Friday, January 28, 2011

Twitter, Facebook, Revolutions, and Spectacle

I think I should call this post, "Twitter, Revolution, and the Narcissism of Internet Commentators."

Internet commentators, such as myself, seem to have a certain fascination with the relationship between the Internet and political revolution. I think it is that, we derive our power from the power and importance of the Internet: If the Internet is powerful enough to cause a revolution, then we are powerful too.

But as we all know, revolutions do not need the Internet. Historically speaking, the Internet is so new that almost no revolutions can claim it (or, the Internet can't claim them). Revolutions need organization and power, and the Internet can help organize quickly and massively (for either revolutions or flash mobs of people who dance in stores). The American revolution had armies fighting, the French revolution had the Bastille, The Russian revolution had the red army and the white army and the murder of the Tsar and his family, the Chinese communist revolution had the armies of Mao and Chang Kai-shek. None of these had the Internet.

The recent uprising -- a failed revolution? -- in Iran had the Internet, and cell phones, and smart phones, and current communication technologies that allow people to organize and share messages on a massive scale with unprecedented speed. (The telegraph was the first communication technology to separate communication and transportation, and it was an amazing thing.) But the Internet, with its Twitter and its Facebook, did not bring down the regime there. Burma is still Myanmar, China is still slowly destroying Tibet, and there are other examples one could mention, each with its own history, complexities, disagreements, and more than two sides to each one.

Twitter and Facebook share in a criticism that has been made about television: That we watch it, we feel we are part of it, but we are not, we are in fact at home watching television (and many of us do so from our nice, safe, Western nations, vast distances from the real action, yet here it is in our living room on the screen). Twitter and Facebook, the technologies of the moment, are like this but to even more of an extent: We can see the tweets from people who we believe are actually there, on the ground, surrounded by riot police -- as long as they tweet in English, that is, and English is never the language of the nation in question, nor is it ever clear how educated one has to be, or what social class one belongs to, if one tweets in English and its not your native language. Clearly such people are not tweeting for their local audience.

That is not a criticism, however, but it is occasionally overlooked. Knowing your audience is always important, as is knowing about the message sender if you are the audience.

Somewhat akin to slacktivism, I am sure someone has written about this feeling of immediacy we can get from tweets before. I think these communication technologies are important, but their endless hyping stems from a misunderstanding: The current embodiment of digital communication technologies allows us to communicate widely and freely, which is an important change from past communication technologies. But it is not about Twitter, and it is not about Facebook, they are merely the names of the embodiments of the forms we are using today. This is instead a more enduring story, one of people, and how these technologies let us do what we have always done, that is, connect, be it to plan a meeting for coffee or an attempt at revolution.

Edit: This isn't to say we don't care about our fellow human beings, or that we don't want to see what it happening to them. Often we do.

See also this article (the second half mostly) at the New York Times by Scott Shane.

And see this blog post by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, fellow academic.

The Future of Facebook

First, I'll recommend this Mimi Ito interview from PBS. It's just a few minutes long. In it she points out how kids don't generally like online social spaces where their parents are.

Watch the full episode. See more Digital Media - New Learners Of The 21st Century.

One element that stems from this observation is about the future of the Facebook userbase and Facebook itself. As its users get older and more of them become parents, will their children want to use that place where their parents hang out online? Probably not.

I could be dramatic and make statements about Facebook's not-so imminent demise, but that assumes all kids act the same, or that kids won't carve their own spaces out of the larger Facebook "Zuckerberg says we should share everything" space. It also assumes stagnation on the design side of Facebook, and they've been a moving target for several years, although usually in the pro-commercial side (share!) and not the pro-user side (privacy if you want).

I'm also not going to predict that in about 10 years we'll see all the current pre-schoolers decide on some online space that isn't Facebook. Given technological change, and the ease of making a social networking website (relatively speaking), it is difficult to predict how we will conceive of, talk about (academic: framing, discourse...), and label future online spaces. MUDs were in some ways early social software, but we didn't call them that (although people did point out the social side at the time).

But, to use market-oriented terms, there is clearly an opening for such a space. Could we see a resurgent MySpace? What happens to kids as they grow out of those "kid spaces" that seem odd to me since I'm an adult (and I don't follow them), what are they, Penguins?, Disney?, Habbo Hotel? Hobo Hotel? I don't know, they aren't marketed to me (as neither a child nor as a parent).

But, if kids want their own spaces, will Facebook be able to provide a space where kids feel it's their own? Given the number of adults on Facebook currently, and that teens on Facebook currently will grow older and many will have their own children, where will those children go when they are online? Will we even call it online at that point? (Probably, given that word has been around for a while and transitioned to today from modems, walled-garden online service providers like AOL used to be, and other dial-up services like BBSes and mainframes back in the day.)

Facebook's current userbase is a factor in its future userbase, and there are reasons to believe some of the current userbase will be a drawback for the future (youth) userbase. This problem is not, I don't think, easily overcome.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Phrase "Computer-Mediated'

Although I am a fan of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (JCMC), and I am indeed typing this on a computer (but could be on a "smart phone", as could you, which are really just mini hand-held computers with touch screens), I have never been a fan of the phrase "computer-mediated communication." It just doesn't resonate with me at all.

I remember as a first year graduate student, a professor told me to look into "computer-mediated communication" which I think I did but I don't think I found JCMC. The phrase was the problem, it was like calling work where people drove to their workplace "automobile-assisted employment." It is true, but to me it really missed the point so much I didnt see why I should look into it. Seemed like "cybernetics" from the 1960s, they were just talking about people using computers, trying to make it sound cooler with a cool name implies quite strongly it really isn't that interesting in the first place.

CMC doesn't quite have that problem, but it seems to miss the point. There was never any "paper- and ink- mediated communication" that studied letter writing and typewriters. And computers in 1985 versus computers currently are so different, as are the things we do easily on them, although this flexibility is useful. The computer doesn't restrict us very much (at least not nowadays), it isn't the interesting part of the equation, the people are.

Monday, January 10, 2011

If You Follow, You Will Never Lead: Microsoft's Business Non-Strategy

The title of this post comes from my years growing up as a sailor in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on the wall of the old sail room in the Nantucket Yacht Club. The idea was that you'll get the same wind as the boat ahead of you, and, unless you are a greatly better sailor or have a vastly better boat, you will never overtake the leading boat. If you were that great, you probably wouldn't be behind in the first place.

This is not completely true in business, despite the myth of "first mover advantage", which is only true for successful products (so, not true in the long-term for Palm, nor for Apple's Newton, nor Atari in video games, to name a few). If you can copy products but improve on them without getting sued for patent violation, that may be viable, albeit difficult, and, honestly, foolish.

But it is Microsoft's strategy. I'll have to point out ahead of time that although they are ahead in market share in terms of operating systems if you group all the different versions of Windows, they are not ahead in some equally valid areas of measurement, such as smart phones (iPhone versus Windows Phone -- and they're not phones, of course, they're minis, as in, mini computers), digital music devices (iPod versus Zune), and, another measure, market capitalization -- Apple closed at an all-time high on Monday ($342.45), for a market cap of $314 billion, second only to Exxon Mobile in American companies. (The most recent number I can get for Microsoft's market cap is $240.5 billion. Not bad, but less than $314 billion, clearly.)

I would include digital music sales, but I don't actually think Microsoft really does that in any workable manner (iTunes Music Store versus what?). I'll have to check. I guess I could mention PlaysForSure. Oh I guess it's Zune Marketplace, which seems like a copy of... the iTunes Music Store. Well that continues to back my point. (I'll place it in the table below.)

The point is, Microsoft loves to copy, or on occasion purchase outright, what others are doing. And they usually do it badly, in terms of design and usability, despite market success over the long term, so far. Let's look at some examples.

Copied Google (see note)
Licensed another form of DOS (86-DOS)
Bought Bungie, for the Xbox
Bought, not as good as Gmail
Copied Apple's Mac OS
Windows Phone
Copied Apple's iOS and iPhone for the most part
Copied Sony to challenge the PS platform
Copied Apple's iPod
Zune Marketplace
Copied Apple's iTunes Music Store

(I corrected/clarified the copying/licensing for DOS, I didn't like my initial explanation and it turned out not to be very accurate.)

The point is, Microsoft does not lead, it follows. I admit one interpretation is that I am saying that first-mover, which I just derided in a previous paragraph, is a strong effect, but that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that Microsoft does not innovate, nor does it really micro-innovate, copying a product and then improving it as much as they can (incrementally). They buy products when they can't make a good competitor, and they copy products and they still can't make a good competitor (Apple's OSes have always been better, don't compare market share unproblematically since you have to deal with the hardware side of the equation, where Microsoft was not making the computers).

Apple tends to make products (and services) that make new markets (or, do so successfully). They are, to some extent, based on pre-existing forms, but not ones that are market successes.

CategoryApple's Move
Digital Music Downloads
iTunes Music Store (paid, not early free Napster)
Digital Music Player
iPod (a digital Sony Walkman)
GUI OS/Mouse
Original Mac OS (from work at Xerox PARC)
Smart Phone
iPhone (a mini computer, really)
OSX (based on NeXTSTEP, from Unix)

I'm avoiding the iPad as I think we need to wait another year to see how the "tablet" market pans out in the initial phase of the iPad era. Like NFL football before Thanksgiving, it's just too soon to tell. Apple's iPad has generated the most media coverage of recent tablets, which could be an honest indicator of quality, but I think there is some effect from journalists (not incorrectly) thinking they need to cover the iPad. There are probably some other items I could place in the list, but those are the most defensible and explainable that I can think of. (So, I'm avoiding USB and floppy disks.)

As I pointed out, it could be argued that none of these were new products either, but the thing is that, unlike with the Microsoft examples, none of these Apple products went up against anything similar that was successful in the market. (RIM's Blackberry series of phones, although cool, were still in the interface and paradigm of cool handheld phone devices, like Palm to some extent, the iPhone is a different device, it is not really a phone in the full sense, it is a computer that also has phone capability -- did you ever call your desktop computer a phone when it had a modem?) OSX didn't face a mass market Unix, Unix is mainly in labs, corporate back offices, and the homes of Linux geeks. (I've had... two? At least two, Linux boxes, so far.) There was an MP3 player before the iPod (I can't recall the name offhand), but it was not widely successful. Apple made a better interface (the wheel, which has now been replaced with touch screens for the most part).

This is also not to say that everything Apple does is gold (the Newton didn't succeed in the market, Apple's computer offerings were overpriced, underpowered, and muddled in the early 1990s, and there have been occasional but odd AppleTV offerings--usually a Mac with a TV tuner card--which seem to have worked themselves out finally), nor that Microsoft isn't a market success (despite, or perhaps because of, monopolistic practices, and who can resist taking a shot at Microsoft's Bob?).

Leading, and innovating, versus following. As others have pointed out, innovation is risky, but not innovating is moreso.

Update: One area I avoided, unintentionally, was web browsers. Sure, both Apple and Microsoft have web browsers, neither are original, and both are bundled with their OSes. I am pretty sure MSIE came before OSX's Safari, so it doesn't fit my pattern, but Safari wasn't establishing a new market. Not every product for both companies work as examples, but more than enough do that we can look at the overall pattern.

Note: When I said Bing was "copying" Google, I didn't mean literally copying the search results, I just meant the idea. Apparently, according to this report, Bing is indeed directly copying Google search results. Amazing.

Straits Times Mention

Some work I did with Dr. Marko Skoric got mentioned in Singapore's paper of record, the Straits Times. The work looks at media use by students who were organizing a protest. One important take away was how the students navigated the media environment, using both the "new" media and the "traditional" media. If researchers and analysts only consider the new media environment, they aren't going to get an accurate picture of human behavior.