Links are context; so are link ads

November 19, 2008 | 1 comment

Chris Sessums has written about the educational WordPress Multi-User hosting provider Edublogs’ switch to inline context ads. These turn words within each blog post into ads, without the original author’s knowledge or permission. This is annoying in the wild, but takes on another meaning entirely when the blogging service is marketed for students and teachers:

For example one student mentioned the word “energy” in her blog entry and I found a pop-up link directing me to Exxon/Mobile. Hmmm? I thought and I read on. This same student also mentioned “college” in her entry wherein a hyperlink associated with the University of Phoenix popped up. I found this rather odd, since the student was currently enrolled here at the University of Florida.

The rest of Chris’s post is understandably angry. Links in blog posts are part of the flow of the text; they provide context. The link above allows you to read Chris’s blog so you know I’m not misrepresenting him. The following sentence in isolation:

I hope the criminals in our society receive the sentences that they deserve.

Is different to this one:

I hope the criminals in our society receive the sentences that they deserve.

By auto-linking words to sites for money, a new thrust or subtext can be added to the post. In other words, with this kind of advertising – even when it’s been marked out in the user agreement and everyone knows it’s there – advertisers are buying a little bit of your intention. (Users may not always understand the full scope of what they’re agreeing to, as they don’t see the ads themselves.)

Print publications often have very separate advertising and editorial departments, for similar reasons. Ads on pages should be clearly marked out as being such, and they should never, ever, ever infringe on the actual content itself. This on any site is bad; on a site for use in education is clearly immoral.

As a footnote, one of the user forum posts Chris highlights says this:

Content Links in the middle of my posts which include unauthorized advertisements is unacceptable. One of the reasons I moved my blog to Edublogs was to avoid ads in my blog, and this is even worse than Adsense found off to the side which people can easily ignore.

There is a very simple consumer protection maxim that it’s worth remembering for any product: if it seems too good to be true, it is. Everyone needs to make money; if you’re using a commercial product with no clear business model, ask yourself how they’re going to claw back their investment – it’s not always going to be in the ways you’d like.

Who cares about OpenID awareness?

November 18, 2008 | 1 comment

OpenID is becoming the open single logon standard, and all kinds of websites and web-based software are using it to allow people to use a single username and identity across all their services.

A while back, Yahoo! did some research on OpenID usability (PDF link) that a lot of people took to indicate that OpenID was too confusing. It was conducted with a test group of just nine Yahoo! staff, so recently Chris Messina decided to research awareness using a survey conducted on Amazon Mechanical Turk. In effect, he paid 301 people two cents each to answer some questions about OpenID.

Neither survey was hugely scientific, but Chris’s results were summarised as follows:

Combining some of the results, we found that:
  • of those who know what OpenID is, 14.81% use it.
  • of those who have merely heard of it, 6.9% use it.

Given there are over half a billion OpenID accounts in the wild, including some of the highest profile sites out there (Myspace! Yahoo!), it could be argued that this is bad news for the standard.

I disagree. One of the most important parts of a technical standard is the ability for end users to use it seamlessly, without having to worry about what it is or how it works. When you loaded this website, did you stop to think about the DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP protocols that made it happen? When you send an email, do you care about the structure of how it’s routed and the protocols servers use to pass it from source to destination? Very few people would answer ‘yes’.

Similarly, I’d bet that a lot more people know what a ‘feed’ is, or recognise the orange RSS icon, than know what RSS is. (Even then, feed subscribers are likely to only be around 11% of total web users.) It doesn’t matter; they don’t need to know how it works. The sign of good technology is that it just does. The linked post talks about promoting awareness of RSS in order to increase uptake, but in truth, the tools need to get easier to use.

Therefore, OpenID awareness in end users is neither here nor there. It’s very unlikely that an average end user will ever know what their OpenID is. Far more likely, sites will have custom login boxes that invite users to authenticate using IDs from supporting sites and providers that they’ll recognise, the way some are already beginning to do with things AIM accounts. In an ideal world, these login boxes will adapt based on your cookies and IP address (using a combination of serverside scripting, some clever JS and CSS) and suggest the logins that are actually active in your browser. Visiting Google Docs from your university network? Maybe one day it’ll prompt you for your university username – or even log you straight in, using OpenID on the back-end. This sounds like magic, but wouldn’t be massively hard to build, and could simplify users’ web experience instead of muddying the waters by adding another layer of complexity.

Social media: the intranet is people

November 17, 2008 | 2 comments

The purpose of social media is to augment your real life: connect with people, discover new links and resources through them and potentially discuss and collaborate on ideas. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Internet is just people connected by wires, uplinks, frequencies and protocols. They aren’t so much behind terminals any more, but connected through all kinds of devices that are increasingly pervasive wherever we are: laptops, netbooks, cellphones, portable media devices, GPS boxes and more. Going online used to be a destination in itself; these days, for many of us, it’s something that happens without us thinking about it. Phones in particular are designed for connecting as much as conversing.

Software is being dragged kicking and screaming into this multi-platform reality. In some areas, the feature bloated, platform-locked ways of old are still very much in force; oddly, these tend to be in the enterprise sector, where mobile collaboration could be hugely beneficial. In any given company on any given day, there are likely to be people at their desks, working from home, on their way to a client meeting, attending a conference, and so on. Being able to keep in touch and share information in these situations is important. But try using Sharepoint from your Blackberry, I dare you. Even Basecamp has trouble with this, although I wouldn’t accuse it of feature bloat.

Google, on the other hand, is great at this. All of their major products have versions that can be easily read on each of the types of device I listed above, and are key examples of how web software can work brilliantly away from your desk. They also make them accessible to enterprise customers. More manufacturers will follow suit, particularly given the popularity of the iPhone and the more useful browser in the new Blackberry models. The popularity of services like Twitter, which arguably works better on a mobile, can only help.

We’re working on a service called Teamwire that will be as useful for companies and organisations out in the field as at their desks. (The idea grew out of an idea for Curverider itself, which is often a very distributed team.) There will be others; already, services like Yammer are edging in the right direction.

In all cases, it’s got to be about simplicity from the user’s perspective (always the most important), and standards compliance from a technical standpoint. You can’t navigate endless menus and interstitial screens if you’re on the move; you have to convey information or view a resource in seconds. Similarly, the bling that looks awesome in Safari might not look amazing in Opera Mini on my Nokia. That economy of use translates very well to efficiency within an office, too: the simpler software is, the shallower its learning curve and the more time you can spend actually doing your job. It’s not great news for IT departments, which will be gnashing their teeth up and down the land, but it’s great for people who want to feel the benefits of software without the technical pain.

Barack Obama and the social web

November 7, 2008 | Leave a comment

Barack Obama is the next President of the United States, and received the largest share of the vote by any Democratic candidate in 44 years. That’s an impressive statistic, and one that Wired put down in part to his Internet strategy:

[...] Obama’s rise to the presidency will be studied for years to come as the textbook example of a new kind of electioneering driven by people and technology, says Ralph Benko, a principal of the political consulting firm Capital City Partners, in Washington, D.C.

“It was a peer-to-peer, bottom-up, open-source kind of ethos that infused this campaign,” says Benko. “Clearly, there was a vision to this.”

Certainly, Obama was the first candidate to have really “got” the Internet, but there was something different about this campaign: the Internet got Barack Obama. Sure, he released video statements on the web, had a Twitter account, engaged ordinary people through personal publishing and raised a phenomenal amount of money by asking for individual donations. These things alone are historic. But it’s what ordinary people and unrelated organizations went and did next that may have tipped the election.

Social media is viral by nature. You share something with your friends, who (if they enjoy it or find it of use) pass it along to their friends, and so on, creating an exponential network effect. Great content spreads quickly, but with the added benefit that it always comes via a source you trust, so you’re probably more likely to pay attention to it. That’s why it’s so attractive to marketers, and why the Obama campaign chose to harness it.

However, there’s another side to the coin. You lose control of your message; all you can do is set the ball rolling in the right direction, keep putting out your own content, and hope for the best. The campaign did this intelligently; the photo to the top right of this post is one of 50,435 and counting made available under a Creative Commons license from the Barack Obama Flickr account. The Creative Commons license allows anyone to share or adapt the photos as long as attribution is listed and the work isn’t for commercial gain.

In this case, due to a combination of factors (not least the fact that George W Bush is the least popular President since Nixon after Watergate), it snowballed. Obama didn’t campaign negatively, but there was plenty of negative press about the incumbent, John McCain and Sarah Palin flying around, in large part due to the efforts of bloggers and political organizations who put their materials out on the web.

One of the most effective videos was this one, which took the characters and actual cast of Budweiser’s Wassup ads and updated them for the Bush era. It’s unrelated to the Obama campaign, but has been viewed almost 4.5 million times at the time of writing:

In effect, Obama could take the high ground, knowing that information about the Republican administration and the candidates would surface. That’s one of the most powerful aspects of the web, the network effect ensuring that important information found its way into the hands of voters. (Not to mention allowing me to see the US TV coverage, and therefore make a more informed decision as an absentee voter.) As time goes on, the web becomes more ubiquitous and social functionality finds its way into all kinds of software, it’s going to be much harder for information to be suppressed. That’s one of the things that keeps me passionate about this field; I can see the very real benefits for real people.

And the meme continues. My favourite post-election site so far is Ze Frank’s from 52 to 48 with love, which echoes the Obama campaign’s unity theme.

Photo by Barack Obama, under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic CC license.