a feminist technology blog

Category: business (Page 1 of 3)

New talk: Big Data, Data-Mining, and the Social Web

Today I gave a talk at the Power, Privacy & the Internet event hosted by the New York Review of Books. I was on a heavy-hitting panel with the wonderful James Bamford, who has been writing books taking the NSA to task since I was playing with Barbies– and as a result, knows more about where the NSA came from and where it is going than anyone else I’ve ever met. Rounding out the panel was Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, who has been pressuring the Obama administration to reform the NSA and has met personally with the three out of five members of Obama’s new NSA review board. Phew.

My talk, in contrast, was about the corporate collecting of personal data. I had just seen a fantastic presentation at AOIR by Dave Parry on the Obama campaign’s use of data-mining techniques, and was well-prepared as a result (thanks Dave!).

Here’s the first paragraph of the talk:

While recent revelations regarding the NSA’s role in the collection and mining of the personal information and digital activities of millions of people across the world have garnered immense media attention and public outcry, there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing and data-mining firms which have not attracted as much attention. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted Facebook advertising, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior is combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms creep under the radar.

You can download a PDF of the entire talk here. Thanks much to #aoircamp for the time and space in which to write it up.

LiveJournal Users: Passionate, Prolific, and Private

Hi all,

I am very happy to announce the release of a major research report I wrote for LiveJournal based on an analysis of previous academic research, interviews with long-term LJ users and observation of communities and individual journals.

You can download it from the LiveJournal Inc. site at http://livejournalinc.com/LJ_Research_Report.pdf.

I was asked to answer the question “What makes LJ different?” I identified the depth of engagement between users and the substantive nature of entries and comments as the two major differences between LiveJournal and other forms of social media.

From the introduction:

LiveJournal’s present success can be attributed to what sets it apart rather than what it has in common with typical social media sites. Unlike Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter, LiveJournal’s features encourage a long-term, deep engagement between users that is comparable to a real-life (usually abbreviated as “RL” on LiveJournal) conversation.

While a Twitter message (140 characters) or a Facebook status update (160 characters) is designed to be extremely brief, LiveJournal users frequently write lengthy entries that encourage and solicit substantial comments from friends. These comment threads can include dozens of people and multithreaded conversations on both personal journals and community journals. LiveJournal also has full integration with a network of friends that encourages more meaningful relationships.

Note that this was a report that LJ paid for me to do. I’m still figuring out the ethics of paid research. Some of the comments in the LJ_Research blog call me out for not mentioning events that were highly critical of the company, or heavily-populated communities that aren’t as “family friendly” as the ones I included. And I fully admit that I went through several rounds of edits with LJ to get to a point where we were all comfortable with the work. It’s an interesting conundrum. But overall, I stand behind my work and there’s nothing in the report I don’t believe in fully.

You can comment at this LJ_Research thread until I get my comments on this blog working again (re-installing the blog software and generally modernizing this from 2005’s hottest technology is on my 2009 to-do list).

Women Speakers at Technology Conferences

Lately I’ve been paying close attention to just who I’m paying attention to when I go to a tech conference (academic or industry). Places like SXSW are pretty good about gender balance, but others will have panel after panel of white dudes, or at least four white dudes and a white woman.

I was perusing Glenda Bautista‘s blog this morning when I found an old post on a web strategy blog listing Asian/Asian-American potential conference speakers, which I think is a terrific idea.

A list of potential female tech speakers would be a very long list. But while I can think of several female startup heads (Mary Hodder, Dina Kaplan, Gina Bianchini, etc.), generally it’s the young male CEO/CTO/COO’s who land on panel after panel and demo after demo. A recent demo session I went to had 25 companies presenting and not a single woman.

The hand-wringing over “Women in Tech” isn’t the point: there are plenty of women in technology already, and there needs to be a more proactive effort to include them on lists, conferences, panels, et cetera. This is the opposite of tokenism; instead, it’s an attempt to replace the friend-of-friend attitude that has dudes organizing conferences and booking their dude friends on panels. The more visible women in technology, the more younger women will see technology as a space for them.

So: Do we need a list?

(Note that there’s something totally wackadoodle about this blog lately, technically; I’ve been meaning to devote an afternoon to un-gunking it and haven’t had the free time yet. I apologize for the continued broken comments, etc.)

LJ Strike and the Limits of User Revolts

I’ve been following the Livejournal Content Strike with interest. For those of you who aren’t LJ nerds, LiveJournal was started by Brad Fitzpatrick, a computer science student at the University of Washington. It evolved into Danga, a small, independent company that (although a bit idealized now through the rose-colored glasses of time) remained committed to open-source software and user input. In 2005, Danga was sold to SixApart, who in late 2007 sold LJ to a Russian company called SUP.

There’s been an inherent tension all along among LJ users and the owners of LJ. Historically, LJ has depended on users for moderation, development, FAQs, and so forth. LJers also obviously provide all the content that makes the site appealing to advertisers and new users. Some of the major controversies on LJ:

1) SixApart adding advertising to the site, after Danga had promised no advertising – ever! on LJ
2) SixApart removing ~500 accounts for use of the terms “incest” or “non-con” in their user info. Many of these were fan fiction communities, targeted by anti-child-predator activist groups like “Warriors for Innocence.” (I recently presented a piece about the discourse around “child predators” on social networking sites and how it’s used to justify content regulation and misguided legislation; the LJ debacle is a good example.)
3) SixApart asking users to remove icons that depicted breastfeeding
4) SUP eliminating “basic” accounts (free, no advertising) for new users.

Each of these met with various degrees of user protest and backlash. #2, especially, caused a huge storm of controversy, largely because fandom is very well organized and networked. But it’s #4 that’s caused the current strike, and what I’m most interested in.

What’s interesting is that I don’t think it’s the policy itself that’s pissed everyone off; LJ users are obviously aware that SUP needs to make money, and although I think most people don’t like advertising online, AdBlock quickly fixes that. The problem lies in the way that SUP handled the change.

  • They didn’t run it by the “LJ Advisory Board” that includes well-known user advocates like danah boyd and Brad Fitzpatrick, after promising to use them as a resource for any major decisions
  • They claimed the choice to remove free accounts was to make the site easier to use, rather than as a revenue generation mechanism
  • They announced the change buried in a lengthy post on the LJ News community

LJ users began to organize two initiatives: a boycott of LJ advertisers, and a Content Strike on Friday, March 21 in which LJ users pledged not to update their journals.

That’s when the real shit hit the fan. SUP evangelist Anton Nossik gave a Russian-language interview in which he called the boycotts “blackmail” and stated:

I don’t know any of LJ posters familiar to me, those I have friended and commented, that would want to join said boycott. I honestly don’t know any people that would seriously take up that initiative. So I am presuming such an idea to be marginal at best. Something like calling all the advertisers in the American section of livejournal and calling on them to cancel their ads…Where would one find people stupid enough to call serious companies? It’s one thing to call a newspaper in hopes that it’ll make you famous on its pages. But a company… They’d just get asked: “Who are you? Why should I listen to you?”…. In a situation where people are trying to blackmail and intimidate us, threatening to destroy our business, there are business reasons not to reward this sort of behavior. This isn’t just the psychology of someone who becomes more stubborn the more they’re pushed. The issue is that at no point in the history of any successful business, success was not reached by bowing to aggressive, unfriendly force. No decision — even the most correct one — should be taken under duress.

There’s something refreshing about the candor with which Mr. Nossik approached his users, given the typical American company’s “we’re taking this very seriously” non-action. But calling LJ users “blackmailers” and “idiots” isn’t very good for public relations, and given that the tactic of boycotting is a time-honored protest technique with a history of success, not very accurate either.

I think one of the reasons Brad Fitzpatrick sold LJ in the first place was that LiveJournallers take LJ very seriously, and feel that the company has a responsibility to take them seriously. This isn’t bad, but it means that the users are EXTREMELY invested in the product (and I think Brad felt that he couldn’t spend the rest of his professional career being personally criticized on a micro-level for every change on the site). HOWEVER. I subscribe to a ton of marketing newsletters, left over from when I was working on marketing surveillance techniques like behavioral targeting. 99% of the content on these newsletters is “how to get customers to engage with your brand.” LJers are intensely emotionally connected to the brand. And given the obvious, that LiveJournal’s profit comes, directly or indirectly, from the users, it seems short-sighted and counterproductive not to take their concerns at face value and try to do something to appease them.

But we see this time and time again. Rather than actually appeasing user concerns, businesses get upset that they can’t control user engagement in the way that they want. Nossik seemed furious that users were organizing against a policy rather than passively accepting it, and has responded defensively and back-pedaled with spin. LiveJournal’s official PR people are a bit better at communicating in status quo business-newspeak but still haven’t actually suggested any improvements to the decision-making process.

Interestingly, I went to the Users are Revolting panel at SXSW (I also took copious notes, and left them all at home today, so forgive me as I vaguely paraphrase). Jessamyn West from Metafilter, a woman from Linden Labs, and one of the editors of Lifehacker talked about user protests oand rebellions and how they handled it. I was fascinated that Lifehacker’s big example was 12 people complaining about a banner ad that showed naked butts (they removed the ad). Metafilter’s recent crazy threads about sexism involved more people, but ultimately resulted in a lot of talking, and some high-profile female users quitting the site. West pointed out that Metafilter’s general response to speech they don’t like is more speech, trying to use discussion and dialogue to work through issues collaboratively. This is a far superior technique to either the usual Best Buy / Verizon / Wal-Mart corporate spin response or Nossik’s defensive reaction.

Ultimately, the switching cost for LJ is too high for most users to do a permanent boycott. But this ties into one of my main problems with Web 2.0: how can we idealize participatory technologies as “democratic” when they are all oligarchical corporate environments in which what the users want doesn’t necessarily have an effect on what policies are proposed? The built environment equivalent would be tearing down town halls and having all public meetings at the mall, where you can’t pass out flyers, wear politically controversial t-shirts, or congregate with teenagers en masse. User boycotts are a response to market forces, but they’re also predicated on a very old-school idea of participatory democracy in which citizens– not just consumers– deserve a say in their governing.

Why eBay feedback changes pissed off all their users

EBay bans negative feedback for buyers.

EBay is finally confronting the “revenge problem” of negative feedback: almost nobody leaves negative feedback for sellers in fear of being retaliated against. I know I’ve bought from sellers who were terribly late or uncommunicative, who deserved at best neutral feedback. Instead, I just didn’t leave any feedback at all. Unsurprisingly, sellers are super pissed and are organizing a mass boycott against this and other new policies (including some shady sounding PayPal holds).

This edges up against two common themes of online communities: ownership and transparency. Who “owns” a community? Is it the company who runs it, and who invests in infrastructure, personnel, server costs, and maintenance, or is it the users, who make the community economically viable? LiveJournal and Digg have both seen very nasty fights over this issue in the last year, with users arguing that they should have a say in community policy-making, bringing us to transparency. Like it or not, online communities are usually supported by commercial structures, which replace democracy or constitutional politics with Terms of Service. These ToS can encompass everything from limiting political discourse to copyright infringement liability, and they are always tipped in favor of the company that writes them.

This is why making claims about the internet as “democratic” space are always problematic.

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status as skill possession

Scotty Demonstrates Cultural Competency

Trendwatching identified “Status Skills” as a September 2006 trend. Basically, this means status as knowing how to do things, but specifically cool, expensive, time-consuming things, like making your own wine, being a super-excellent digital photographer, or just making cool stuff as demonstrated by MAKE magazine or GetCrafty.com. Trendwatching of course is trying to show marketers, brands, etc. how they can curry favor with consumers by helping them to attain competency in high-status areas.

Of course, demonstrating competency is and has always been a status symbol. High-status activities, for example, are often ones in which instruction is necessary. Think about sushi, which is a fairly expensive food that can only be eaten outside of the home (unless you are madly skilled and have lots of money) and requires knowledge to consume: knowing what to order, how to eat it, and having a “sophisticated” palette that doesn’t balk at raw animal proteins. It is precisely the knowledge required to “appreciate” sushi that makes it a high-status food. This is the same principle behind byzantine etiquette rituals or “high-maintainence” grooming techniques: it must be taught, and yet it is almost never taught outright, but requires observation and a friendly Pygmalion instructor (your best friend in 10th grade teaching you how to pluck your eyebrows, for example).

And the more knowledge you have about something, the higher status you can place on it. For example, running used to require basically a pair of sneakers, access to the outdoor world, and maybe some shorts. Now, serious runners are obsessive about mileage, footwear, mp3 players worn on the arm, stretches, marathon training, and as a result (or perhaps as a cause) an entire set of industries has grown up around running as an activity. When I first went to a gym in my early 20s (let’s just stay I’m not the athletic type and leave it at that), I had no idea how to use an elliptical and was incredibly intimidated by the spatial configuration of the gym, where everything you do is in public and there are almost no instructions whatsoever. Competence is assumed. One of the reasons I still avoid yoga is because I never learned how to do it, and I am too chicken to fail in front of a bunch of skinny, in-shape MILFY Bay Area or Manhattan chicks.

However, every type of cultural competency requires learning, just some more than others. If you had never, ever been to a McDonald’s before, you would probably not know how to order. But McDonald’s is constructed so that the entire space of the restaurant encourages people to behave in a certain way, the way that McDonald’s wants them to.

In most McDonalds, there are several registers, and people line up in front of each of them [Side note: have you ever been in a drugstore like Walgreens, CVS, or Bartells where people naturally form a single line that feeds into multiple cashiers? 90% of the time they have a home-made sign up saying something to the effect of “form a line at each register.” The problem is that usually there’s only space for one line rather than many; the space doesn’t lend itself naturally to multiple lines. And when people are constantly doing the “wrong” thing, a company should wise up and figure out how to re-architect or re-organize the space (or software) so that the user does whatever the “right” thing is; or they should re-think their idea of what’s “right”]. There are lots of garbage bins on the way out so people take their trays to the trash before they leave. There are uncomfortable seats so people don’t linger and the restaurant doesn’t get crowded with stragglers. And there is a big, well-lit menu so people can figure out what they want to eat before they get up to the register. We all know how frustrating it is when people wait until they get to the register to decide.

High-status locations usually do not provide as many cues to the user as to how to consume (use, eat, drive, etc.) them. The lack of usability could be explained as partly due to the fact that knowing how to use them is where their status resides.

Alternately, there can be multiple levels of “using” something: being a basic newbie user vs. a power/expert user. Many of my students, for example, don’t know that Wikipedia is editable, thus missing what most people would think of as “the point” of Wikipedia (but going a long way to explain why they see it as a totally legitimate reference source). So status can reside in obtaining the upper, “power-user” competencies of an application, place, hobby, and so forth. And this again varies. I am a hardcore Word power user, but because Word is so dorky, that doesn’t impress pretty much anyone, ever. However, if I was a really super awesome Photoshopper, I could demonstrate competency in a way that people would probably respond to positively.

Trendwatching also points out that this ties into Web 2.0 intimately:

Now, consumers can acquire as many skills as they want, but equally important is the showing-off aspect of what they’ve learned and created. Don’t forget: without ‘the others’ seeing, tasting, hearing or smelling your skills, without the inevitable story-telling, there shall not be any status coming thy way!

Some of this showing off is best done in the company of family and friends, garnering recognition from those who are closest and who matter most. But other creations are just dying to be flaunted to strangers, to the entire world, to give their creators a status fix that’s more in tune with today’s obsession with instant celebrity. In that light, the incredible numbers behind Wikipedia, blogging software, Lulu.com, PureVolume, YouTube and Flickr are not at all surprising. We’re now all skilled encyclopedia editors, writers, musicians, directors, photographers, and we want to share the fruits of our labour with a responsive audience.

Lesson learned: don’t just figure out how you can help your customers improve their skills, but also give them an intimate or worldwide outlet to show and tell and brag.

Again this is mostly exaggerated, as only about 10% of any online community is producing any kind of serious content (videos, blogs, or pictures as opposed to viewing, rating or commenting) and of that, most of it is probably garbage; perhaps there is an aspirational nature to this? And of course, just knowing how to participate in a community without actively pissing people off by violating social mores is in itself an extraordinarily valuable skill.

Trendwatching also claims that “status is to be had in many more ways than leading a somewhat dated lifestyle centered on hoarding as many branded, luxury goods as possible”, which I agree with completely, but that doesn’t mean I think luxury goods have diminished one bit (I saw “organic” Rice Krispies at Safeway the other day), just that they’re being “rebranded” to cater to consumer demand for slow food, locally produced, sweatshop-free, etc. goods. Which of course are probably exactly 0% more slow, local, or sweatshop-free than their predecessors.

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MySpace Profiles and Identity Formation

In my last post, Kevin pointed me to the work of Larry Rosen, a psych professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills (where Torrence’s boyfriend went in Bring it On!!) and his work on MySpace. He conducts empirical, quantitative studies of teen activities on MySpace, and his conclusions are twofold:

1. That there is very little “predatory” action, if any, on MySpace, and
2. That parents should stop worrying about sexual predators and start helping their teens by setting boundaries, talking to them about their online experiences, and helping them make sense of identity formation online (emphasis mine).

IANAP, so I can’t say much about his recommendations (although boundaries and talking sound like one of those universally good things you really can’t argue against), but it was his last point that really struck me.

When I started working on social networks in 2003, I was interested primarily in online self-presentation. I don’t focus on that anymore; my paper on MySpace customization (eternally in draft) is the only project I’m working on that really covers identity. But I do have a very strong background in identity theory and self-presentation theory, so I thought it might be fun to revisit the topic, especially considering the explosion in SNS popularity in the last four years. So a few maxims.

1. MySpace profiles are identity work.
We are all constantly tweaking our identities to perfect how we appear to others, and to ourselves. While we have this cultural idea of a “true self” or an “inner self” (hence the popularity of such inspiring American Idol-isms as “follow your heart”), in reality our “selves” are much more complex and variable. Particularly in the modern, liberal democracy, there’s this idea that we “work” on our selves to become better, stronger, more “accurate” people– we “find” ourselves.

This work could involve taking up yoga, finding religion, travelling the world, or so forth, but in actuality it’s more likely to consist of adopting a new style of dressing, getting a new haircut, buying a car or a house that we think reflects our personality. The teen obsessing over his Panic! at the Disco-style haircut and the 30-something spending a grand on the hottest brand of stroller are both attempting to indicate something very specific to their peer groups. The messages are different, but the mediums are very similar.

The work we do tweaking and pimping and blinging-out our profiles is the same. I ask my students about their first web presences and I get a roomful of groans and eye-rolling as they confess to their first Geocities web page or Britney Spears fansite. As danah recently wrote, teens are more likely to chuck an entire established, groomed online identity and start from scratch than they are to remodel something fully formed. The point is that our current profile should reflect not necessarily who we are, but who we want to be perceived as.

And that’s constantly changing, improving, getting more current and more “hip”. Hence the work. One of my students told me that his best friend’s profile included a long list of bands that he’d never heard of. “I’ve known this kid for five years,” he said, “And I’ve never seen him listen to that stuff.” It’s a carefully edited version of yourself, for public consumption.

2. Identity work is becoming automated
Profiles must be up-to-the-minute; my friends, who are all 20 and 30 somethings who really should know better, consistently update their pictures and preferences with the latest and greatest. What is my February playlist? Am I still really into that Girl Talk album, or do I need to replace it with the new Klaxons? I’ve been hitting the gym more recently, time to put a new picture on MySpace.

Tracking widgets help us to do this without even thinking about it. iLike and Last.fm let us show off our current music without any effort:

The popularity of weight loss trackers, travel maps, “mood-o-meters”, and so on show off to the world exactly what we’re doing. The latest entrant in this crowded marketspace is Slifeshare, which tracks everything you do online and broadcasts it to your eager audience. I’m assuming that you can turn this off once you start trolling Rotten.com, The Superficial and, of course, pr0n.

Of course, while this information might be nice to add to our profile, it also makes tracking our activities extremely easy. Which means determining a demographic profile for us is extremely easy. Which means selling to us becomes extremely easy. (Watch out for more on this from me soon).

3. Our self-presentation strategy depends on context and audience.
This is an old chesnut from communication/performance theory favorite Erving Goffman, who wrote a book in the 1950’s called “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” which is still regularly assigned to reluctant undergraduates. He watched people in regular, every day situations, as they put on smiling faces or professional faces or relaxed around their friends. Goffman came up with the dramaturgical metaphor for everyday life which includes the idea of “frontstage” (public, to all) and “backstage” (private, to “insiders”). If you’ve ever worked retail or food service, you know what it’s like to go on the “floor” versus “the back” or “the kitchen”. The floor is scripted and artificial; the back is just as constructed, but in a much more relaxed, “real” kind of way.

In social networking sites, “context” can be a few things. First, the application itself– my LinkedIn profile is very different from my MySpace profile (which is under a pseudonym for this exact reason). This is not only because the assumed purpose of the application is different, but because the fields and capacities available to me are different. Second, it can be our location within a larger network of friends. If you look at teen MySpace profiles, you’ll see common visual and textual tropes from friend-to-friend, throughout communities – maybe they all have sexy pictures of themselves, or ironic names, or use a certain font or have a certain widget.

Audience also comes into play. The cultural anxiety around teen profiles is often about parents or teachers seeing “backstage” identity performance where they’re used to seeing “frontstage” identity performance. When I was a naive MA student, I used my RealName in my MySpace profile, which severely embarassed me while I was visiting Northwestern and found that the current PhD students had looked up all the prospectives on MySpace. My bad! I tell my students that I don’t look at their Facebook profiles, and I really don’t. Although Facebook is fairly good about letting people set their privacy settings, the fact that Facebook originated from semi-closed student communities created certain cultural norms around university communities. We create profiles based on who we think will see them, which can be very different from the people who do see them.

4.SNS don’t care about you.
They care about you as an eyeball or as a creator of sticky time, but they don’t care about you. They just want you to stay on the site, tell them what bands you like, and ratchet up their numbers (pageviews, user accounts, clickthroughs). Merge your contact info, install their proprietary IM application, invite all your friends to join, create a really awesome profile that will encourage other people to spend more time on the site, provide more and more and more and more information that lets behavioral targeting get more and more and more and more “accurate”. But MySpace or Friendster or Hi5 or Bebo or Facebook would remove your favorite feature or block your favorite widget provider in a second if it threatened their profit model. They would disallow MySpace codes if they could. It’s all about the money; it’s not a free service. It’s a service insofar as it encourages you to stay on the site. It’s not about what’s the best experience for you or what’s the most fun or the most interesting.

I’m finishing up my paper for the JCMC about social networking sites and profit models. Look for more on that soon.

eBay bans sale of virtual goods

I’m trying to get back into the habit of blogging, so bear with me if there are a few days of boring posts while I get up to speed.

This semester I’m taking a class called “Key Readings in Information Law and Policy” at NYU Law school. As part of the class, we’re asked to keep up with the latest on IP, cybercrime, court decisions, free culture, etc. A great resource for doing this is BNA’s Internet Law Newsletter, which comes out every weekday and provides a succinct daily summary (if you don’t mind sitting through five paragraphs of promotional sludge at the beginning. Sign up at ecommercecenter.bna.com.

I want to talk about eBay’s decision to enforce the ban on virtual goods.

First reported by the always-reliable Slashdot:

“Mr. Hani Durzy, speaking for eBay, explained that the decision to pull these items was due to the ‘legal complexities’ surrounding virtual property. “For the overall health of the marketplace” the company felt that the proper course of action, after considerable contemplation, was to ban the sale of these items outright… Mr. Durzy pointed out that in reality, the company is just now following through with a pre-existing policy, as opposed to creating a new one. The policy on digitally delivered goods states: “The seller must be the owner of the underlying intellectual property, or authorized to distribute it by the intellectual property owner.” Given the nebulous nature of ownership in online games, eBay has decided the prudent decision is to remove the possibility for players to sell what might be the IP of other parties via their service.”

So it’s a preventative measure: what MIGHT be the IP of another party. There are “legit” marketplaces in some games for selling virtual goods, but this would seem to point to an increase in the (already substantial) grey market sites that don’t have the seller/buyer protections and infrastructure that eBay provides. I’m also interested to see if this impacts on other types of goods, for example, unlicensed Marilyn Monroe switchplates, import CDs, DVDs of out of print movies and other goods that are in wide availability on eBay.

Lately I’ve had to sit through a large number of presentations on how virtual worlds are SO revolutionary and are going to have SUCH a huge impact on the world that we will all be going to our virtual Eames-lite offices and hanging out with Hiro Protagonist at the Black Sun. I’m really tired of this rhetoric, because a) I think it’s garbage and b) It is used as one of those universal solutions. For example:

Person A: Global warming is going to have catastrophic effects on the planet.
Person B: Don’t worry! Nanotechnology will solve all these problems.


Person A: Gerrymandering and the for-profit nature of news is having a negative effect on American democracy.
Person B: Don’t worry! The political blogosphere will solve all these problems.


Person A: Extension of IP, DRM and Trustworthy Computing could make it really difficult for people to use their computers to watch pirated content.
Person B: Don’t worry! YouTube will democratize celebrity and solve all these problems!

You get the point. Second Life is an edge case product that is currently being spooged all over by marketeers because it provides HUGE ROI in terms of publicity. If I have a book signing at the Framingham Borders and 50 people come, nobody cares. I won’t even get a line in the local paper. BUT, if I have a book signing at a VIRTUAL Borders in Second Life and 50 people come, it will be in the Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek and on all the blogs and I will be heralded as a member of the 3l33t digerati!!!11 But the significance is roughly the same.

This new ban by eBay could be totally inconsequential, as everyone could move to grey market sites designed specifically to buy or sell virtual property, or game owners could set up “officially” sanctioned auctions. Who knows. But it does speak to the many, many legal and infrastructural barriers to a massive extension of virtual world usage. Yes, there is a corpus of legal theory about this, and my infolaw reading group discussed it last year. Suffice to say that nobody really knows how to deal with virtual ownership and it’s far from clear that it will shake down on the “free culture” side of the debate.

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Google & YouTube

I think it’s a really bad idea that Google is buying YouTube. Here’s why:

1. YouTube is chock-full of copyrighted media content. Nobody sues YouTube because they don’t have any money. Google, on the other hand, has a LOT of money, and is a ripe target for litigation. Exhibit A: Google Print.

2. It’s in Google’s best interests to play nice with Big Media. It’s in Big Media’s best interests to eke every smidge of money they can out of copyrighted content. Now, I myself think that providing grainy Flash videos of content is a great sales tool rather than some sort of blight on the profitability of old Saved by the Bell episodes. But we know all too well that old ways of doing business always trump logic in these situations. There’s a major conflict of interest here, and it’s not hard to tell who’s going to win. But you remove the copyrighted content from YouTube, and you have.. .Google Video.

3. Google’s brand is intelligent, savvy, technologically ept and competent. This is a great brand image that’s very appropriate for Google’s user base. YouTube, on the other hand, has a far more rag-tag rebellious brand that points itself squarely at teenagers’ “screw you” gene. These brands don’t mesh. What does Google do that is “cool”? And I don’t mean I think it’s cool, or you think it’s cool. I mean does some random 16 year old think it’s cool. I can’t think of any of Google’s properties that teens would think were cool.

We’ll see what happens.

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one to watch: root.net

ROOT (which just got $1m in funding from a futures exchange in Chicago) is “a commodities exchange for Internet-generated consumer leads”. Which means? root.net is a service that lets users store their clickstream activity (or “Attention Data“) so they can then choose who to sell it to.

The entire thing is couched in this language of user empowerment! and ownership!; but it still makes the assumption that everything is going to be tracked anyway, so you may as well be able to sell it yourself. Which, again, makes the assumption that selling data is a good thing.

Clearly, I agree with the general premise that users should have control over their own data; however, the entire idea of the “clickstream” gives me the wig. AttentionTrust has a Firefox plugin which sets up a clickstream and saves all that data to an XML file that you can save on your own machine or on a server (such as ROOT’s), and the idea of an attention data futures market is just bizarre.

TechCrunch sez:

Offering our attention data in a futures market would look like this. Companies would pay now for access later to attention data from people who intend to buy a compact car in California, or who are outdoor recreation enthusiasts with a certain income level. What have those people been doing online as they prepare to make a purchase? The idea is that users will selectively expose that data about themselves in exchange for some benefit to themselves: advertising targeting our intentions instead of sent scattershot at us, compensation for our data or discounts.

I generally try to be realistic about social critique: it’s not useful, for example, to provide a Marxist critique of something with the solution being “socialist revolution now!” and I don’t think that critiquing this idea with the solution “don’t track any data!” is particularly realistic.

However, the alternative, assume that data tracking of everything is inevitable and there’s nothing we can do about it, is very depressing, and I don’t believe it. I do believe that ethical or limited data collection is possible, I think it’s actually likely, and I think there are enough people working on it that a clickstream-for-all sold to the highest bidder future is not at all inevitable. Let’s not rush to usher it in before we’ve really considerered the ramifications.

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