Twitter

Wikipedia SOPA/PIPA Blackout Tweets Reveal Humanity is Doomed

Watching the chaos unfold as an unwitting public awoke to many popular websites going on strike in protest of SOPA and PROTECT IP just made my day. Searching for tweets containing both the words “fuck” and “Wikipedia” was hilarious at first. I opened @whatthefuckwiki to curate the most hilarious results. But as the hours and hours of self-entitled teenage venting went on, my usually oh-so-optimistic faith in humanity started to wear thin.

What follows is an overview of the kind of reactions that sped through Twitter all day.

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I’m cheating on RSS.

I usually favor decentralized, open technologies, but I must confess: I almost never check my RSS subscriptions any more.

I used to use RSS as a one-stop way to cut down on my endless cycle of refreshing a million different blogs for news. Now, the opposite has happened: a couple of news sources are so much better in quality than the rest. I get my general news through the New York Times, and my tech news comes through The Verge or Ars Technica. These guys are beating everyone else at news depth and analysis, making most other blogs in their field redundant.

There’s a lot I risk missing online by doing this. But instead of drowning in an endless feed of RSS updates, I’ve curated a couple of social sharing tools to give me a pulse for the rest of the Web: Reddit (I unsubscribe from most of the default subreddits and subscribe to quality niche ones) and Twitter (again, being picky about quality sources.) I’d like to see Google+ take off in this role, but Google still needs to improve their API enough for killer apps to take advantage of it.

This new way of consuming content online is an unexpected one for me. I usually prefer more open, decentralized stuff, and RSS is the poster-child for such a thing. But as a constant news stream, it just doesn’t do enough to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. It’s still very useful and necessary, since it can syndicate a lot more useful information than just the news articles I’m talking about. Even though I sacrifice some openness, I find crowdsourced social aggregators far more useful, especially when I have some curation controls to personalize what I’m getting.

Sorry, RSS. You have a lot to offer as a technology, but my life is easier having left you.

Growing Pains in the Web’s Social Revolution

I’ve observed these two things in last ten years of evolution in the “Social Web:”

  1. The Social Web has made huge changes to the way people express themselves and communicate in their daily lives, generally enhancing connections and making the world a lot smaller.
  2. That very same trend has also created more complexity from the sheer amount of information being shared through social platforms.

The actual nature of what we do in our lives hasn’t changed much; it’s just become so much more public and easily shared with the masses. In person, we can only have so much interaction, due to the limits of time and physical location.  But now technology has removed many of those barriers; we can now blast information to the masses regardless of our location or the availability of a captive, dedicated audience.

Personally, I find that these developments make it a lot harder parse all the information and isolate the stuff I find most relevant. Some of this is because people on the Social Web write for so many different audiences; one person might use Twitter to promote their business, ask people in their industry a question, post pictures of something random that happened, link to a popular meme, or just vent about what they’re feeling at the moment. (Or, God forbid, tell everyone what they had for breakfast.) To that person, it’s all self-expression of things they felt like sharing. But for the follower, it’s totally void of any personalization to deliver the content they personally care about the most. Some of my followers online are people in my industry, and some are friends or family. But they all get the entire stream, and are subject to reading whatever I decide is worth putting in their content stream.

Some of this problem can be solved by making more conscious decisions about the most relevant place to post different content online, or through the creation of more context- or audience-aware social platforms. But more than this, I think our society is just struggling to adapt to a very new kind of communication. As always, the young will find it easiest to adapt, so they will drive the changes before anyone else does.

I don’t know how things will turn out, but I’m pretty sure we’re going through a cultural revolution. A couple of decades from now, social interaction across the world will look very different, and I imagine that will also have serious implications in other spheres- especially world politics and economics.

Why Google Buzz is a huge deal

Today, Google announced the release of their new product, Google Buzz.

Looking at just the features offered in this video, it appears to be nothing more than a Facebook News Feed clone with Gmail integration. But don’t be fooled: Google Buzz has the potential to totally disrupt social networking as we know it today, and to do it for the better, for the sole reason of its open nature.

Online social networking has been a repetition of the same pattern since the mid-1990s: companies offering “walled-garden” networks offering cool new ways to connect with others – as long as they buy into the same network. It’s great for business, as users are better attractors of customers than any cool new feature could ever be. The operator then owns that social interaction medium between the people who come to rely upon it. We saw it happen with AOL. We saw it in the early 2000’s with the advent of blogging, as the most successful personal blogs were the ones hosted on social communities such as Livejournal, Xanga and Blogger. We moved on to MySpace (come on, admit it… we all can share in the shame!) and then Facebook, and Twitter has long passed the point of being a toy for early adopters, as it has become a tool of the masses.

But these sites – these closed networks – lock users into using their system for communication. This is in stark contrast with our real life social network – the completely fluid and decentralized manner in which we interact. This social network belongs to us, and cannot be monopolized by another. There is no tangible constraint that keeps me from interacting with someone else in one way or another, only issues like distance and language, things which are decreasingly important as technology advances.

So why should our social interactions online be different from our interactions in the rest of the world? I should be able to connect with others regardless of which applications I choose to use. Google Buzz is a major step in this direction. Buzz has a huge amount of interoperability using existing technologies like Atom/RSS and OAuth, and is getting much more soon. (It’s all for developers’ taking at Buzz’s Google Code page.)

What makes this relevant to everyone is the ability to publish and read from just about any application you want. This isn’t a centralized application like Facebook Platform, where developers extend more functionality to users and keep them inside the “Walled Garden,” but enables social communication between all kinds of applications, instead of demanding that friends use the same applications if they wish to communicate. In theory, I can post a status, photo, video, or just about anything on Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, or even my personal site at ZekeWeeks.com, and everybody gets that information regardless of which applications they choose to use themselves.

This announcement means a win for the users, and a serious threat to operators of closed social networks. I don’t know how much it will succeed, but I’m all for products which improve users’ lives and increase technologies’ openness to everyone’s benefit.