Archives For Internet

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The Internet has made the world a global village. One where it matters no more where you live to be connected with people.  It takes less time to share your thoughts with people that are with you digitally than those that you may run into physically. Location based personalization aside, everyone around the world can read the same news, get the same results when they search on a topic, see the same updates on Facebook and so on.  What exactly is this doing to our diversity?

Eli Parser discusses Filter Bubbles in his TED Talk and discusses how the Internet may be killing our diversity in opinions. The more a page gets viewed, the higher its rank gets; the higher its rank, the earlier it appears in search results; the earlier it appears, the more it gets viewed – this certainly can be a diversity killer.  This is more of an issue with social opinions and content – nobody wants to be that guy (gal) that stands out with a controversial opinion.  I do wonder about just how much Quora’s algorithms are able to extract and get visibility to the under-viewed and yet good content.  The reality is that the more upvotes an answer gets, it is likely to continue getting more upvotes in future.  Facebook and G+ are no exceptions. Our friends’ likes on a picture make us want to stop and look at it – and more often than not, we may end up liking it too.

Let’s look at the physical world here.  This phenomenon was certainly always present, but it was localized.  The Internet has taken a local phenomenon and made it global.  Is this a problem?  In more dimensions that we can imagine, this is generally a good thing.  It has reconnected us with lost friends and has made the world a smaller place.  But the culprit here seems to be the increasing consumption of content online.  We used to have several sources of content in the past – newspapers, magazines, television, etc. Increasingly, it is all converging to be online.  Our ranking algorithm was previously via word-of-mouth recommendations.  A friend asked us to check something out – in the process, we found something else and asked someone to check that out.  There was scope for interesting discovery.  We talked about opinions in smaller circles – there was room for potentially having varied opinions and not being the loner.

Now we are online and our opinions are too. When we say something, it is visible to a large audience, all at once (unless you have extraordinary patience to compartmentalize your audience).

Are we slowly killing the power of having different points of view?  If we are, that would also kill creativity and it will become a threat to innovation. Before that happens, our algorithms need to start having a measure of interesting and good that is independent of likes/views/votes so that we can take the road less traveled sometimes.

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Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!

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For centuries, we human beings are used to having separate worlds in our lives.  Our parents, our friends, our managers, our peers, our teachers, our children – the list goes on.  We often maintain different personalities with the different worlds and rarely are we comfortable with details about who we are in one world leaking into one of the other worlds.  As a diehard Seinfeld fan, this brings to mind George’s fear of colliding of worlds (Independent George, Relationship George) as Jerry happily hooks up Elaine and Susan!

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When I read articles such as the NYTimes one on “They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets“, I always come away with mixed feelings about what role the social networking landscape should play on one’s life – in this case, education, perhaps something else in another case.  This is certainly not the first article written about the reality of colliding worlds and it won’t be the last.  As we become more trackable via sensors, the problem of collisions is going to be huge.  As a society, are we really prepared for it?

Before we answer that question, let’s recall the role that man’s inventions have played on evolving our societal norms over the years.  From the evolution of commerce to banking to recent techniques of sending money via email, one of communication from pigeon carriers to snail mail to all kinds of electronic modes available now, etc., our society has evolved and adapted to inventions (technological and other) that have woven into people’s lives as an integral part.

Along the same lines, there is a massive force on social behavior at the moment, brought upon by all the myriad of information that is available about us online.  I wrote on Quora about the different ways in which one can lose privacy today – for all those reasons and more, evidence of our behavior is smeared in bits of information all over the place.  It is futile to fight it or try to revert or delete it all.  And yet, I believe this is the among the most difficult changes inflicted on society by human inventions.

Despite all the changes that have come about, the notion of a relationship role is one that has undergone little to no change from times immemorial.  And I mean relationship in the broadest of senses – what a student is to a teacher, what a child is to a parent, what friends are to each other, etc.  And despite the huge changes that have happened in the ways we communicate, how we handle these different personas have more or less remained the same.

And today, this is all in jeopardy.  Not only that, but it is rapidly changing – before we are ready for it.  Previously, to impress a potential employer, we could put our best foot forward and know that that is going to be what counts for the most part.  The equivalent of information leaks in that world would have been things like knowing a common intersection of people from one of your different worlds that may divulge undesirable information about you.  This was not a common occurrence in the big scheme of things.

Today, it is a reality everywhere. There is no place to hide.  And this makes all the difference.  Unfortunately, just as in any other case, technology will end up influencing human social behavior more so than accepted societal norms defining the future of technology in this space. We have to be more cognizant about this in our actions.  Be it an educational institution that figures out just how much your tweets count towards your admissions or a student that figures out how to develop a social profile that augments their admissions – we will eventually reach equilibrium. Until then, it’s a rocky road ahead and we have to ride along!

BitTorrent lately has had tremendous success with Game of Thrones.  But, the stigma of illegal content wouldn’t go away.  The BitTorrent team is upset with this notion of associating it with illicit content downloads.  As a technology, BitTorrent has existed for over a decade.  It had the (mis)fortune of coming to life at a time when digital media was going through an exponential growth trajectory and Napster had demonstrated the power of peer-to-peer technologies.  While Napster was specifically optimized for small files (songs really), BitTorrent was built to handle large files very efficiently.  Just like Napster, BitTorrent rapidly grew into the go-to place for “ripping” content, only this time movies along with other types.

Digital Media And DRM

It is too bad that these technologies became the center of the illicit content sharing universe, because, fundamentally, the technology of peer-to-peer or more generally, distributed systems can be very powerful.  This situation came to be partly because the media companies had not yet caught up to sound DRM techniques – digital media was in early stages after all and the media industry was being left out of breath by the rapid growth and all the different directions it was being pulled at that threatened it’s profit sustenance.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in 1998 and it wasn’t until late 200x-s that companies had figured out how to impose effective DRM techniques.  The political nightmare that it was, led to every media company having its own DRM solution with no interoperability whatsoever. Sony took the brunt of harsh criticism with the irrecoverable damage caused by their so-called DRM solutions that shipped with their CDs and ruined people’s computers, circa 2005. Apple, after having a proprietary DRM solution that got confused with proprietary formats (AAC was not proprietary, but the DRM that was wrapped around it was), quietly dropped it in 2009 and went to supporting DRM-free music audio and video files.  Fast forward to today, DRM has become this annoying concept that got munged with and locked into user identities in a way that restrain us to pretend about who we are in order to share content even in a legal way.  Put simply, we now often have to log into our accounts to have access to content on a particular device.  And if the device does not support the accounts under question, tough luck.  Or, if the device belongs to someone else and you just wanted to loan your content to them, tough luck (more or less, although you can lend books and such in a limited way).

Building A Product Vs Building A Technology

All said and done, we know Napster and BitTorrent as the vehicles through which illicit sharing of digital media grew to large extents.

Let’s separate the technology from its popular use cases.  “Build and they will come” used to be a great web philosophy just around the time BitTorrent was gaining popularity.  The reality is that the market finds the best use cases for different technologies, whether we like it or not.  This is especially true if you didn’t build a product to begin with.  If what you built was technology, prepare for the marktet telling you how and what it will be used for.

And that’s precisely what happened with BitTorrent.  To be fair, Napster, to some extent tried building a product (it was a music sharing service).  However, they didn’t see the product requirements through.  It was more an example use case – or at least treated as such.  In BitTorrent’s case, it really was just a technology.  It is like saying – “TCP (or HTTP) has caused Internet to be filled with too much porn”.  Well, except TCP wasn’t built as a business.  BitTorrent was.  And that makes all the difference.

Why Building A Product Matters

Building a product makes a huge difference.  Even when you build a product, it is possible that the market figures out other uses for it.  But if you never set out to build a product, it’s a big problem.  Because then, you are spending all the time perfecting the technology for a product that doesn’t exist yet.  Or, worse yet, building a business around an unknown product.  Sure, one could claim “file sharing” was the service that BitTorrent built.  But, unless you are working on an operating system or a device that is going to bundle file sharing, that’s not a real product.  It means nothing to an end user – or worse, it may mean too many things.  When the hack-savvy figure it out, the product can take a shape you did not really invent the technology for!

Sometimes, while focusing on building a product, we can close off a technology to other uses.  Imagine if TCP was built just for FTP and we had to reinvent the transport when HTTP came along – obviously, that’s not ideal!  It takes skill to build a product without compromising on the core strengths of the underlying technology.  It takes even more skill to build a product and technology at the same time.  But that’s what excellence is about!

So, as to BitTorrent’s rant about illegal content and them being just about the connectivity – well, they didn’t build a product! Hence, they now have to spend extra efforts to convince the world that their technology can go beyond the use case the world popularized it for!  Sadly, this taint of illegal content has gone beyond BitTorrent to affect the phrase “peer-to-peer” at large.  Even otherwise amazingly smart people don’t want to touch wide area p2p (to distinguish this from stuff like WiFi p2p) with a long pole.  I’ve been at the receiving end of this, trying to preach to some of the most brilliant people I know, that distributed systems can be powerful and do much much more than illegal file sharing.

I know now that the way to get through is by building a product wrapped around it that harnesses the power of p2p in a way nothing else can.  One of the most successful examples is PPLive, where p2p was used for a live broadcast of the Beijing Olympics to millions of users.  At the end of the day, they shipped files on a p2p infrastructure (sounds like BitTorrent?!).  But, it was nicely wrapped in a product that the users got right away!

So, have a technology and product vision and build a product.  If a technology can have broad uses, pick a starting point and an initial product.  If you don’t, be prepared to embrace what the market throws at you!