Google+ network, it is going to have a fantastically powerful strategic position. And remember, as the main way that the world interacts with the Web and the maker of what is going to become the world’s most popular phone OS, Google has a strategic position already far in advance of anyone.

It’s clear already what they’re planning to do with Google+. They’re going to blend social networking in. They want a person’s online activities, their socializing and their Web searching, to merge casually and seamlessly together. Search for an air fare to Italy, let your friends (or a certain group of friends) see that you’re searching, get their comments and tips. It’s amusing that just after all the browser-makers introduced an “In Private” feature so that you could explicitly search without being seen, Google realised that an “In Public” option would be even better.

This will work. People will like their social networking being blended into their general online activities. It will make using the Web as a whole a much more social thing, a lot more like being with people. It will be great and Google will become even more fantastically powerful.

So if Microsoft want to stay in the game, they need Facebook. The chances of them successfully introducing their own social network system seem poor. There’s really just one question. If Facebook becomes a property of Microsoft, will it instantly become uncool? It seems likely that being owned by Mr. Fox contributed to the demise of MySpace, possibly a similar effect could strike down Facebook. Especially if Google are successful in selling Google+ as the cooler alternative. I’m not sure. Facebook is so big now that it seems almost unimaginable that it could falter. And yet, anything can happen on the Web.

Then again, Microsoft could actually improve Facebook’s image. MS is not exactly the world’s most trusted and loved company, but it is at least known to be businesslike. Facebook is so good at giving the impression of being fundamentally unreliable that Microsoft could actually make it seem a lot more trustworthy.

What’s more, if MS keeps blundering around with the sense of direction it’s displaying right now, if Apple and Google keep running rings around them like this, it’ll soon be able to portray itself as the loveable underdog.

As I say, anything.

What Comes After Facebook?

Facebook is great. Apart from the countless things I don’t like about it. I don’t completely trust them with my data. I worry the small convenience I get from using their service is outweighed by the value of the information I give them. I suspect I’m being exploited in ways I don’t even understand yet. I’m concerned that a single commercial organisation has such a crucial, influential role.

You see where I’m going here. Facebook is the new Google. So when, with their new “Google+“, Google try to be the new Facebook, it’s basically Google being the new new Google. Which makes me dizzy.

But I wish them luck. It’s great to see some competition here, and I strongly suspect that I’m going to prefer Google+ to Facebook. It has one clear advantage anyway: You can separate your interaction into separate areas, or ‘Circles’ as they call them, like family, work and friends.

Which was also exactly the idea behind Diaspora… This start-up have (had?) a potentially Facebook-beating idea, but they took too long to become a thing you could actually use. Now someone else has stolen the mantle of Facebook challenger?

Well, yes and no. Google might be better than Facebook, but they can’t stop being Google. There is a prize – a prize almost beyond measure – to be won here, but I’m not sure if either can reach it.

Facebook, mostly by accident I think, created a wholly new thing. Thanks mainly to its ubiquity it has become an online extension of ordinary life, and one’s Facebook footprint a projection of the self onto the Web. And that in turn has the potential to solve another problem, if problem it be: That of authentication.

Google’s answer to this is a fully authenticated Web with no room for anonymity. A friendlier place for commerce and policing for sure, but obviously an unsafe one for the sort of political organisation we’ve seen in the Middle East recently. You may have noticed how it gets harder all the time to open a Google account. Last time I created one, I had to give them a mobile phone number. How long before it’s an iris scan?

Facebook presents a less foreboding form of authentication – not as rigorous as biometrics perhaps, but as good as we have in most of real life: Authentication by social relationship. To paraphrase an old saying, you can tell a lot about a person from their friends. And of course, most people simply wouldn’t go to the trouble of creating and maintaining a fake Facebook identity. So it is becoming almost a universal authentication system. You see  “Login using Facebook” all over the place now, saving you the trouble of creating a new user account – with a new password – on all sorts of sites.

Which must come as quite a shock to Google, who probably thought they had that market in the bag.

It’s not a straight fight between these two approaches though. The system that will win is the one that can fuse the depth and usefulness of this casual social authentication with the rigour of a biometric one. An unfakeable Facebook(-like) profile would become virtually part of a person, indistinguishable almost from their identity. It could easily become the main way in which we interact with one another, both socially and commercially. And that would be some golden ring.

But if I’m going to (be forced to) use some sort of authentication, I want to do it through an organisation or system I don’t feel is exploiting or policing my thoughts and actions. I don’t think the social network with the complex and constantly changing privacy settings is the outfit for the job. Nor do I think it’s the corporation that seems actively hostile to the concept of privacy. If some system is going to be given the role of presenting me as trustworthy to others, it needs to be one that I trust too.

So it’s too early to give up on Diaspora or other “Facebook killers”. There is a vast amount of money to be made. All you have to do is be nice.