Archive | September, 2009

This study matters

In a recent post, I was considering online privacy and data gathering. Today, a study came out on those topics — and the results aren’t good for advertisers or laissez-faire thinkers. But they may enable us to begin re-thinking the promise of the internet.

The New York Times does a nice writeup on the study, including a prominent link to the study [PDF, 411 KB] in the first graph. Way to use the internet. [It’s a shame I have to compliment the paper on that, but most publications don’t use links correctly or even at all, so let’s give props where they’re due.]

The study, conducted by professors from Penn and UC Berkeley, demonstrates what I’ve long believed to be true: People hate being tracked online. It makes them nervous. And they have no idea how the information is used, even when the use of the information is helpful to them.

Note I didn’t say that targeted advertising in particular is helpful. That’s one of the most common uses of personal data today. While targeted advertising does influence purchasing, people still don’t like the idea of it [as this survey demonstrates].

Now, I’m going to say something a little crazy here. Right now, the Internet is dominated by corporate interests. It is a marketing vehicle. Even in places where you believe yourself to be in control of your information, you are likely feeding a corporation’s self-interest. [Facebook, anyone?]

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I continue to believe the Internet is a force for good, on the whole. But I also believe its full promise isn’t even close to being realized.

Doc Searls wrote an important post over the weekend, talking about the promise of the internet, and its current siloed existence. Searls is one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me remains the most important book written about the internet. Right now, your information is being used online to help companies make money. Sometimes, that’s also good for you.

When the promise of the internet is realized, you’ll be able to use your personal information to your own advantage, choosing to work with the companies you like. There’s a big difference.

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Crazy-smart small detail in Flickr search

So I’m looking up some Creative Commons images on Flickr for a presentation I’m finalizing. And I just noticed a crazy-smart detail in the Flickr search.

I’m clicking from page to page in the search results, using the numbered buttons shown here.

Screen shot 2009-09-22 at 2.01.25 PMI noticed that I was just clicking over and over as I paged through the results, without moving my hand on my trackpad. That’s because Flickr moves the numberline each time I click. So now that I’m on page 14, page 15 is under my cursor. When I click that button, Flickr moves the line so that 16 is under my cursor.

I love this.

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Ghostwriting and transparency

Over the years in this business, I’ve found that the general public rarely thinks about ghostwriting — when someone [often a busy executive or celebrity] hires someone else to write in his or her name. Most people assume that when your name is attached to an article, you’re the one who wrote it.

As a professional writer and editor, I know that’s not true many times, but neither does the practice generally bother me. Honestly, if the CEO were spending a lot of time fiddling with the “Message from the Home Office” in the newsletter you get every month, I’d say his or her priorities were out of whack.

But wow, this article in the New York Times today really caught me off guard. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for drug companies to author papers that researchers then submit under their own names to scientific journals.

I can be pretty cynical. I watch The Daily Show. I know how corporate America works. But this one caught even me off guard.

So, we can sum up why this is wrong in a pretty simple manner: When the drug company is writing the article but putting an independent researcher’s name on it, they’re failing to disclose their bias. Perhaps that’s a good test for when it’s OK to have a ghostwriter and when it has to come from the source in other areas, as well.

Are we failing to reveal a bias if the CEO has someone in marketing write his monthly column in the newsletter? No. Presumably, the CEO and the marketing department are singing from the same page of the hymnal.

Related: Should newspapers, magazines and bloggers make it clear when they received a free copy of a book or record to review? Absolutely. While the potential for bias is small, it should be transparent. This is part of the reason why Consumer Reports is in business. By purchasing everything they rate at market prices, they eliminate even a whiff of bias from their reviews.

In the corporate world, we often don’t think twice about ghostwriting. But it’s critical to ensure that our customers know exactly who’s talking. Many large corporations have learned this lesson the hard way in the past few years, as the Internet creates a heretofore-unknown level of transparency. Make sure you’ll be comfortable if the real writer is revealed.

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Your software is hiding your people

I’ve worked with content management systems since the late 1990s. And I can tell you there’s not been a perfect one invented. But some are much, much better than others.

I’m a technology geek [n., person who enjoys new stuff], but sometimes I get annoyed with the constant focus on newest, brightest, shiniest. For one thing, there’s so much newest, brightest, shiniest, that it’s practically impossible to keep up unless you either define your niche very narrowly, or unless you spend your whole day doing that. I don’t know about you, but I’m not paid to keep track of the latest goo-gahs, no matter how easy they make my life.

And yet.

I have worked on a number of web projects in my life where the software will just drive you to drink. I think most people want the end result — the website, the marketing campaign, whatever — to be elegant and easy to understand. And often they don’t understand why that doesn’t happen. It’s tempting to blame the designer, the writer, whoever. And sometimes, that’s where the blame lies. But far more often, I’ve seen the blame lie in one of two places:

  • Corporate politics [a subject for another post, to be sure]
  • Crappy software

I can go on a web tour right now and show you dozens of sites that aren’t achieving their objectives because the software makes it too hard. [I’ll let the guilty remain anonymous today.]

A related problem is when people don’t realize they’re using bad software, or don’t realize that it’s the problem.

If your software makes it hard to post, it’s not working for you. If your software makes it hard to link things together, it’s not working. If it makes it hard to connect people to other people, it’s not working. If all you see is the software, it’s not working.

Don’t blame “the web being ineffective” or “inability to measure results in social media” if the real problem is “your software hides the people.”

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Keep an eye on Congress

As long as I’ve been in digital media, there have been few political issues that have really riled up the industry. There’s a long-standing discussion about the right path for digital rights management to take — the copyright protection particularly for audio and video files — and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act enacted in 1998. There was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also passed in 1998.

While the telecommunications industry that much of the Internet rests on is heavily regulated, what we’re doing here online is not.

Regular laws still apply, of course, but the Internet has largely benefited from both a hands-off approach by Congress and federal agencies, and perhaps also from a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the technology.

Congress is beginning to catch up.

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and he’s reportedly working on a bill to protect our Internet privacy.

I look at issues like this from two perspectives:

  • Hey, I don’t want you collecting a bunch of data about me!
  • Wow, look how cool it is that my iPhone knows where I am!

Unfortunately for the sake of innovation, a lot of what we can now do online requires the latter response from regulators, Congress and the general public. Here’s what worries me: As Internet innovation has sped along the past dozen years, the industry has depended on the public and lawmakers ignoring the man behind the curtain. And Congress tends to act with a very blunt sword when it approaches issues like copyright, privacy and technology.

But in the industry, we haven’t helped ourselves with things like:

  • Inability to protect customers’ information from data theft
  • Opaque and lengthy terms of service and privacy policies that only make lawyers happy
  • Ignoring opportunities to make our customers our best defense against harmful legislation

I don’t think Boucher’s intentions are to in any way stifle innovation or hamper the industry. But he’s clearly targeting consumers’ sense that their privacy is compromised just by being online. As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating our customers about why our innovation and information is so critical to them — and we have to give them easy ways to opt out if they can’t get past the squeamish factor.

Recently, several Internet advertising groups released a set of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers and forestalling damaging privacy legislation. We’ll see if it’s enough.

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