Hidden Influence of Social Networks

I’ve been interested for the past few years in the inference that can be done using publicly available information. The web means that people nowadays give quite a bit of information away freely in their public profiles. There are now a number of tools which automatically attempt to link peoples user accounts together based on profile information provided and there is a lot of other information that is picked up through the routes and links that people click through and make determinations about the type of person, sometimes referred to as social graph privacy.

I found the article “Eight Friends Are Enough” from a group of researchers at Cambridge interesting because, using data provided from Facebook, it seems to support the claims that much can be inferred by the information provided by the person and by their peers (friends). I’ve seen various media articles using this research to make bigger claims for example there was an article in last week’s Sunday Times about how governments are using this type of information for political gain, removing dissident factions and controlling populations. Our own government for example is conspicuously scanning email traffic looking for terrorist threats.

It will be interesting to see how things pan out in the future. I already know that for example I have spent money buying things that were brought to my attention through services designed to target advertising to me based on my previous preferences. That’s a small and some would say innocuous example of how information is used. Humans are influenced by others, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ can sometimes mean that large numbers follow a direction because they see ‘trending’ on Twitter or highlighted on Facebook. Is this any different from reading it in print? – I think the difference is that if you think enough of your friends have liked something you may give it extra gravitas. So the more of the social network we engage in the more our individualism may get polluted? – Or perhaps it no different from going to the pub and agreeing with people just to keep them happy?

Certainly the web opens opportunities for social influence marketing, and consequently for other uses of that information.

Here’s an interesting video on YouTube by Nicholas Christakis: The hidden influence of social networks

Hmm. Ripples in the pond.

Stupid Web

John Naughton (amongst others) has been critical of Google Buzz. Buzz has been criticised for trying to second guess and provides what John describes as a category mistake”. I have the same feeling about a lot of the tools that fall under the ‘semantic web’ banner at trying to provide some level of cleverness, in this case it’s very basic looking at your contact list and the people you converse with most. I’ve had a similar experience with Amazon.

The problem with Amazon is that it doesn’t store context. The context of some of my purchases (rubber ducks for my niece) is a one off buy that will never be repeated, the horsey books for my partner are repeat purchases but I think Amazon misses a trick because I’d buy a lot more from Amazon if it gave me stuff that’s contextually relevent to me and what I need at the time. That’s difficult to do because I usually go elsewhere for technology purchases but I hardly ever get recommendations for gadgets from Amazon and if I did I would probably be tempted to buy them. Amazon can’t read my mind and the Venn diagram that includes “bath toys for 2 year olds, books about agile programming techniques and horsey books” is quite a small one so the recommendations I receive are Amazons guess at what I will buy based on what I’ve bought in the past.

So what would help ? – Something that tells Amazon about things that interest me most. Something that can explain to Amazon when I’m “browsing” or when I’m actually engaging with something deeply and emotionally. Hmmm…that would be me then.

So that centre of the universe is the individual…or is it ‘collective intelligence’ which is the newest buzz trend (but not a new concept) to try and find out the wisdom of crowds and apply it to web problems. See the problem here is that Americans voted for Bush….and then they did it again. I’m not entirely sure about the wisdom of crowds. The wisdom of peer groups perhaps but I’m not sure that I want to know what ‘the great unwashed’ are twittering about today. I think it’s likely to be a bit dull….and I’ve  looked so I think I know. What are people tweeting about today? “valentines” – what a surprise.

So I still think we’ve got a pretty stupid web. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think the Amazon site gives me interesting suggestions (BTW  I have twice bought a ‘bundle’ under the ‘people that bought this item also bought that too!’)  so it does work. Similarly I do occasionally when I’m bored click on one of the popular hashtags to see whats being said but I would say that I spend more time doing my own research from following ‘known good’ paths than from following paths provided for me.

Perhaps this will change but I hope in a way that people’s own higher order analytical skills remain the primary means of sifting information, otherwise we’ll have a world of people who just believe anything they read and buy anything popular for the sake of it…. iPad anyone?

Oh and while we’re at it what’s going on with Wolfram Alpha …not beta yet? – have people lost interest?

p.s. On the Amazon site I’ve just gone in from my home machine which uses my partners account. Finally now I have recommendations for gadgets that I was looking for all along. All Amazon need to do is send her recommendations to me! Happy Valentines day – 🙂

Convergence v Specialism

I’m very interested in the trend with devices such as XBox 360 towards a convergence of media types and delivery with it’s support of Sky TV through the XBox and broadband via Sky Player – Stephen Nuttall from Sky was quoted as saying: ‘Our partnership with Xbox is a further example of our commitment to put choice and control in the hands of customers.’

I’m particularly interested in the ‘blurring’ or perhaps integration is a better word between the different media types so the idea of interactivity around watching a football match whilst downloading stats and also interacting with other fans is cool, also concepts around adding value to experiences through ‘back channel’ activities is something becoming more prevalent, as is the concept of ‘on demand’ services.

I think the really interesting stuff will be when the boundaries between an interactive TV experience, a gaming experience or an internet experience all disappear to the extent that they become platform neutral and coherent rather than bolt on things. The announcement of the Boxee box earlier this month is a step in the right direction, this really is opening up the rich resources and putting power int he hands of the users. It also means that you no longer need to get content ‘produced’ on a TV channel in order to get your content to a large audience, consumers become producers.

I’m very interested in using gaming technology and interactive TV in more powerful ways to develop engagement and learning, supported with internet they become extremely powerful tools.

Ranking Web Innovations

I found this site on my travels recently, the Web 2.0 Innovations site where they have some super secret ranking algorithm to work out which are the most sexy web developments around (my words not theirs!).

They have Wikipedia right at the top but when I scroll down I find that only the first eight sites are ranked, the rest are ‘rank pending’. Well that’s no good is it. Here is my ranking…

1. WordPress

2. Twitter (yes I am becoming mildly addicted to it now)

3. Google analytics (I find the results fascinating, e.g. I’m the eighth most popular profile in the department according to the analytics on our site. When I think of all the lofty academics here I find this very pleasing!).

4. YouTube

5. Facebook (I like it but don’t visit too often for fear of addiction)

6. Digg

7. Google Desktop (and associated tools).

8. Technorati

9. Flickr

10. Google mail

Now a list of ones that I liked in the past but have gone off…

1. SecondLife  – I like it but it’s too time consuming and the virtual meeting stuff is replaced by Pidgin/Jabber and Twitter etc.

2. LinkedIn – I’ve had this for ages and I’m linked  to loads of people but what’s the point eh!

3. Plaxo – similar to 2.

4. MySpace – I’ve replaced this by Facebook, I actually got ribbed by colleagues for having MySpace account, they said I needed to grow up. According to the Independent 20-30 somethings are into Facebook, then 30-40 somethings are into MySpace then 40+ people are into Friends Reunited. Not sure where they got those ‘facts’ from but I found this comscore site with some fascinating stuff about ages ranges of these tools.

5. Friends Reunited and Genes reunited (nothing to do with the above) – I’ve not had much time to delve into these and they’re a spare-spare time thing for me, also as I don’t tend to want to meet with people from school I’d rather avoid them (If you knew my school you’d understand why).

So those are my lists, not comprehensive but then neither am I.

N.B. Speaking of Stats (or damn lies) – The top post on my WordPress Blog by a long way is my post on “Silent Vacuum Cleaner” and do you know that Samsung have now built a so called Silent Vacuum Cleaner – Silencio.

Web 2.0 thinking..

I’ve had a couple of days away from computers in Ireland with my family and apart from giving me a chance to catch up with stuff it’s given me a chance to look ‘from the outside’ in a bit to computing.

Firstly although I didn’t go on the computer my sisters both did to show me things and they use the computer differently to me. They tend to remember particular words associated with their stuff and then they go to Youtube or Flickr and type those words in then scroll down until they find their one. This works OK for them and it’s a good enough approach I guess as long as the words are uncommon. (in the case of my sisters they’re to do with circus performing (Belfast Festival of Fools being one example of their search terms!) and so it’s a good method.

Now that I’m back though and my kids are again inundating me with questions I’ve had a bit of a Web2.0 idea/revelation. When people ask me for stuff I can either search my memory for the answer, go online or look up the Encyclopaedia. Sometimes however these don’t come up with the satisfactory answer. So how does this link with my sisters approach? – Well my idea (and I grant I’ve heard similar before from others, although not exactly the same) is to create a series of ‘data miners’. What are these? – They are little bots that I send off to do the searching for me (nothing new I hear you ask that’s just like doing an aggregated search?) no! – These bots do the equivalent of Google and Yahoo and bring back stuff. They also know about me and my preferences, they’re working on MY behalf. The other thing they do is KEEP ON SEARCHING. So that if when they return result I don’t find what I’m looking for then they keep on working on this for as long as I consider it important. They then ALERT me to things they find that matches my criteria. As time progresses I can add refinements to help them, this increases the likihood of success. These bots don’t live on Google or Yahoo but they live whereever I need them to live, could by my favourite website or on my computer. I can create as many miners as I want and I can kill them off at any time.

I’m going to create these and make my fortune. But first I’m going to look at the Festival of Fools photos and videos and have a good laugh. I’m not going to go to Twitter as it’s down yet again. Sorry guys but you must keep this site up, people are getting grumpy!


The Encyclopaedia metaphor again

I posted a blog post way back in September about why I like browsing references books and in particular my concise Encyclopaedia.

I was thinking last night when looking the Encyclopaedia up again that the reason I like it better than the web as a reference guide in certain circumstances is not because it’s necessarily more accurate (I think the jury is still out on the accuracy of Wikipedia versus an Encyclopaedia), nor is it because it’s richer, nor is it because I like reading it in print rather than on screen, the main reason is because of the random things that come up whilst I’m hunting for the thing I’m looking up.

For example last night my Encyclopeadia journey started out with a hunt for the Apocolypse (which is quite interesting in itself because all the major religions seem to agree that there will be one) but I ended up looking at an ethnic reference map of the world, in between those I found out what Saint Basil is associated with and various other random factoids. What I’m saying is that there is perhaps more of a need for something equally random on the web. Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” is a little bit like that but usually far too good these days at getting an accurate answer without taking you to random places first. Really it’s just the fact that with the book open certain things leap out at you because they’re on the same page or have pretty pictures etc. and you end up learning something bizarre. I’ve no idea why this appeals to me but it does!

Future of Web Apps (day 2)

Day two of the web apps conference was much like day one and I could describe the talks which would perhaps be interesting but nothing more than looking on the FOWA site and checking the tools out.

I met up with some colleagues and after the morning sessions (on SlideShare by Rashmo Sinha and The Future of Presence by Jyri from Jaiku and Felix Peterson of Plazes) and we discussed the fact that there are a plethora of tools that are aggregating feed of other services to provide you with a presence generater (where am I what was I doing, what do I intend to do) this can be a very good or very bad thing and people seem to be divided on whether it’s useful or not for them. For example why do I want to be part of the dopplr community when I don’t do any serious travelling (this is the further I’ve been in a couple of years) and those people I know that do travel has someone (usually their secretary or partner) who knows where they are! :^) – I can see how it would be good if I was part of a crowd of frequent travellers, so dopplr has a user group but it’s just not for me.

This made me think about the themes emerging form the conference so I’ll share these instead and they actually correlate with some of my predictions which I included in my earlier future of content blog. This is pretty good since you can assume that about 80% of predictions never come to pass.

So here are the themes I took away

(i) Entropy and Chaos – Website builders can’t predict how people will use their sites. You can’t simply throw people off since this makes them come back with a vengance so rather you need to ask why are they using the site in this particular way? – it could be that they have an idea that needs to be pursued. This is how Dogster and Catster came to being because people wanted to share pet profiles with each other but couldn’t do it on other “about me” type spaces (they tried and the administrators remove the pet ones, ha!). You need to adapt to users needs and keep control to a minimum at least on social networking sites.

(ii) Omni-visual-presence – (almost but not quite godlike!) – having your presence available to everyone in the world, “where am I”, “what am I doing”, “where am I going”, “where have I been”. Big mashups are being created around presence and the aggretaion of dynamic content (calendaring, twitter, mobile location sensing (plazes) and so forth) to create a real sense of the real you.

(iii) Semantic web or just screen scraping? – The semantic web is still proving a pig to bring to life and the demo’s I saw around it were disappointing to put it mildly. Slightly clever screen scrapers. It doesn’t mean it wont happen but it’s not here yet.

(iv) Web apps developers are still extremely geeky – Not a problem really just an observation. There were a lot of navel gazers and people with silly tee-shirts.

(v) The big players are still running the show – I think that Google in particular is doing so much that it would be foolish to ignore the big ones and focus in on the tiddlers.

(vi) A lot of the ‘ideas’ were variations on a theme – There were a lot of similar developers working on Facebook Apps, Social networking sites and spinoffs, ‘washing lines’ or ways to collect together data for you (aggregators), publish on demand systems and presence helpers (twitter et al).