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?

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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?

Success Built on a Mountain of Failures

Two weeks ago, Jelly Founder and Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone spoke at the Greater Washington Board of Trade about his lessons learned as an entrepreneur, as detailed in his new book, Things a Little Bird Told Me. The conversation with Board of Trade President Jim Dinegar inspired hundreds of executives.

“My success is built on a mountain of failures,” said Biz.

Biz continued and said that he attributed 99% of his success to failures and 1% to luck. He looked at failure as a method of experimentation. Failure tells you what doesn’t work, and allows you to move on to a different approach and find an answer.

Opportunity means a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something, noted Biz Stone. Unfortunately, most people assume that they have to wait for those circumstances. “We can make the circumstances that create opportunity,” said Biz.

Twitter Success Came from Failure

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Biz had an impovershed upbringing. He was raised by his mother who was a single earner. He was busy as a high school student, and ended up starting and participating in his lacrosse team and working at night. He didn’t have time for homework, too, so he actively dialogued with his teachers and worked out an agreement. Later Biz dropped out of college… Twice.

He related how he had moved west to Silicon Valley to work with Ev Williams, and his mild successes and failures with Google’s Blogger platform. During the pre-Twitter success period of his life, Biz was struggling to make ends meet, and he and his wife slept on their floor.

Ev left Blogger, and Biz became the leader of the unit. Google then IPOed, which help relieve Biz’s financial woes. Biz decided to leave Google after the IPO because he wasn’t happy with the experience, even though he was the voice of the Blogger platform. He didn’t love what he was doing, and he had specifically come to California to work with Ev. So even though the Google IPO promised more wealth, he joined Ev and built the podcasting software company Odeo.

Odeo’s failure produced the concept for Twitter. Rather than simply close the doors, Ev and Biz held a hackathon to come up with cool ideas. By then Biz and Jack Dorsey, a programmer at Odeo, were becoming good friends. They hacked the idea for Twitter based on AOL’s Instant Messenger platform.

During the company’s initial successes, Twitter experienced severe technical issues, and the service kept collapsing. It was the era of the Twitter fail whale. Everyone was strained, and one day Biz — who again was the face of the company — came in and snapped. He yelled at the team.

Jack got up and asked Biz to talk privately. They went for a walk and Jack told Biz that he couldn’t behave that way. “I realized I was the leader of the company,” said Biz. “I always needed to present a positive outlook for the team.”

More stories were shared including a stiff conversation with Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg who inquired to buy Twitter.

All in all, I found Biz’s adventures to be very inspiring. I believe that success is something that could happen with hard work and faith. And that belief was reaffirmed. I liked the Jack lesson, too.

Biz did note that it was important for people to give back. He said it doesn’t matter how much money you have, you always need to give to people, even if it is just time or $5. It changes who you are and the benefit is that it make you a better person. Biz is actively involved with DonorsChoose.

A version of this post ran originally on the Vocus blog.

What If No One Pays Attention Anymore?

Attention drives the social web, particularly now that it is maturing and there is an ongoing dogfight for precious seconds from the billions of people on social networks. Algorithms determine what does and doesn’t get people’s attention in feeds on many sites. But what happens when people stop caring?

The loss of attention is why social media marketers are freaking out about Facebook’s algorithm changes. These evolutions promise only 1-2% reach for business page updates. Now marketers can’t earn attention on Facebook brand pages by posting cute puppy pics. Instead, they have to pay for it. Like schemes are falling to the wayside.

Brands are really starting to learn a painful lesson right now. People hate branded social media updates.

The movement towards “dark” or private social media isn’t just about avoiding awkward conversations with family and co-workers. People want to escape the considerably intrusive shilling of chatty products and services trying to be cool in that oh so social way.

User Experience Matters More

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In considering today’s media environment, here’s a mission that most traditional publishers would agree with: “User experience matters more than branded approaches to owned and earned social media.” After all, if you chase everyone away in the name of helping corporate partners out, there won’t be anything worth advertising on.

Social media marketers cries of greed or rationalizing Facebook’s moves as profiteering for Wall Street are misguided. Let’s say all of the conjecture about Facebook’s forthcoming decline is true (data shows it’s not, but…) Perhaps Facebook fears that engagement rates will drop and knows it has lost younger audiences. Facebook can’t stop grandparents from joining, but they can control brand interactions while increasing visual and mobile functionality for individuals.

Maybe, just maybe retention and user experience trumps brand use.

Perhaps user experience causes Twitter to consider dropping hashtags as a primary conversation tool. Afterall, which demographic really cares about and tracks hashtag use? Marketers, of course.

Think about it. If there was a better method to track hot topics like The Walking Dead, would people really miss the consistent barrage of brand inspired hashtags?

See, I believe that for the most part people are tuning out brands on social networks anyway. Only the die hard brand loyalists and fans care now. They are the ones who opt in and follow organically.

Pretty Breakfast Waffles

To reach more people, brands and individuals can’t resort to the same old cheap social tricks. Buy a like or follower? No, now they have to advertise. And brands better deliver contextual value in some form or people tune out.

How many Taco Bell ads have you seen across diverse media featuring their breakfast campaign? Don’t get me wrong, I admire Taco Bell’s marketing prowess. The Ronald McDonald TV spot was great, and some of the social media updates have been technically brilliant. But as a consumer I think I am going to puke if I see another sponsored breakfast Taco Bell pic.

There is no contextual value for me. I won’t eat fast food. So I am asking not to see the sponsored ads anymore. I am sure many people have similar brand experiences on social networks every single day.

I think it’s the same for personalities who sustain themselves on social followings. Star power is attention, but if there is no return on time given, most people get bored with petty “selfie” antics and move on.

Attention is an opportunity to give value and meet commitments to customers and community alike. It should not be used as an opportunity to celebrate one’s self. Even when milestones are achieved — from sales to followers — these are things to be grateful for, and that gratitude needs to be expressed.

Brands and entrepreneurs who have this ethos — an experience ethos that values each moment a customer spends with them — stand a better chance of winning the game of marketing. They stand out from the crowd of noisemakers who always want to take the easiest path to ROI.

What do you think?

Can Flickr Catch Instagram?

Flickr celebrated 10 years of serving photos earlier this month, making it an old man amongst social networks. But the photo network is still relevant today, ranking in the top 10 social networks thanks to a resurgence under Marissa Mayer’s watch. In fact, Flickr is now ranked just one spot behind rival photo network Instagram.

In the past two years, Yahoo! redesigned the site to give it a modern feel, added new apps, gave photographers a massive amount of free space (one terabyte), and continues to evolve its feature set. Most recently, Flickr added Creations, an easy way for photographers to create their own Photo Books. The series of changes has produced a visual renaissance.

Flickr has 92 million users now, from amateur to the most professional of photgraphers. Unlike Instagram, Flickr’s robust copyright protection mechanisms provides more experienced photgraphers a safe place to post, in turn attracting higher quality images.

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Image by antony5112 on Flickr.

While Instagram may be the place for casual photo sharing and in-the-moment visual hashtagged memes, Flickr offers a search beast and credibility. Google, Bing and Yahoo alike index the site, and offer its images in their results. Tagging drives additional native search traffic, too. As a result, Flickr is a top resource for those looking for creative photos.

In my opinion, Yahoo!’s Flickr may overtake Facebook’s Instagram as the number one photography social network. What a coup that would be for Marissa Mayer.

I post on both Flickr and Instagram, and I can safely say that I have never had an Instagram photo featured in a news story, book, or on Getty Images. My works on Flickr have been featured in three books, twelve were licensed by Getty Images, and hundreds have been featured in blogs around the world.

In fact, Flickr is so powerful that my photo blog regularly outperforms this blog every month. I am expecting my one millionth photo view (none of which include me) early this Spring, outpacing this blog’s page views (which includes the old Now Is Gone blog, launched at roughly the same time as my Flickr blog, but not the Buzz Bin from 2006-9).

The combination of better apps and features, higher visibility to influential photography users, and increased social function gives Flickr the edge over Instagram in my book. What do you think?

Featured image by me, shot in Philadelphia this past Saturday.

Facebook Will Not Die Easily

Did you know that more than two million people still access the Internet through AOL dial-up services? Or that the company grew by 6% last year to reach $2.3 billion in revenue? While AOL is oft considered dead by pundits, the company is surviving just fine as a media company with a legacy dial-up business.

In August of 2012, I wrote that Facebook will decline like AOL. I think its worth revisiting given all of the hot debate over Facebook’s impending cancerous death.

Before I wrote the AOL post, I originally modeled a MySpace-like death for Zucerberg and company, but that was wrong. Facebook will not die a fast death. In fact, in the past couple of years it’s become clear that the full and complete collapse of the company is impossible.

Don’t get me wrong. On a personal level, I really dislike Facebook. I personally find a vast majority of the conversations to be mundane or toxic. I am not alone, many users have a wide variety of dislikes, according to Pew Research.

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Like Olivier Blanchard, I think marketers would be wise to develop alternate methods of galvanizing their social communities. There are too many warning signs for any risk-adverse person. Facebook is vulnerable. For example, it’s not the first social network for healthy swaths of the B2B and youth consumer markets.

At the same time, Facebook is almost ubiquitous across the Internet. It’s social share buttons are everywhere. Even with McDonald’s-like weaknesses, Facebook is far and away the largest social network. It has more than three times the amount of active users (900 million) than its nearest competitors, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Economies of scale of this nature don’t collapse over night, nor do they fall in a year. In fact, the only thing that could possibly destroy Facebook is an epic scandal of an unimaginable level… Or Rupert Murdoch buying the company.

What goes up, must come down. Much of the conjecture about Facebook’s death revolves the anticipation of Something Else.

Another parallel can be drawn to broadcast TV. In spite of cable, satellite and Internet-based on-demand video services, broadcast TV continues to survive.

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Why? Because like other markets, the networks have a leadership share that’s hard to overcome. CNN, Fox, ESPN, Netflix, the Weather Channel, etc., may carve their niches, yet they cannot overcome the economies of scale that other networks have. As a result, the original broadcasters continue to purchase quality programming with top actors and newscasters, and sporting events like the NFL and the Olympics. Individual competitors can’t compete on this level day in, day out. As a result, a portion of the U.S. population retains a very basic brand loyalty.

Like AOL and the original broadcast TV networks, Facebook is never going to die. It will acquire other properties like Instagram. It will dwindle, it will likely decline, but Facebook will never disappear. The network is too big to completely fail.

What do you think?

Featured image by Louhan.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.