Dangers of Algorithmic Sourcing

The increasing pervasiveness of algorithms in everyday life disturbs me.

At the behest of many friends, I finally joined the 500 Pixels community and have begun uploading some of my better photos there for licensing. It’s an awesome place filled with pro photographers competing for the highest scores on their photos.

Yet, scores are determined by the amount of likes, favs and comments you get over a short period of time.

For all intents and purposes, you have a homogenous community of primarily male photographers who are either very good enthusiasts or professionals voting on photos. What gets top ranked? The general popular stream is dominated by surreal landscapes and pics of almost nude models with the occasional wildlife pic thrown in for flavor.

500 Pixels Popular

If you want a top rank of 99 on 500 Pixels, bring epic photoshopped scenes and beautiful scantily clad women. These are amazed photos, and deserved their popular ranking. But you can look at the categories to dig deeper. Some of the lesser ranking photos strike me as a better representation of the many things you can do with a lens (and Photoshop).

Here’s the thing, I stopped posting anything I don’t think can get a peak rating of 80 or higher on 500 Pixels. I just won’t do it. Because I don’t shoot almost naked women for a variety of reasons starting with respecting my peers and wanting to stay married, I post landscapes. Since I shoot more than just landscapes, for that reason alone the site is limiting in its artistic and creative scope.

Algorithmic Determination

Image by aloalo.

Algorithms impact our news choices, too. And our clothing choices. And what we read. And the movies we like.

It seems like algorithms are everywhere. Here are just a few examples:

  • Huffington Post and Mashable sourcing their news based on rising social media memes.
  • Colors and types of shirt you are most likely to buy (based on past purchasing history).
  • Books you should buy on Amazon.
  • Movies and TV programs you are most likely to enjoy on Netflix.

Is this healthy?

It depends. If you like the same type of thing over and over again, then perhaps algorithmic determination is OK.

Afterall, if you participate on the same sites and buy from the same vendors, then your general behavior will match your peers. As such the algorithms are likely to be correct most of the time.

Consider that 60 people eat the same seven meals every week.

Yum, pizza.

Crazy People Like Orange

Image by balotto.

Because I am crazy, five percent of the time I’d like to buy an orange shirt. Yup, it makes my skin look like shit, but I like orange.

Orange was my favorite color as a child. I had orange and green dinosaur wall paper, and one whole wall was painted exclusively orange. I still remember it fondly.

The algorithms don’t know that, but based on what they see online they have predetermined that I will buy black and red and maybe blue. I do like my black T-shirts, but I also like splashes of bright color. And 5% of the time that means I like orange.

What to do?

No Growth


Image via View from the Blue Ridge.

How do things become popular? Someone has to try them first, and then they tell friends. Soon early adopters flock to the product.

Perhaps it becomes popular within a niche community (More surreal interior architecture shots, please). Enough people in the community participate in other social networks, and not just online. Work, family and neighborhoods count, too. People tell their friends, and show them the the new thing they like.

Suddenly, it is safe to try something new. But maybe it won’t be new. Because an algorithm already saw that seven percent of your friends tried something, and it knows you buy items as an early adopter. The site sources you an ad telling you your friends Manny, Moe and Jack bought it already.

Boom! You react and plunk down your credit card.

What’s so daring about that? Where’s the growth?

Cool to be Weird


In a world where anything can be customized to a unique taste, niche stores are popping up all over the Internet to serve the terminally weird. Now it’s cool to be weird.

As database technology becomes cheaper and cheaper, niche stores will be able to serve a customer with algorithmic offerings. Even the daring will find themselves served with the predetermined.

And the algorithms will only get smarter.

How smarter more accessible algorithms impact the inevitable break from the norm remains to be seen. Perhaps that same percentage of the population will be able to resist precision marketing in this form. Or maybe we will all simply accept the endless stream of data driven sales pitches, some subtle, some obvious.

It’s a change that will happen whether we like it or not. The train has left the station.

What do you think?

Can Data Control Provide Ease of Mind?

Most Internet users have significant privacy concerns when it comes to their personal information and location data. There is good reason: An incredible 82 percent of apps access user data, and 80 percent can share location data.

In a bid to get more people to use their sites, app providers and websites are providing new control mechanisms. This next generation of apps address the lack of safety presented by open data. Will it work?

The privacy problem is typified by the wildly successful Tinder dating app. The secret behind Tinder’s success is its simplicity, but the app has stated a roadmap where Tinder users can locate each other in the same room. Further complicating matters is Tinder’s ability to send user data (gleaned from Facebook) to third parties, including sexual preferences.

Other dating apps like SinglesAroundMe are giving end-users control through new features like Position-Shift. Position-Shift lets people show where they are, hide themselves, or even shift their location to mask their exact whereabouts.

Facebook launched its own location app last week; the Nearby Friends service. Like many new apps on the market, Nearby Friends lets users locate their connections via mobile phone. To ease stalking concerns, Facebook is touting a double opt-in, and forces users to select a level of friends from small custom groups to friends. Friends of friends and public listings are not an option.

Life360 offers a different take on location, allowing people to share information with select small groups. The ideal user group is families. The application developer is so security focused calls itself a red state app offering. The company has successfully garnered more account sign-ps than most of its competitors, but does not report active users.

Will Self Regulation Be Enough?


While apps are moving towards empowering users with more privacy control, it may not be enough. Location and personal data conerns have attracted attention in Congress. Senator Al Franken reintroduced his Location Privacy Protection Act to close legal loopholes that allow stalking applications to exist on smartphones.

A different set of app developers are creating mechanisms to alert smartphone users when an app is rooting their phone for data. Even enigmatic tech tycoon John McAfee released DCentral1, an app that lets you audit the permissions on your Android phone, and monitor how your data is being leaked.

These new “privacy control-only” apps reveal significant weaknesses in the iOS and Android platforms. In the end, the apps may force smartphone operating system developers Apple and Google to give stronger controls to the end-user.

It seems fair to say that the days of simple check-in apps like Foursquare are ending, at least beyond a very basic public level. As more application developers provide different levels of privacy control, users will become aware of not only the available security measures, but also the general public’s vulnerability to data leaks.

How app users respond to these developments remains to be seen. The more personal the app is, the more likely end-users will demand robust data security.

What do you think?

The #xPotomac14 Compendium

xPotomac 2014 or #xPotomac14 was held last Friday at Georgetown University’s Copley Formal Lounge. Speakers include keynotes Robert Scoble, Jim Long, and session leaders Lauren Vargas, Toby Bloomberg, Peter Corbett, and Allyson Kapin and Danielle Brigida.


Early reviews show a successful event. Mike Schaeffer wrote, “The 2014 edition [of xPotomac] brought it strong, with an array of presenters, that all told one major story: Success in communications and technology will be predominantly based on strategically taking advantage of opportunities in front of you.”


Monica added, “What I found interesting was the fact that none of the speakers used extemporaneous PowerPoints. Instead, they used handhelds with colorful mind maps to remind them where they were in their talk (kudos to Kathryn Garrett for first pointing this out via Twitter). The result was more eye contact and audience interaction than you typically get when speakers are stuck in a pre-personal computer = overhead transparencies paradigm.”


As you can see, people tweeted about the content throughout the conference. And tweet they did. xPotomac trended for 35 minutes on Friday making it the 68th most popular topic in the country that day, according to Trendinalia United States.

xPotomac14 Word Cloud

Official xPotomac influence partner Zoomph tallied more than 3100 tweets and Instagram updates with a reach of more than 20 million people were posted last week and through the weekend. Not bad for 100 people coming together for a few conversations. The above Zoomph word cloud shows the 50 most referenced words in all those tweets.


Who was the greatest influencer of them all? Tinu Abayomi-Paul rocked her smartphone and took the prize, says Zoomph.


Most folks said they had a lot of fun (including emcee Shana Glickfield, who photo bombed me), and enjoyed the conference more than last year’s. Further, it seems we’ve transcended the increasinly distant BlogPotomac series that served as a foundation for the current xPotomac.


Co-founders Patrick Ashamalla (above), Shonali Burke and myself will bring xPotomac back next year at the Copley Formal Lounge thanks to our relationshiop with Georgetown’s Communications, Culture and Technology program. Look for more great speakers like Robert, Jim, Danielle and Allyson (pictured below), Toby, Peter and Lauren. In the interim, you can see all my photos from the event here. And we will roll out videos of the individual speaker sessions over the next month or so.


Thank you to everyone — attendee, sponsor and of course, our speakers — who made xPotomac happen. What did you think of #xPotomac14?

P.S. Since publishing, Brian Conlin published his “Six Brain-Bending Ideas from xPotomac 2014” on the Vocus blog. Check it out.

Will the House of Cards Stand?

Netflix released House of Cards Season Two this past Friday. Like other avante garde TV series from disruptive non-traditional networks, it created quite a stir. But does the show owe its buzz more to Netflix’s strategy of releasing a whole season at once than people actually watching the program?

Let’s be clear, Netflix generates a ton of publicity through its whole season release strategy (hat tip: Andy Sternberg). Even President Barack Obama is excited about the Washington drama.


Given that word-of-mouth driven online buzz fuels as much if not more viewership than actual network promotions today, one could argue that House of Card‘s PR strategy, while buzzworthy may work against it in the long-term. Without a weekly episode, the program can’t maintain buzz through a season or a year.

Also what if competitors decide to follow suit and release whole seasons at once? Beyonce followed a similar surprise strategy with her most recent album. Will other television producers follow suit? Certainly, the strategy looses its sheen when others partake in the same approach.

But I don’t think Netflix has too much to worry about on that front. I’m not sure other networks will be quick to give up their weekly fix of viewer driven buzz. Let’s take a deeper look at some data.

Chatter versus Viewers

House of Cards Comparison

The above Google Trend analysis shows that other relatively well known newcomers from non-traditional networks are far outpacing Netflix’s House of Cards when it comes to search. The blue line is the TV show House of Cards, yellow is PBS’s Downtown Abbey, red is AMC’s The Walking Dead, and green is HBO’s Game of Thrones.

When people want to find out more about the show, it’s clear that the latter three shows are all benefitting from season long buzz with spikes depending on specific episodes (the massive green spike is the infamous Game of Thrones Red Wedding episode). House of Cards‘ social buzz and media hype is not translating to people seeking out the show through conventional search.

Tweet Chatter

The above chart measured the shows’ official hashtags on Sunday via Hashtags.org. the three shows that were active that weekend — House of Cards, Downton Abbey and The Walking Dead.

House of Cards enjoyed steady traffic compared to the spikes enjoyed by its competitors. In total, it doubled Downton Abbey‘s tweets for Sunday p.m., and achieved about 2/3 of The Walking Dead‘s. However, Monday traffic saw a significant drop, in spite of the federal holiday.


House of Cards word-of-mouth buzz is not sustaining. I imagine as the weeks pass and the season release buzz fades, #houseofcards chatter will continue to lessen while its competitors will chug along with their weekly spike.

You can infer how the numbers might work out over a period of months. The other shows benefit from weekly releases in the overall cumulative total, while #HouseofCards will level out until its next season release.

It’s not that House of Cards isn’t a good show that may grow in viewership with more seasons. But its release strategy seems to be more of a gimmick than a sustainable method that can be applied across the entire media market. We have seen PR generate tremendous buzz in the past without producing business results. This might be another example.

Even Netflix may recognize the House of Cards release paradigm is not sustainable. The video on demand service will move to a gradual release strategy with its first kids program, Turbo Fast.

It doesn’t help that only 29 million people subscribe to Netflix with more than 20% of subscribers living abroad. But then again, HBO ony has 28 million.

The difference? HBO lets non-subscribers buy individual episodes as do PBS and AMC. House of Cards requires a Netflix subscription, which limits access to those who might be interested in the show sans the full service commitment.

What do you think about the House of Cards buzz?

Breaking Up Google

It may be time to break Google up. At a minimum, the Justice Department should consider taking up antitrust action against Google again.

The search monopoly impacts almost every part of the Internet, from content creation to email to data collection. Every small change it makes creates far-reaching ripples.

Google takes these actions to drive revenue for its advertising products. Revenue is derived from a wide array of advertising properties, including search, YouTube, ads in products like Gmail, and the far reaching AdWords network.

So what’s the hubbub about? Consider how the company uses data sourced from Google+, Android phones, Chrome browsers, organic searches and soon its sensors (via the Nest acquisition) to customize ads. Contextual and creepy at the same time, Google uses all of the data collected from products to serve the ad beast, which in turn suggests products from paying partners.

In doing so, Google pushes the boundaries of fair data use. Further, whenever it alters its search algorithms, Google creates tidal waves across the media industry, and impacts every single business with an Internet presence. Because of Google’s size, every business owner and media publisher must at a minimum pay attention to these changes, if not yield to them.

Google, The Data Bully

Google Searching
Image by Charles Ovens

Consider how Google pressures sites and companies to provide their data for free. When content owners and publishers say no, Google often replicates the data or it launches a competive product to replicate the creation of that data. This basically tells every data owner to you open their database to Google, or face competition from the Silicon Valley giant. Don’t be evil, indeed.

In many ways, Google’s creation of Google+ sought to replace paid access to Twitter and other social network sites that bar public search crawls. By making Google+ and Google Authorship components of its search algorithm, Google forced Plus upon content publishers and website owners. As a result, Google+ is actively marketed by millions of websites across the globe.

What would happen if the Justice Department acted and demanded that Google pay its competitors, and that Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn social data received equal weight in Google searches?

I’ll tell you what. Most content publishers would stop trying to make Google+ work. A vast majority of those G+ social buttons across the social web would disappear like outdoor Christmas lights retired in the midst of January.

Google+ would collapse. And maybe it should.

In its quest to ensure data quality and drive more revenue, Google consistantly pushes the boundaries of privacy. The list of privacy violations is significant (scroll to the end of this Huffington Post piece). You have to wonder what’s going to happen with data from Glass and Nest.

The search algorithm changes impact every media and business across the world with an Internet presence. You can see the panicked Hummingbird, Penguin and Panda update posts that dominated the marketing and publishing interwebs over the past two years.

Last year Google deployed filtered emails based on keywords and data to create a less spammy email experience. Even Gmail filter changes impacted millions of people and businesses alike. I wonder how many companies have to pay to have their products seen in email ads now? Personally, I’ve had a few emails unnecessarily buried by the new tabs.

With many of these actions, Google forces content creators and site publishers to choose between SEO and smart business. Consider the placement of no follow links in press releases and now guest blogs. Now you can’t transfer Google juice in what should be common sense business activities.

I value organic growth by attracting people to my site more than I care about search algorithms. So I tend to ignore some of the finer points (keyword placement, no follow links on guest blogs I accept, etc.) in favor of a good read, but Google’s changes make me consider each tactic.

Case in Point: Guest Blogs are More than SEO


I read Google Web Spam Leader Matt Cutt‘s arguments last week to eliminate guest blog links from Google’s search algorithm. While I am certain Google sees more blog spam than the average person does, the recommendation to cease guest blogging is a flawed one.

In particular these statements were erroneous: “Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more.”

Though Matt reversed his statement a bit with an amended title and a footnote at the end, this needs to be said loud and clear: Guest blogging is more than SEO.

Guest blogging is an attempt to introduce yourself (or a brand) and garner credibility with new audiences, the virtual road show if you would. In trade, you provide quality content. Even a respected author understands that.

Let me give you some examples:

I wrote a novel call Exodus last year that’s still realtively new. So I guest blogged last Wednesday on To Read, or Not to Read about the possibility of technology destroying us. It was a fun post that delved into post-apocalyptic narration and world building as storytelling devices. It also introduced the book to new audiences.

Then last Thursday I blogged about the coming Zombie Content Apocalypse on Copyblogger. Copyblogger is one of the top blogs in my business. It is always a great opportunity to offer a guest by-line there.

In both cases I delivered unique content to the sites. I believe the original content was useful and interesting to those communities. As a result, I gained a few new followers and contacts from these efforts.

If you told me I would be penalized by Google before I drafted the posts, it wouldn’t have stopped me. Guest blogs and articles remain a strong tactic. That is true with or without Google’s blessing.

This type of situation seems to happen with Google monthly, if not more frequently. And that is the problem with the Internet giant. Small moves create massive waves when you have all the power.

Google Is Threesome


So how should Google be broken up? Personally, I think Google should be broken up into three companies to create a fairer Internet ecosystem.

The first is the search engine itself as a stand-alone product. When tied to other content elements on the Internet, Google search achieves insurmountable economies of scale. Google tends to leverage search, its various sepearate content mechanisms, and its software (Chrome and Android) for unfair advantages, most notably data mining and the weighting of Google+ in its search algorithm.

The second company would be software products, from Gmail to Android. Also included in this second company would be YouTube, Chrome, Feedburner, and other application elements. In many ways, search is search, and company x is content. We will call this company Google2.

Google3 would be comprised of the hardware companies. Glass, Motorola and Nest would be form Google3. Why seperate these companies from the group? Google clearly uses data to its advantage. Creating and acquiring new devices to capture data seems to be an evolving pattern here, and one that leads to a slippery slope. Separation creates a forced check and balance.

So there you have it, my vision for a safer Internet sans the Google Empire. Much like AT&T, the Baby Bells, and Lucent Technologies in the post telecom divestiture era, the three Google companies would all be very powerful in their own right.

Google Pays to Avoid Trust Busting


Like other big business lobbies, Google will likely avoid action or penalities for leveraging all of its business powers. Google pays to make sure its agenda is at the forefront of DC legislators’ and administrators’ minds. There are too many dollars at stake.

Washington, DC is a town built on special interest dollars. We all know this; the money involved is a central problem in today’s political gridlock.

Google was the largest tech lobbying company in DC in 2013 with $14 million spent. Ironically, this is a significant decrease over the prior year when Google faced antitrust action.

Though Google may be too powerful, it would take significant public outcry for Washington to act. Google knows the game and plays the system on every corner. We will have to continue dealing with Google’s data manipulation and Internet tactics.

It could be worse. While often overbearing in its moves, at least Google realizes that it can only grow by committing to better search, less spam, and useful information and data products. While I advocate for Google’s breakup, I’d much rather see this management team operating with these economies of scale as opposed to Facebook’s executives. That would be dangerous indeed.

What do you think? Should the government break Google up? Is the company too powerful?

Featured image via The Digital Reader. Capitol Building photo taken by me.

CHIL and Dream

It is refreshing to stop thinking about existing technology, and imagine what can be with new tools. Last week, I had the opportunity to do that at the SciTech tradeshow hosted by one of American Institute of Aerospace and Aeronautics (AIAA).

It was cool to see how new space exploration can occur through collaboration, and where virtual reality is making amazing progress in the development community. I like to apply ideas from other sectors to my work and writing.

For example, I saw Lockheed Martin’s virtual reality development tool, CHIL (in use since 2011). Then I learned about how plane and spacecraft panels can be made lighter and more flexible, and how easily our space infrasturcutre could be hijacked by a cyberterrorist, and how to prevent pilot accidents through a new generation of sensors.

It all seeemed very exciting. I guess someone steeped in the science and technology communities, would these technologies to be natural evolutions. But to the business layman, they were fantastic.

CHIL seems like someone developed a valuable use for Second Life, allowing engineers to render their designs in 3D, and then enter them to see errors. The tech generates significant cost and time savings by reducing multiple iterations of production models.

The fledgling scifi novelist in me was thrilled, and I latched right onto the cyberwarfare and CHIL technologies. The space cyberwar scenarios are endless. Of course, the narrative in my head went towards sabotage and crimes in 3D. It’s the stuff of cyberpunk!

You could see modern applications in today’s media and marketing worlds, too. For example, imagine building out an entire customer experience — from ad to app to customer feedback to store visit — before deploying it. Or creating virtual apps to allow people to “test-drive” your product before purchasing it. Olympus recently did that with its micro 4/3 camera.


I was so invigorated that I decided to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center last weekend to surround myself with dreams and visions already realized. Soleil and Caitlin, too. Soleil walked out telling us that she wanted to be an astronaut (actually she wanted to fly the plane known to adults as the space shuttle, but hey, same thing, right?).

Dreams are important. They remind us that great possibility and innovation can happen. We just need to imagine it, and then take the steps necessary to fulfill the vision. Easier said than done, but dreams and hard work is how innovation happens.

Point being, applied to our world the same old work or yet another boring conversation about xxx is a limitation that we create for ourselves. Choosing to go beyond begins in the heart and the mind.

What do you think?