Since some have asked — from media and Twitter — here’s my take on Google collecting too much data via its Street View car — not just wi-fi addresses but “payload data” that went over those networks:
Google fucked up.
It’s pretty much as simple as that. And their screw-up sure doesn’t help me when German media come to me asking how I can defend the Google they love to hate. I got a bunch of conspiracy-laden questions from a German reporter this morning: Google says it was a mistake and the reporter asks — not without betraying a considerable bias — “Is that really possible?” I responded: “Yes. Google is not perfect.” The reporter asked: “What will Google do now? Is there a chance to completely recover?” There’s wishful thinking in that question, eh?
Let’s analyze the situation: To what conspiratorial use could Google have possibly put a trace smattering of random data caught in one moment on a given street? I would challenge anyone to take that data and find a business purpose for it. In one second on one street in Hamburg one unknown user read a story on Focus.de. Yeah, so what?
Somebody fucked up. It was sloppy and stupid of them and sure doesn’t help their PR problem in Germany. But I struggle to see how this story shows anything more than that.
Well, it does show one thing: The bias that German media have toward Google. When I was at re:publica in Berlin, I got questions like these from many German reporters: “Isn’t Google too big?” they’d “ask.” Show me the law that defines “too big,” I responded. I contend that German media are merely jealous: Google understood how to make money online better than they did. And they are reflexively running to government to regulate it and can’t find a reason why. So when something like this screwup happens, they get their hopes up.
But this also shows how out of touch German media is with its audience on this point, for the German populace clearly does not mistrust and hate Google the way media do. They use Google more than just about any country on earth, giving Google search a 97.26% share of market. Was gibt? Was geht?
James Fallows writes an important cover story for The Atlantic on how Google wants to help save the news. It doesn’t break a single new nugget of news. It’s the piece’s attitude that makes it must reading for everyone in the news business, in the U.S. and even moreso in Europe.
Google is not the enemy. But don’t take my word for it if you don’t want to. Take Fallows’.
Fallows, who has been admirably forward-thinking and curious in his coverage of technology and media (see his test of Bing v. Google, for example), comes at the question of Google’s relationship to news as neither enemy nor fanboy. He simply wants to understand what Google’s attitude is toward the news and then what the company is doing to back up its expressed sentiments about helping save (or I’d prefer to say, advance) news. He writes:
Everyone knows that Google is killing the news business. Few people know how hard Google is trying to bring it back to life, or why the company now considers journalism’s survival crucial to its own prospects…. But after talking during the past year with engineers and strategists at Google and recently interviewing some of their counterparts inside the news industry, I am convinced that there is a larger vision for news coming out of Google; that it is not simply a charity effort to buy off critics; and that it has been pushed hard enough by people at the top of the company, especially Schmidt, to become an internalized part of the culture in what is arguably the world’s most important media organization. Google’s initiatives do not constitute a complete or easy plan for the next phase of serious journalism. But they are more promising than what I’m used to seeing elsewhere, notably in the steady stream of “Crisis of the Press”–style reports.
Fallows says that the three pillars of a new online business model for news, in Google’s view, are “distribution, engagement, and monetization.” My equivalents are the conveniently alliterative engagement (for the public), effectiveness (for advertisers), and efficiency (in the operation). That is to say, Google doesn’t touch — nor should it want or need to — the fourth and vital leg to sustainable business models for news: cost. That’s what will make it easier to get Politico’s local product, TBD.com, to profitability more easily than the competitive Washington Post can stay there. That’s why I am looking more at the entrepreneurial than institutional future of news. That’s why I think this quest Google and others are on is about more than saving newspapers and more than saving news; it’s about finding new opportunities. But nevermind that.
What Fallows finds inside Google is people who care about news, who are working to try to create new forms for news and structures for the companies that produce it, who are indeed making it a priority. He finds people who want to work together. I say news companies are fools not to at least listen.
I think Facebook’s problem lately with its disliked like button (and Google’s problem with the start of Buzz) is that they confuse the notion of the public sphere—that is, all of us—with the idea of making a public—that is, the small societies we create on Facebook or join on Twitter. Private v. public is not a binary decision; there is a vast middle inbetween that is about the control of our own publics. Allow me to explain….
But why is the reaction to Facebook’s latest move—the like button—so swift and so fierce, so last-straw-on-the-camel’s-back to some? Gizmodo dyspeptically listed 10 reasons to quit Facebook. Gizmodo and Engadget founding editor Peter Rojas quitFacebook, as did Google’s Matt Cutts, and my This Week in Google boss Leo Laporte disabled his account for awhile. Three heavier heavyweights in our world it’s hard to find and when they lose trust—which is what happened—that’s a big deal, bigger than Facebook seems to realize.
Clearly, there’s something more going on here, something fundamental. Facebook overstepped a line and so I want to try to find that line. I think it may lay here:
Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg seem to assume that once something is public, it’s public. They confused sharing with publishing. They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?
Facebook has been playing this tension since its early days. Remember the hubbub over News Feed: When Facebook aggregated our updates into feeds, it freaked users, even though Mark Zuckerberg pointed out that all these updates were already visible to us among our friends on their pages. Zuckerberg’s vision was right in the end; the News Feed is critical to Facebook’s utility, value, and growth and it presaged the appeal of Twitter. But even in the public Twitter, even though we are publishing to the world, we still have a measure of control; we decide whom to follow—that is, which publics to join.
So let me repeat: In Facebook, we get to create our publics. In Twitter, we decide which publics to join. But neither is the public sphere; neither entails publishing to everyone. Yet Facebook is pushing us more and more to publish to everyone and when it does, we lose control of our publics. That, I think, is the line it crossed.
The irony in all this is that I think Facebook has been profoundly redefining our notion of a public in ways that—judging by its actions—even it does not fully grasp. I am listening to a fascinating radio series (and podcast) on the CBC based on the work of a project called Making Publics. This group of academics began five years ago with Jürgen Habermas’ belief that the public sphere—the counterweight to the state as heard through public discussion and opinion—did not emerge until the 19th century. They also agreed that prior to the Renaissance and the 16th century, “public” referred to people with public standing in the social hierarchy—the elite—rather than to all of us. But then the Making Public team saw that during the 16th and 17th centuries, the printing press, theater, art—that is, the means to publish and present—as well as markets enabled people to create and join their own publics.
I am struck with how similar that moment of change is to the internet’s upheaval today. Gutenberg’s press—and the arts of painting and theatre and the skill of map-making—enabled a still-small elite to create publics; indeed, their hold on the public stayed in place until only a decade ago. Today, the web enables all of us to publish and thus to make publics and also to join new publics (and destroy the old, elite definition and control of the public). The three key inventions of the early-modern era that enabled this change were the compass, gunpowder, and the press. Our equivalents are—what?—the net, the web, and blogs. Berners-Lee is our Gutenberg. Or is it Ev?
Facebook refined the gross sense of publicness that blogs put in the hands of us all: everyone publishing to everyone. Its social network gave us the tools to create and join our own publics and gain control over what we make public and who can join it. That was a powerful gift that shifted the basis of interaction online from flaming to friendship, built on real identity and real relationships. Facebook helped civilize the internet. Yet I don’t think Facebook understands the value of that control because it continues to try to make us entirely public.
See once more Matt McKeon’s visualization of Facebook’s public evolution. Hear, too, Zuckerberg’s Law: “I would expect that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.”
People accuse Zuckerberg of killing privacy and of wanting it dead. I think that’s likely unfair. I think instead he does see a profound cultural shift, one that existed before him but one that he took advantage of and then served and refined: We connect by sharing. In his view, I’ll bet, he’s not killing privacy; we are. He’s fine with that. And to an extent, so am I, as I argue the value of publicness. But both of us miss this subtle but profound distinction between the public and a public at our peril. That’s the lesson I’m trying to learn here as I start to write a book about publicness (more on that later).
I will argue that we face choices today about keeping something private or sharing it with our public or with the public at large and that we need to see the benefits of sharing—the benefits of publicness—as we make that calculation. I will argue that if we default to private, we risk losing the value of the connections we can make today. I will argue that we need institutions—companies and governments—to default to public. And I will argue that the more we live in public, the more we share, the more we create collective wisdom and value. I will defend publicness. But I will also defend privacy—that is, control over this decision.
I would not be surprised to hear that Zuckerberg shares this gospel. I think he’s sincere when he says he sees Facebook as a tool to enable us all to change our world through connections. I think that’s why he’s pushing us to be public; it’s more than just a cynical commercial motive. Yet I think he gets in trouble when he doesn’t see these distinctions, which I’m trying to discern in our new definitions of private, public, publics, and identity. And so he risks blowing it. But I still think it’s not too late.
I don’t believe Facebook has gone evil—or gone rogue, as Wired insists. The problem for Facebook is more likely that it never defined evil—as in “don’t be evil.” Google is aware of its line, which is about losing value if it loses trust. Facebook seems almost unaware of its line and perhaps that’s because its is harder to find. I suggest they study 16th century history and the origins of the public as they reinvent the public.
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Flickr: Matthew Burpee
All this is related to the question of identity online—related but different. What I publish can add up to my identity and with different publics I have different identities. So identity is a key component of our notions of publicness.
The admirable Diaspora Project is trying to build an open and distributed version of Facebook to let us publish, aggregate, and control our own stuff to make up our own identities. That’s great, but I think that, too, conflates the ideas of a public and the public; it does what Zuckerberg is doing by having us publish everything to all, except it gives us ownership of that. I’m not criticizing the effort at all; I think it’s great. I’m just saying that this isn’t a substitute for Facebook; it’s something different, something more public.
Having captured what it thinks is our identities online, Facebook now wants to be the enabler and controller of our identities. But because we don’t want our stuff on Facebook to be completely public, Facebook cannot be that hub of public identity. The Diaspora Project can. But I wonder whether the Diaspora Project—like ClaimID and OpenID—can succeed because I wonder what our motivation is to keep our identities updated. I have a reason to update Facebook for my friends there or this blog for you all or LinkedIn for my professional contacts or Twitter for my instant ego gratification. But I haven’t had a reason to keep ClaimID (on this page) up to date. That’s the trap the Diaspora Project needs to avoid.
And this is where I think that Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani collaboratively stumbled on a big idea related to identity on the latest This Week in Google. Gina talked about our motive to update Facebook and Leo said the equivalent for identity would come if Google put our profile pages on the top of the search results for our names. If the first result for Leo Laporte in search were Leo Laporte’s profile page, he’d be motivated to keep it up to date, to make it the canonical Leo page. Brilliant, I think. Google, are you listening? Facebook?
* * *
Other notes…. The problem with the launch of Google’s Buzz was related but not so subtle: By mixing our email with its Twitteresque platform, Buzz, Google mixed our private and public. It not only mixed our email connections with the idea of publishing to the world, it also robbed us of the chance to create and control our own publics. In another of its Snuffaluffagus moments, I imagine that Google thought it was doing us a favor by making a public for us: our readymade society. But that was precisely the wrong move, for we want to make and join publics on our own. That is the essence of controlling our worlds.
I’m still trying to get my head around Facebook’s moves to become the king of identity online. Hell, if Leo Laporte couldn’t quite figure it out on yesterday’s taping of This Week in Google, then I’m not capable. But here’s where I am. Help me advance this….
I think my problem is this: I want the exact opposite of what Facebook did. I want the Bizarro Facebook. Instead of Facebook controlling my identity, I want to be able to control and publish and set access to and rules for the use of my identity online, allowing Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, anyone access to it under my terms.
When I tweeted that, ad man Rishad Tobaccowala tweeted: “you are right. What we want closed (our data) they want open. What we want open (create and transfer) they want closed.” He then added: “When it is so easy to “like” is it really like? A profusion of “liking” will soon be like… Noise.” Agree.
My identity already exists online. It is my name, my email address(s), my URL(s) (for my blog, work, etc.), my Twitter account, my Flickr, my YouTube, my reputation culled from various services, and more. It is distributed. I have control over most of that.
What’s needed versus the present? Three things, I think:
* Organization. As Google organized our information, the war here is to organize us.
* Verification. No one, I hope, wants to verify as passports do. But Facebook has a leg ahead of everyone else on nearly verified identity simply because of how its service works: fake identities tend to be ejected from the bloodstream because they are irrelevant and irritating; Facebook is about real identities and real relationships and the one feeds the other.
* Connections. That, I think, is what Mark Zuckerberg means when he talks about making things social, about the social graph. He wants to link us to each other and information and that enhances our identities (what do I like and do and think….).
Fine. But I don’t think Facebook approached that opportunity asking first, “What can we do for the world of users online,” and second, “How can Facebook benefit?” If Facebook adds value, I have no objection to it benefiting, just as I believe Google should benefit by organizing our information and creating platforms; it’s what makes that benefit sustainable. But Facebook clearly asked the questions in the wrong order: It figured out what would benefit it most and then we get a few dividends: we get to tell our friends what we like and find out what our friends like.
But in the process, Facebook controls our identities with no relationship to our true identities online — that list above from email addresses to blogs to photos. Indeed, I’d argue that Facebook separates us from our true identities, for that is in Facebook’s favor; it gives Facebook control.
Far better and more experienced minds than mine are trying to get their heads around this. Dave Winer likes the idea of liking but also won’t put all his eggs into Zuck’s basket and so he suggests:
So perhaps there’s a compromise? Let me implement my own Like feature and have it connect up to Facebook through a feed. And let it connect up to Facebook’s competitors just as easily. I’m sure the smart guys at Facebook could figure out how to do this, perhaps they already have? I’m willing to do a little extra work to keep the web independent of any one company.
Right. Don’t all the identity standards and structures already exist openly. This is what irked Kevin Marks, who has done a great deal of work on identity, much of it while he was at Google. When he complained about this false openness last night, I said and he retweeted, “Open Graph is open as in ‘open your underwear drawer.'”
But as Swom_Network tweeted as I was tweeting about all this today, “Yep. but who is to do it?”
That’s really the question. Openness and standards are wonderful but if they don’t add up to applications that accomplish things, then we only open the door for companies to step in and seize the opportunity. Perhaps that’s inevitable. And I can live with that.
But we, the people, aren’t going to build these new applications and systems then we at least need to hold those who do to a set of principles, which means we need to have a set of principles to point to (and I’ll point to mine again).
Facebook’s Open Graph, I think, does not give us full control over our data and identities; it is not built to open standards; if it were, I’d be able to do what I want to do because others could build competing applications atop those standards. Then I’d be able to publish my identity on my own or through Facebook or through Acme ID Inc. and anyone could come along and verify my identity and publish that and developers would be able to come along and offer services based on that identity. But that works only if it is built to standards and principles, if it’s distributed and open. Open Graph is not.
As Dave Winer also says in his post, this is about more than identifying us. This structure leads to identifying places, sites, data, information. We will add a tremendously valuable layer of data atop the world — what we look at, what we like, what our friends like…. That is the wisdom of the crowd. Who owns that wisdom? No one but us. If you add value to it, you can extract that value (that’s what search engines do). But if you own the crowd’s wisdom then isn’t the crowd screwed?
Or that’s what I think I think. What do you think?
: MOMENTS LATER: As soon as I tweeted this, I saw that Rick Klau, a good guy at Google, is the new PM on Google Profiles and he suggested talking about it. I’ll think out loud first:
Google could build the open system I hope for … could. It has profile. It has the stuff around ID Kevin Marks showed me when I visited the company. It has lots of knowledge about our distributed identities.
What it doesn’t have is that close link to an almost verified identity. Sure, I can go and build a Google Profile page. But the problem with that is that it doesn’t really interact with the world the way my Facebook page does, so it lacks the opportunities for verification through relationships, right?
What could Google do about that? It could create a value-added service to verify identities (as Twitter has begun to do with the famous) but we’d find value in that only if others used it to some good end: if we could use it to publish comments on sites or make transactions. Is that enough?
Maybe Google can create the algorithmic authority (and identity) Clay Shirky dreams of: rather than verifying manually, it gives our identities a score and that increases our value in other transactions.
I tweeted earlier that after having slept with her (Ms. iPad), I woke up with morning-after regrets. She’s sweet and pretty but shallow and vapid.
Cute line, appropriate for retweets. But as my hangover settles in, I realize that there’s something much more basic and profound that worries me about the iPad — and not just the iPad but the architecture upon which it is built. I see danger in moving from the web to apps.
The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.
That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.
The iPad’s architecture supports these limitations in a few ways:
First, in its hardware design, it does not include a camera — the easiest and in some ways most democratic means of creation (you don’t have to write well) — even though its smaller cousin, the iPhone, has one. Equally important, it does not include a simple (fucking) USB port, which means that I can’t bring in and take out content easily. If I want to edit a document in Apple’s Pages, I have to go through many hoops of moving and snycing and emailing or using Apple’s own services. Cloud? I see no cloud, just Apple’s blue skies. Why no USB? Well, I can only imagine that Apple doesn’t want us to think what Walt Mossberg did in his review — the polar opposite of Pogue’s — that this pad could replace its more expensive laptops. The iPad is purposely handicapped, but it doesn’t need to be. See the German WePad, which comes with USB port(s!), a camera, multitasking, and the more open Android operating system and marketplace.
Second, the iPad is built on apps. So are phones, Apple’s and others’. Apps can be wonderful things because they are built to a purpose. I’m not anti-app, let’s be clear. But I also want to stop and examine the impact of shifting from a page- and site-based internet to one built on apps. I’ve been arguing that we are, indeed, moving past a page-, site-, and search-based web to one also built on streams and flows, to a distributed web where you can’t expect people to come to you but you must go to them; you must get yourself into their streams. This shift to apps is a move in precisely the opposite direction. Apps are more closed, contained, controlling. That, again, is why media companies like them. But they don’t interoperate — they don’t play well — with other apps and with the web itself; they are hostile to links and search. What we do in apps is less open to the world. I just want to consider the consequences.
So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.
There are alternatives. I now see the battle between Apple and Google Android in clearer focus. At Davos, Eric Schmidt said that phones (and he saw the iPad as just a big phone… which it is, just without the phone and a few other things) will be defined by their apps. The mobile (that is to say, constantly connected) war will be won on apps. Google is competing with openness, Apple with control; Google will have countless manufacturers and brands spreading its OS, Apple will have media and fanboys (including me) do the work for it.
But Google has a long way to go if it hopes to win this war. I’m using my Nexus One phone (which I also had morning-after doubts about) and generally liking it but I still find it awkward. Google has lost its way, its devotion to profound simplicity. Google Wave and Buzz are confusing and generally unusable messes; Android needed to be thought through more (I shouldn’t have to think about what a button does in this use case before using it); Google Docs could be more elegant; YouTube’s redesign is halfway to clean. Still, Google and Apple’s competition presents us with choices.
I find it interesting that though many commercial brands — from Amazon to Bank of America to Fandango — have written for both Apple and Android, many media brands — most notable The New York Times and my Guardian — have written only for Apple and they now are devoting much resource to recreating apps for the iPad. The audience on Android is bigger than the audience on iPad but the sexiness and control Apple offers is alluring. This, I think, is why Salon CEO Richard Gingras calls the iPad a fatal distraction for publishers. They are deluding themselves into thinking that the future lies in their past.
On This Week in Google last night, I went too far slathering over the iPad and some of its very neat apps (ABC’s is great; I watched the Modern Family about the iPad on the iPad and smugly loved being so meta). I am a toy boy at heart and didn’t stop to cast a critical eye, as TWiG’s iPadless Gina Trapani did. This morning on Twitter, I went too far the other way kvetching about the inconveniences of the iPad’s limitations (just a fucking USB, please!) in compensation. That’s the problem with Twitter, at least for my readers: it’s thinking out loud.
I’ll sleep with the iPad a few more nights. I might well rebox and return it; I don’t have $500 to throw away. But considering what I do for a living, I perhaps should hold onto it so I can understand its implications. And that’s the real point of this post: there are implications.
: MORE: Of course, I must link to Cory Doctorow’s eloquent examination of the infantilization of technology. I’m not quite as principled, I guess, as Cory is on the topic; I’m not telling people they should not buy the iPad; I don’t much like that verb in any context. But on the merits and demerits, we agree.
And Dave Winer: “Today it’s something to play with, not something to use. That’s the kind way to say it. The direct way: It’s a toy.”
: By the way, back in the day, about a decade ago, I worked with Intel (through my employer, Advance) on a web pad that was meant to be used to consume in the home (we knew then that the on-screen keyboard sucked; it was meant to be a couch satellite to the desk’s PC). Intel lost nerve and didn’t launch it. Besides, the technology was early (they built the wireless on Intel Anypoint, not wi-fi or even bluetooth). Here’s the pad in the flesh. I have it in my basement museum of dead technlogy, next to my CueCat.
: More, Monday: NPR’s related report and Jonathan Zittrain’s worries.