March 21st, 2008

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The Cute Cat Theory, Activism and CommYou

Thanks to mindways for the pointer to this very interesting article, adapted from a conference speech. It starts out making some fairly conventional observations, but the main thrust of the article is about the fact that the test of any good social tool is whether it gets used for political activism. (And that a useful tool needs to be useful for both banal *and* political purposes -- the banal ones provide cover for the political ones.)

It's fascinating food for thought, and I'm going to have to chew on its ramifications for CommYou. It may well push in some stories that had been relegated to the backlog. For example, viral invitation: conversations that are nominally hidden and private, but where invitees can invite others into the discussion. That one's been sitting in the list from the beginning, but I hadn't been paying much attention to it because I didn't see an important use case. But it's nicely suited to some activist scenarios, where you want to be able to get the word out without something actually being *public*.

It's things like this that make this project so much fun. I confess, I have no bloody idea how CommYou is actually going to get used, but I'm increasingly sure that, if I don't screw up, people are going to come up with all sorts of uses that I haven't yet imagined...
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Slowing the data mining

I just came across an interesting article in the NY Times, talking about a proposed bill in New York to outlaw some current advertising practices. My initial reaction was, "Uh-oh", but on reading through it, I rather like it.

The thing is, one of the most fraught questions for CommYou is advertising. I'm tentatively inclined to have a *little* of it, at least for non-members, to firm up the income flow. And I really quite like Gmail's model of advertising: just a bit, based on the text of what you're reading, with an eye towards maybe being useful. I intensely dislike the advertising-all-over look of many websites -- frankly, I think it's kind of dumb and counterproductive, with the saturation-bombing by some advertisers leading me to tune them out entirely. If all you're going for is awareness it might be okay, but I rarely click on the ads. By contrast, I *do* occasionally click on Gmail ads, because they're more likely to be quirky, interesting and relevant. (Even sometimes fun.) Seeing an ad for HDMI cables when I'm *talking* about HDML cables is far more useful to me than yet another advertisement for Microsoft.

The problem, though, is that I don't much trust the advertisement aggregators, and that's where the ads would necessarily come from. I mean, yes, Google (the likely supplier) tries to "Do no evil", and I think that for the moment they're mostly sticking to that. But I have every confidence that that will slowly erode over time, and I think most of their competitors are further along down the evil curve than they are.

In particular, the issue that I dislike is tracking. I mean, the data I would send them would be as anonymized as I can make it -- just the text contents, nothing personally identifying. (That probably weakens the value prop slightly, but I don't much care: the whole point of running a lean company is that I can do things like that.) But they can still get at your IP address, and that's gold to advertisers: they try to correlate every bit of data they can get their hands on. Granted, nearly every website participates in this giant data-mining operation, so it's not like CommYou would be *unusual* in it, but I can't say that I love the idea of being part of that. From a privacy viewpoint, it makes me decidedly uncomfortable.

So I like the bill that's being proposed in NY, which (according to the article) targets exactly that -- it would theoretically give you a way to get the data-mining to back off. (Whether it would succeed or not remains to be seen, but I like the principle.) Indeed, the possible consequence that I would *love* to see is a more nuanced attitude towards data retention and mining in general. If it forced Google to have the internal mechanisms to *not* retain any user data in some cases, then it wouldn't be such a big leap for them to permit it on a site-by-site basis. And I would be *much* more comfortable buying ads from Google if I could stipulate that they cannot retain any data that I send to them. Yes, it might mean I get a little less money -- but again, I can live with that.

We'll see where it all goes -- it'll be some months yet before any of this is relevant. But the tension between advertising and user privacy is one I'm going to have to be very careful about...
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So many features, so little time

Sorry about so much CommYou burbleage today, but the news is proving really interesting for me.

Today's new feature in the story list (albeit down in the backlog for the time being) is automatic translation. This is suddenly looking plausible due to Google announcing a new Translation API. Using this, I ought to be able to include translation in my UI cheaply. You say that you prefer to read in English. Someone comments in your journal in Chinese. The UI automatically detects that the comment is in Chinese, and when you go to read it, translates it into English. (Probably fairly *bad* English, mind, but still more useful to most people than the original Mandarin.)

Until now, that would have been a major pain in the ass, but from the sound of things, I could probably now implement it in a week, maybe even less. And the potential for spreading conversations internationally is *really* cool. Today, nearly all conversation systems are balkanized along languages lines. Heaven only knows what the effect of breaking that down would be, but the potential is really neat.

God, I love the modern Internet biz. It's hectic and crazy, and hard to keep up with, but it's fun as hell to be in the middle of...

[ETA: Y'know, I'm going to have to think about when I do this. On the one hand, it's a fringy kind of feature; OTOH, it's something nobody else does, and it's potentially kind of revolutionary. I'll need some "revolutionary" to make a splash when the system hits release time, and this is one of those features that could get a lot of press. Hmm...]