Google wants your endorsements

Google’s updates to its Terms of Service have been made the rounds of the Internet last week. The particular bit that caught people’s attention was about something called “Shared Endorsements”. What are shared endorsements? From Google’s announcement:

Feedback from people you know can save you time and improve results for you and your friends across all Google services, including Search, Maps, Play and in advertising. For example, your friends might see that you rated an album 4 stars on the band’s Google Play page. And the +1 you gave your favorite local bakery could be included in an ad that the bakery runs through Google. We call these recommendations shared endorsements and you can learn more about them here.

Essentially, if you +1 a particular product, or write a review, then Google can use your name and picture when it displays ads related to that product. This move has understandably ruffled some feathers and merited a piece in the New York Times. John Gruber says that he is “looking forward to hearing from Google fans how this is acceptable” (as if Apple would do anything different if they had a social network).

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a violation of privacy. I consider social networks to essentially be public spaces. For me, that means I rarely upload personal photos and whatever text I post I would be willing to put on a public blog. Now, I would be peeved if Google took a negative review I wrote about a product and turned it into an endorsement. The examples show that Google shows a snippet of whatever review I write and a star rating. I would prefer there be some textual analysis happening to make sure that reviews are actually positive before using them as an endorsement. Since I don’t see any sign of that happening, I’ve decided to opt out. To be clear, my objection is not to Google using my reviews to sell products — I simply want to know that they use them accurately.

I do wish that we had an enforceable expectation of privacy in social networks, but by and large, we don’t. As users of Facebook, Google+ or any other social network we should be aware that their purpose is to make money for their shareholders. Without a payment option, it would be naive of us to expect that our data would not be monetized in every conceivable fashion.

For what it’s worth, I think Google has handled this move in the proper way. They made a public announcement and detailed in clear, unambiguous language what their plans were. They also provide a clear option to turn off Shared Endorsements. The opt-out page reiterates what Shared Endorsements are and provides a single clear checkbox. In contrast, Facebook has been doing essentially the same form of endorsement for a long time now and I don’t remember seeing a public announcement when they started. Their privacy settings are also infamous for being confusing and hard to navigate.

I would love for there to be a social network that’s free of advertisements and whose goal isn’t to data-mine and sell my data the first chance they get. In absence of such a network, it’s up to us, the users, to make the best of what’s available. I do like the utility that these services provide and I am willing to let them have certain information in order to continue providing that service. However I also make sure that I opt out of measures that I don’t want to be a part of. I don’t think Google+ has done the best job of building a social network (see the debacles relating to real names and identities), but this particular move has been better handled than most.

Not so Svbtle

A few weeks ago I got an invitation to Dustin Curtis’ hip new(ish) blogging platform called Svbtle. The original announcement created a bit of a stir around the Intertubes. It was supposed to be both a clean, minimalist writing environment and a fresh new platform for vetted, competent writing. Here’s a relevant excerpt (emphasis mine):

I wrote this engine entirely for myself, without the intention of opening it up to other people. But since realizing that it has improved the way I think and write, I’ve decided to open it up to a small number of vetted bloggers. At least at first. The goal is simple: when you see the Svbtle design, you should know that the content is guaranteed to be great. Network bloggers are encouraged to keep quality high at the expense of everything else.

If it sounds provocative, that’s probably because it was meant to be. The emphasized line in particular, is fighting words, as they say. It’s been about a year and half since that post (at least that’s how long I think it’s been, Svbtle posts don’t seem to have visible timestamps). Now that I have an invite, I thought it would be interesting to see how things have held up. Is Svbtle really all that Mr. Curtis cracks it up to be?

At face value, the original claim seems to have fallen flat. The idea for a minimalist writing platform was copied and open-sourced almost immediately and there’s also a Svbtle-like WordPress theme. Given that Svbtle will let you use your own domain name, it’s hard to tell that you’re reading a Svbtle post unless you care to look. So much for seeing and recognizing the Svbtle design. But what about the rest of the claim? Are we really guaranteed that the content is great?

Svbtle currently positions itself as a “new kind of magazine”. The current About page reads as follows:

We’re a network of great people mixed with a platform that takes the best things from traditional publishing and combines them with the best parts of the web. We want to make it easier for people to share and discover new ideas.

The Svbtle blog announced that they received an undisclosed amount of VC money (good for them). They currently have over 200 writers and hope to build “the future of journalism”. Svbtle is building us up to expect not only good writing, but great writing and journalism. The current state of Svbtle doesn’t give me much confidence. As of this writing, many of the posts on the Svbtle front page would probably only be of interest to a certain section of Silicon Valley resident.s Posts like “The 3 competitive Defenses of Enduring SaaS Companies” and “The Single Best Content Marketing Channel for your Startup” make me think that Svbtle is more a thinly veiled mirror of Hacker News than a magazine devoted to ground-breaking journalism.

To me at least, Svbtle is not so much subtle as confusing. Who are these 200 writers? Why did they get invitations? They claim to span “at least eight disciplines” and journalism doesn’t seem to one of them. If Svbtle is supposed to take the best things from traditional publishing, then where are the editors and expert photographers? If Svbtle is going to be “an important place for the sharing of ideas” then where are the comments and where do I send Letters to the Editor?

Furthermore, this confusion isn’t just on the outward, public face of the endeavor. As a writer, it’s not clear to me what I get from publishing on Svbtle. A group of 200 writers is not exactly exclusive, especially when I have no idea what the invitation criteria are. I don’t see any Terms of Service, or an Export button for that matter. The invitation email claims “One of our main goals is to help members become better writers”, but there’s no mention of how that’s supposed to happen. Is there a peer review or editorial process? If there is, what are the qualifications of the editors and reviewers? I just wrote and published a short post and there doesn’t seem to be any of those things. Can I be kicked out and my posts deleted at a moment’s notice?

I suppose that for people dissatisfied with their current blogging platform Svbtle might be an interesting alternative. But it’s not for me. I’m perfectly content with WordPress when it comes to actual writing and Tumblr when it comes to everything else. I’ve never been distracted from my writing by the various controls and buttons and Svbtle lacks too much of what I’d consider essentials for a modern blogging platform.

Of course, it’s certainly possible that I simply don’t get it and that Mr. Curtis has some grand scheme that I don’t grasp. For the time being, though, it seems like Svbtle is simply just yet another blogging platform. It’s a different flavor than WordPress, Tumblr, or Medium, and some will be drawn to it for that reason. At this point, someone will no doubt point out that I won’t get it unless I try it. While I’m skeptical of that line of reasoning, I would like to give Svbtle a fair chance. Maybe the writing experience really is that much better. If I can think of something that needs publishing and isn’t relevant to The ByteBaker, then my Svbtle blog is where it will go.

(As an aside, I’ve been thinking of starting a research blog, along the lines of Lindsey Kuper’s,. I’d use Svbtle for that, but there seems to be no support for inserting syntax-highlighted code snippets.)

In the meantime, if you’re looking for modern, journalistic writing that covers a variety of topics, I recommend a publication like New Republic.

To thine own reading habits be true

It’s been about two weeks since the untimely demise of our dearly beloved Google Reader. Since then many replacements have been stepping up to the plate. I’ve been using Feedly, but I hear good things about Digg Reader too. A few days after that Anil Dash wrote a post entitled “The Golden Age of RSS” where, among other things, he provides a very long list of RSS readers across various platforms. He also makes four suggestions about improving the state of the RSS ecosystem and two of those four are about the actual reading experience. While I have immense respect for Mr. Dash (and Dave Winer), I’m not excited by either of his suggestions.

First off, Mr. Dash seems to not be a big fan of the mailbox style of displaying feeds (a la Google Reader) or the magazine style (a la Pinterest and Feedly). He seems to rather favor Winer’s river of news style. Secondly, he says that he wants a blog reader — essentially a single site RSS reader that kicks in when you visit the site and gives you a content-focused, style-independent view of the site. While both of these suggestions seem interesting (and I hope someone picks them up and does cool things with them) neither of them is particularly appealing to me.

Personally, I like the mailbox-style of reading feeds. I like to be able to look through a list of titles, read the ones that sound interesting, and get rid of the rest (currently by mass marking them as “read” — not the best interface, but it gets the job done). I don’t want a river of news — I want a digest of interesting things that I can read at my own leisure, irrespective of when the author posted them. My RSS reading list isn’t a source of news, it’s a selection of authors who write interesting pieces and whose posts I don’t want to miss. Now, an argument could be made that if some post is really good, it will filter through my Twitter or Facebook circles and I’ll hear about it. But I have neither the time nor the energy to sift through those streams to find interesting things my friends are posting. I’d rather just have the good stuff come directly to a single known location. And this brings me to Mr. Dash’s second recommendation (and why I disagree with it). I don’t see much personal value in the sort of site-specific reader he wants. The whole point of having RSS for me is that I don’t have to visit the website. See above arguments for a central location for posts from approved sources.

Does this mean that river-of-news or site specific RSS readers are a bad idea? No, of course not. Anil Dash and Dave Winer are both very intelligent people with proven track records and if they’re advocating something it’s worth looking into. All I’m saying is that they’re not the best idea for me. Reading habits are a very personal thing. We like to read different sorts of things and we like to read them in different ways. Dave Winer likes to be plugged into a river of news, I prefer to have a stack of articles waiting for me at the end of the day.

I truly believe that the web is a democratic medium — it allows us to define both how we publish and consume content (within limits). While we’ve explored the publishing aspect in lots of different ways (sites, blogs, tumblelogs, podcasts, microblogs, photoblogs, vlogs), the consumption side has perhaps seen a little less action. The death of Google Reader seems to have sparked a new burst of RSS-related innovation. Once we’re done picking our favorite clone, moving our lists and syncing our devices, maybe we can think about how to make the consumption experience as democratic as the publishing experience.

Sunday Selection 2013-06-09

Hello everyone. It’s June, we’re almost halfway through the  year and it’s a beautiful sunny day here in Ithaca, New York. The Intertubes are aflame with talk of PRISM and Occupy Gezi. Luckily there are writers and journalists far more capable than I handling those issues, so I’m going to steer clear of that for the time being. Instead, today we shall be talking about education and the how it’s changing (as all things are) in this age of ubiquitous information and communication.

Around the Web

The Anti-Dropout

Dropping out from some form of educational institution seems to becoming increasingly popular among my generation, especially in tech-savvy circles. While I do think that the current price of a formal higher education is ridiculous and taking on massive amounts of debts is rather unwise, you can pry my fancy liberal arts education from my cold dead hands (though, in the interest of full disclosure, I got engineering and science degrees, not liberal arts ones). Anyways, this article is one of the most level-headed takes on the interplay of education, technology, big corporations and technology startups that I’ve seen in a while.

“Perhaps Culture is the Now the Counterculture.” A defense of the humanities.

While I’m an engineer by education, I’ve always held the humanities to be of paramount importance, especially for citizens of a modern democracy. And while I don’t think spending upwards of $200,000 on a humanities degree is worth it, there are these things called libraries which you can use at a much lower price. This piece is the transcription of Brandeis University’s commencement address by the literary editor of the New Republic, a magazine that’s been publishing some really good writing.


How to escape education’s death valley

While I’m skeptical of TED’s ability to create lasting social change, I have a lot of admiration for Sir Ken Robinson. His original talk was one of the first TED talks that I saw. In this talk he talks about 3 elements necessary for the development of the human mind and how current educational systems fail at promoting them.

What does this app do?

Yesterday, after a productive afternoon of hackery I came across this interesting exclamation on Twitter:

While I sympathized with Mr. Balkan’s general point, I couldn’t help but see (and partially agree with) the article author’s point of view. Here’s the gist of the matter: popular blogger John Gruber has teamed up with developer Brent Simmons, and designer Dave Wiskus to launch a note-taking app called Vesper.

What does Vesper do? Apparently not much. It lets you take text or photo notes, tag them and share them via email or iMessage. The Verge, Macworld and GigaOm all have their own articles about it if you’re more interested. Macstories even has an interview with the creators. Its biggest selling points seem to be good design and John Gruber’s involvement.

I have no qualms with paying for software – I use OmniFocus as a task manager, I bought the Android and iOS versions of Instapaper and I paid for the Pinboard bookmarking service. All of them do useful things for me and do them well (better than most other apps and services in the same category). So what exactly would I be paying for if I bought Vesper? According to Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame) I’m paying for balls. Apparently the apps creators are extremely brave for releasing a feature-light app that’s about the same as a bunch of other apps while being comparatively more expensive (and having a mildly interesting Credits section).

Perhaps they are. But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t care how heroic Gruber and Co. are. I don’t really care that the app is $4.99. I do appreciate that the app looks well-designed and the interactions are well thought out. But I care more that the app doesn’t do very much and for some reason, I’m supposed to celebrate that. Apparently being “skillfully crafted” means that things I’m starting to take for granted (like oh.. I don’t know… simple export) are suddenly “power user features”. Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where the developer’s balls are more important than the app’s functionality and data loss is just as much of a problem as typos in the credits.

How did we get to this point and does it matter? I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of The Cult of Design Dictatorship. I care about good design as much as the next guy and I’m glad that a small group of people can create and distribute widely used products. But when it comes to technology, I refuse to put form above function and I definitely won’t allow the developer’s pedigree to be a stand-in for functionality.

A week with the Nexus 4

I bought my first smartphone about a year and a half ago. It was the straight-from-Google version of the Samsung Nexus S, meaning that it came without any carrier-installed crapware and no contract. However, it was already over a year old and a generation behind the times when I got it. That meant that it was already slower than the current state of art and came with the older Android 2.2 (which I upgraded a few months later to Ice Cream Sandwich). Overall it was a good phone, but has been gradually showing it’s age. It was having trouble using newer apps and the upgrade to Ice Cream Sandwich had been awkward enough that I didn’t even try to update it to Jelly Bean. I had been using T-mobile as my carrier and though I had one of their contract-free prepaid Monthly4G plans, I had carelessly bought the version of the phone with the wrong radio chipset, meaning I only got EDGE service most of the time.

The thought to upgrade to a new phone had been at the back of my mind for a few months. But the announcement of the Galaxy S4 as Google’s next flagship device made me take a look at the available options. While the S4 looks great, I wasn’t about to shell out $650 for a new phone. However, it turned out that the current flagship phone — the Nexus 4 — is available for $350 and it’s only a few months old. It was available unlocked and a quick search of the Intertubes suggested that it worked well on T-mobile’s network.

Google Nexus 4
The Google Nexus 4

The Nexus 4 is a good, solid device and is definitely a big step up from the Nexus S. The 1280 x 768,  4.7-inch display looks great, it’s slimmer and the 8MP camera is a much better than what the Nexus S. It also comes with Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) and is fast enough to run heavy duty modern apps without skipping a beat. It doesn’t have LTE, but on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network the speeds I do get are more than sufficient for my needs. The battery life is better than what I’m used to — I can generally end a busy day with about 15-20% to spare. Admittedly, I don’t stream a lot of video or upload lots of photos, so your mileage will probably vary.

On my Nexus S I rarely installed apps and never really explored the Android ecosystem (or rather, the Google Play store). But with a newer phone with an up-to-date version of Android, it was time to go exploring. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Android apps seem to be developing a UI style that is quite different from the iOS counterparts (though not quite as different as Windows Phone). Apps from both large companies (such as Twitter) and smaller operations (like Astrid) sport a sharp, clean and mostly gradient-free design that I personally feel pretty refreshing. I also really like the Google+ app, though I can’t say I use it all that much and I’m looking forward to the new Gmail app. If you need more evidence that Android apps can be just as good looking as their counterparts on other platforms, check out Android Niceties. Sharing between applications and services is also so much nicer and painless than on iOS, though there are some bad apples (I’m looking at you, Feedly).

There are a few quibbles I have about the Nexus 4, but they’re not major and definitely not show-stoppers. For starters, the back of the phone is glass, not plastic or metal. I don’t have a history of breaking screens, but I will sometimes put down my phone pretty roughly on a table and I’m afraid I’ll end up cracking the back soon. Secondly, the headphone jack is on top of the phone. This is probably a good idea if you’re charging and listening to music at the same time, but makes it’s a bit awkward for listening on earphones with the phone in your pocket. With the Nexus S (which had the jack at the bottom) it was quite natural to put the phone in your pocket bottom-up and then turn your hand as you pulled it out to see the screen upright. The corresponding motion with the jack on the bottom seems rather more convoluted, but it might just be muscle memory that will get reprogrammed with time. Finally, (and this isn’t unique to the Nexus 4) I’m yet to find a Android to-do or task management app that is flexible enough as OmniFocus on OS X and Android.

All that being said, I am very happy with the Nexus 4. I really liked the Nexus S when I first got it and I’ve always liked Android. The Nexus 4 is a significant upgrade and I pretty impressed by the current state of the Android ecosystem. Barring unforeseen problems (or a very cheap upgrade option) I fully expect to hold on to this as my primary mobile device for the next few years. I don’t have any experiences with other Android devices (or other smartphones for that matter) so I can’t really compare, but I’m willing to take a chance and say you can’t get much better than a clean stock Android (especially if you use Google services as much as I do). As a final happy ending, I managed to hand off my Nexus S to a friend who decided to move up from a dumb phone. That makes one less unused device for me to keep around.

Spam and user responsibility

Twitter, like any communication medium (physical or electronic) has a spam problem. They’ve been able to mostly keep it under control, but it surfaces every now and then. I was talking to a friend about this recently and he noted that certain kinds of spam are easier to detect than others. For example, a tweet full of suspicious URLs may very well be spam. But is an account that never tweets but follows lots of people a spam account? Part of this is an perception issue. I personally don’t care about being followed by (possibly) spam accounts. I get more annoyed if I get a tweet from one of them. However, I do know people who are really careful about who follows them. For Twitter, the question is how to tell spam tweets and spammers apart from legitimate traffic and users.

Getting users to report spammers is perhaps the first line of defense. If a large enough group of people report an account as a spammer, there’s a high probability that it actually is a spammer. But on the users side, what is my incentive to report an account as spam? Unfortunately, I feel that Twitter’s nature plays against it in this regard. In particular, a spam tweet is much less annoying than a spam email. Tweets and the Twitter stream are, by design, ephemeral and temporary. You see something and a few hours later it’s gone. You’re not expected to read each and every tweet and you’re certainly not expected to reply to everything and everyone (unless you’re  a self-styled social media guru, but that’s another matter altogether). Reporting a spammer is a pretty high overhead activity, especially with the current web interface. As far as I can tell, you can’t directly report a tweet, you have to click on the user image, click on the profile button and only then do you see the option to report spam. If I see a spam tweet, the easiest thing for me to do is shrug my shoulders and move on — it’ll be out of sight and out of mind in a while anyway.

Contrast this with email: I don’t reply to each and every email, but I do read most of it and I reply to a lot. Reading and answering emails (especially if they’re technical in nature) are fairly high load activities and my inbox definitely isn’t as ephemeral as my Twitter stream. Consequently, getting spam in my email inbox is correspondingly more annoying, especially if it’s more sophisticated spam (like a phishing attempt). It’s in my own best interests to report spam so that I have less to deal with in the future. Furthermore Gmail (and I would hope, most email interfaces) make it easy to report spam — generally just one click (two if you need to open a menu first, sometimes there’s a confirmation request).

(Aside: Note that Twitter associates “spam-ness” with the user, while email conventions associate it with the email itself. Objectively the two are isomorphic: the sender of spam message is very likely a spammer and a spammer account very likely sends out mostly spam. I find the difference is interface and convention interesting from an HCI point of view.)

An argument could be made that reporting spam is the users’ best interest, irrespective of quality of interface and immediate overhead. But I wonder if even this argument doesn’t quite work in Twitter’s case. Twitter is, and has always been, a largely public medium. Private accounts exist and you can block followers, but by and large you use Twitter to share everything with everyone. Email by contrast has always been more personal and private. But this means that reporting spam on Twitter is a lot like picking up litter off the street — it is bothersome, and you know that at some level you should do it, but is it really your problem? What’s really in it for you, and if you don’t do it someone else surely will, right? By contrast, spam email is pretty much exactly  like getting junk mail delivered right to your home.

While Twitter’s image as a public space has probably been key to its success, I do believe that it’s hard to get people interested in taking care of something they don’t have any ownership over (as far as I can tell the only way to pay for Twitter is to buy ads and it’s becoming increasingly harder to hook up non-official clients). To its credit, I haven’t found spam to be much of a problem — most days I don’t see (or at least don’t notice) any spam at all. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. I don’t have any suggestions, just the above ruminations. But if you’re in the process of creating (or interacting with) any sort of user platform, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how to deal with spam.