Facebook just became relevant again

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Facebook has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks, first with it’s mammoth WhatsApp purchase (really they payed all that money for an audience of ‘feature phone’ users in the developing world), and then it’s shocking entry into VR with the Oculus takeover. Today Facebook announced something that, at least in the short term, could have more impact than either of those investments. The service is called ‘Nearby Friends‘. Nearby friends lets you turn on an ‘I’m here beacon’, (with all the ordinary Facebook group and list privacy features) that says ‘I’m around’ (to anyone you’d trust enough to tell).

To understand why this is important, you have to go back in time. Location aware or geosocial networks are nothing new. Almost a decade ago, a few early social networks gave a preview of the potential of this technology. Services like Jaiku (bought and abandoned by Google) allowed users to indicate their location, in a way friends could see without actively checking in. Dodgeball, another service bought and extinguished by google, offered a more sophisticated version of the same thing (it’s frustrated founder left Google to create Foursquare). Essentially (with your consent) you could share your location with others following you. This way, you could easily see when real world friends were near. Since converting this into advertising venue was too complex (local advertising, beyond ‘which Starbucks is close’ requires a massive sales infrastructure); and since user numbers made the feature ineffectual, it quickly disappeared.

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But the promise of location awareness was obvious even then. Before Bebo had been superseded on campuses by the all consuming network effect of Facebook, I wrote about it’s potential (and potential dangers). In the years since, passive location awareness has been used primarily for dating – most notably the gay hookup app ‘Grindr’ lets users arrange casual assignations with nearby strangers. Last year Foursquare launched a passive location service. Relative to Facebook, nobody uses Foursquare – and the usefulness of location awareness is all about network effects.

The potential of the technology is enormous. If Facebook can navigate users likely fear of the downsides of location awareness – stalking, association based inference of infidelity etc – this technology could have a profound impact on how people associate in the real world.

You may have had the experience of running into a friend or acquaintance in a strange city, or even a foreign country. Instantly your previous connection is magnified by familiarity – proximity is a large part of why we enjoy the company of others. Moreover similarity (the other reason we choose friends) is relative – in a strange place we suddenly have much more in common with those from home.

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Now imagine your phone letting you know automatically when an old friend is in the neighbourhood. Or perhaps you and a neighbour from home are visiting a distant country at the same time. Beep! Your favourite cult musician / writer / storyteller / artist, is having a show down the street. Coincidences are common, but most often invisible. When they appear our perception of the size of the social world contracts. We’re all seen speculative visions of ‘google glass’ style augmented reality displays that will tell us the names of people at a party, show how we’re invisibly connected. The ability to inform others passively of ones location is potentially even more powerful. It will allow us to better connect with the people we already know. The worth of that – given Facebook’s ubiquity, is incalculable.

In the same way that the mobile phone freed us from the necessity of carefully coordinating social events like military exercises, and email shattered forever the disconnect between home and office; location awareness could change the way we relate in the real world. Will I bother going to the pub? John’s there, great. Should I pay into the gig, ah Killian’s here, it’s worth it. Damn, I’m having lunch and I didn’t think ahead, oh great Emily’s around the corner in the Deli…

Online social networks are frequently derided for promoting lots of shallow meaningless connections. It’s hard to believe now, but Facebook’s initial selling point was that it (unlike MySpace and previous social networks) better connected us with people we actually knew. Moving these increasingly tenuous connections into the real world could serve to strengthen them. Social networks – well really ‘the’ social network, since it seems impossible any company could replicate Facebook’s popularity, could finally become sociable.

Addendum: There is reason to fear however, as Facebook’s core business is no longer connecting people (if it ever way), but rather artificially keeping them apart.

Emerging uses for Twitter

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As Twitter leaves the realms of ‘joiner geek’ social network, and (partly due to it’s integration with platforms like Facebook), becomes a more popular and diverse service, its utility is being more rigorously critiqued. What is Twitter for? Its a cogent question. In a world of blogs, microblogs, and social networks, what’s the use of twitter? Is it merely a loose knit social network, or a (nano) blogging platform? Is it just the latest fad? Lets look at some real world uses of Twitter, how its utility differs from more traditional blogging platforms, and some scenarios in which it could be more effectively used.

Real world use

Right now, twitters use is primarily as a loosely coupled, mobile social network. The barriers to membership and use are low – as the platform is quick to join and simple to use; and adding ‘friends’ can be done easily and quickly. Perhaps too easily, since no confirmation is required to ‘subscribe’ to a user. Mass adding of contacts within twitter is a quick way of creating an audience – as some of those added will tend to add back the mass connector, creating potentially unwanted one way connections.

Connectivity

Twitter has strong but limited communication features. Users can receive updates (‘tweets’) from their ‘friends’ via web, RSS, IM or (free) text message. They can send their own tweets, through Twitter or a host of other websites, IM or paid text messages.
Tweets are either undirected, direct, or aimed at a user, but visible to the general audience (signified by the @ symbol). A general audience in this context can be either the public at large, or a users entire friend group, depending on privacy setting. Blocking is available – and users can only directly message their friends.
However no fine grained control is available – users cannot for example, chose to receive text message notifications of tweets from one specific user, or group of users. In fact no user groups or gradations of connection exist within twitter. Aspects of this functionality may ultimately emerge from third party applications.

Moblogging

With built in text messaging functionality, Twitter has the capacity to function as a ‘short message’ (140 character) moblogging platform. While it lacks MMS picture support, it has the advantage of immediate one to many connectivity. As such, it can be used to provide news updates and reports of ongoing events.

Public Conversation

A conversation emerges in the ‘friends’ feed of a users twitter; visible from their profile on Twitter.com or via RSS. Although direct messages are not visible to all, as previously stated, frequently publicly visible messages are directed at a user, through use of the @ sign. This allows a users friends or readers to engage in conversation, and allows a user to publicly flag the existence of their communication with high status users. In effect this serves to pull users on the periphery of the network into more direct conversation with more centrally connected users. In this role Twitter can provide a form of ad hoc business social networking.

Linkblogging

Blogging grew in part, out of link logging, and the low time cost and mobile nature of Tweets, makes Twitter ideal for sharing links with a directed audience. Due to the character limit of ‘tweets’, links are often truncated using services like Url.ie or slink.in.

Future Use 1 – Group management

As previously mentioned, creating user groups is not yet a feature offered by Twitter, but their addition would allow significant additional emergent uses of the platform. Work teams, clubs, and institutions could use Twitters push messaging to notify members of meetings and updates. Rather than acting as a replacement for traditional systems of notification (e.g.: email memo’s), Twitters immediacy would make it ideal for notification of last minute changes of plan, or time sensitive communications – especially with large or loosely affiliated groups.

Future Use 2 – Mobile applications

Applications are already being built around twitter, but none have yet taken advantage of the powerful utility of the mobile communication capabilities built into the platform. Twitter applications should in theory proliferate virally, due to the public nature of visible ‘@’ directed communications – in a similar fashion to the recent viral growth of applications on the Facebook platform. However this can only take place if an applications utility necessitates two way communication with its users. ‘Mashups’, which utilise the API’s of two or more external services to create a new service providing additional utility, hold great potential in this regard. Combine low cost two way mobile communication, with social application proliferation, API sourced data, and multicasting, and a variety of potential services become obvious. The viability of businesses which utilise Twitter in this way will be dependent on the future reliability of the platform, and on Twitters tolerance of providing host to an emergent ‘ecosystem’ (positive construal) or ‘parasite infestation’ (negative construal) of applications.

Facebook as Social Aggregator

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Social Network ‘Facebook’, has made an enormous splash this week with the release of the ‘Facebook Platform‘, an opening up of the mature Facebook API to internal widgets with access to Facebook’s ‘core functions’. Whilst this move has been criticised by some influential members of the syndication community, it places Facebook at the forefront of mashup’s and the read-write web. In one fell swoop, Facebook has become a socially enabled aggregation platform.

‘Zuckerberg describes the Facebook core function that the new third-party applications can tap into as a “social graph,” the network of connections and relationships between people on the service’.
- Dan Farber on ZDNet

Social Aggregation

Let’s look at some ways that Facebook collates user information, and serves this summated information back to a users social network.

Facebook offers users three direct methods of adding to the ‘News Feed’ activity stream of their connections on the Facebook network.
‘Status Updates’ are brief, 160 character messages, updatable by text message or from within Facebook.
‘Posted Items’ are smart links which retrieve a brief descriptive paragraph and photo from a provided link; updatable from within Facebook, and through browser and web based bookmarklets.
‘Notes’ are text, images and links – essentially blog posts; updatable from within facebook itself, and via imported RSS feed. Notes contain an additional feature, a social equivalent to pingbacks, allowing posters to ‘tag’ friends mentioned in, or related to, a post.

Controversially, Facebook also provides an aggregated feed of indirect socially relevant user actions – profile changes, photo uploads and contact addition etc.

Finally, with the addition of ‘Facebook Platform’, Facebook can now socially aggregates the information flow to and from users and their installed applications – for example, tweets updated via and integrated Twitter application.

All of this aggregation is done parsimoniously and noninvasively, with an emphasis on usability and integration with the social map of a users Facebook network – for example, if a user updates a number of notes in quick succession, rather than each note appearing in the news feed of his connections, a lists of titles will appear.

Fine Grained Control

The aggregated ‘Posted Items’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Status Updates’ from a user’s connections, can each be exported as an RSS feed. In addition to the feeds available from applications within the ‘Facebook Platform’, this means that users can now (or will soon be able to, with third party developer support) use Facebook to export feeds of updates to the attention streams, social bookmarkings, and blogs, of their connections.

By allowing users fine grained control over which aspects of their social activity on the site are published to the ‘news feed’ of their connections – for example a user can choose to de-list notification of their new connections completely, or on a case by case basis – and control over the sources and quantity of the information they aggregate from their connections; Facebook have built the beginnings of a social write application to compliment feed reading, on the Read/Write web. Together with the social elements of next generation browsers, this could provide the template for how such services work in the future.

Maturation is inevitable and necessary, and Facebook are only at the beginning of the development of their internal services – for example ‘Posted Items’ can function as social bookmarks, but without tags or folder utility, cannot replace a dedicated social bookmark application.

Balancing the desire of application providers for greater access to the Facebook API, with the privacy of users and the overall usability of the platform will be a difficult challenge. Right now it seems that Facebook are erring on the side of caution – for example, Twitter integration seems for the moment hampered by a lack of write access to user ‘Status Updates’ through the Facebook API.

What to do with all this information?

Beyond hyperbole, what does all this mean? Right now, it means I can import the ‘Status Updates’, ‘Notes’, and ‘Posted Items’ of my Facebook connections; right into Google Reader. I can also export my own aggregated updates, and construct a feed blog, or metafeed – increasing the utility, and decreasing the exclusivity, of my updates to Facebook.

This flow of information will grow richer as more useful applications are added to the ‘Facebook Platform’, as Facebook continues the roll-out of its third generation of internal services (like Market Place and Video); providing a portable, rapidly updated aggregation of social events and conversation – a friends feed, which comprises a deepening, dynamic, and semi-public conversation.

The Future

What’s next? Increased portability of Facebook mobile updates (currently the limited SMS notifications available are restricted the the US), and the easier establishment of networks, would greatly increase the utility of such powerful information aggregation; as would RSS feeds of the ‘News Feed’ activity stream itself. Right now, Facebook is a fantastic tool for large, loosely connected, public social networks, but increased privacy options and network building flexibility could make it a more useful tool for work groups, businesses, and families. Although it’s important to note that company networks do already exit, each new network must be suggested directly to Facebook – with little direction as to the amount or type of requests needed before such a network will be created.

Look out soon, for applications leveraging the social aspects of the Facebook platform in innovative ways – enabling collaborative video editing or games for example.

Open source and information portability advocates would no doubt like to see greater portability of the (user generated) networks with give Facebook its value. Such portability may become ever more difficult, as users become more locked into the services provided by a specific social network, and the social groupings which exist there.

Barcamp Dublin

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Just back from Barcamp Ireland 3. What a day, so packed I couldn’t possibly get to half the talks (which ran concurrently), but I managed three lectures and the panel discussion. The event was held in the beautiful Digital Hub, off Thomas St in Dublin. The building is fantastic, with bare brick walls and natural lighting throughout, and would make a fantastic billionaires studio apartment.

I’ve posted some wikified notes. I grabbed several mini interviews, on TFM‘s sweet but pricey Roland wav recorder (check out the uber cheesy website), not enough material for a full blown podcast, but I’ve thrown them up, below. Also attempted to moblog throughout the day, with mixed results.

Mini Interviews

Sean O Sullivan of Rococo.
Robin Blandford creator of Comment Casting.
Darren Barefoot of Capulet Communications.

Update: Fixed the wiki link!

Beans for Bebo

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Wow..Looks like Jason Calacanis has inspired a trend. Came across the following whilst browsing jobs.ie.

Are you a social networker and serial photo up loader? If yes read on….

Looking for some extra cash? http://www.talkbeans.com is Ireland’s fastest growing social networking site – for grown up’s.
We are looking for people to build social networks…. for cash. Its a sinch and its a part-time job you can do anytime, night or day.

We are seeking well connected, fun, outgoing people who have left school – and no longer want to be profiled on social networking sites for Kids.

So http://www.talkbeans.com are offering European pounds for profiles. All you have to do is get people in your network to set-up profiles (with Photo’s) and use the site actively and we will pay you for each profile you create.

Duties:
Get your people to contact our people and post their profiles. To start making European pounds for profiles please apply below telling us why we should pay you to help build Ireland’s biggest and best social networking site.

Candidate
We love all types of people. If your cool your in. If your not cool your in. If your under 18 your out – try registering with bebo.

Responsibilities:
None. We are not very responsible and don’t expect you to be. We do expect common sense and nothing too rude.

Successful candidates will be contacted by email. Please apply telling us why you not them, Today.

http://www.talkbeans.comDon’t be a has been. Be a talkbean!

Got to get me some a them ‘European Pounds’. Oddly the talkbeans site itself seems to be down. Shouldn’t they be advertising spamming this through a social network in any case?

Update: Site’s now back up, and looks unsurprisingly spammy. I wonder could Bebo sue over Talkbeans claim to be ‘Ireland’s fastest growing social networking site’?

Bebo Censors Social Issues Group

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Subsequent to posting a link to the (UCD?) ‘Killer Coke’ Bebo page a couple of days ago, it seems the popular page has disappeared. Although never one to underestimate my own importance, I sincerely hope this is not a chilling effect of questioning Bebo’s censorship policy at last weeks Social Network Webcamp. The TCD campaign, which recently succeeded in renewing the Trinity campus Coke produce ban, still has an active Bebo page.

I’m not involved in either campaign, and not sufficiently informed to judge either sides merits, but more information is available here – pro coke, anti-coke, and here’s the ubiquitous wiki.

Perhaps this is something DRI should look into?

Webcamp – Social Networks

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Many thanks to John Breslin for organising Irelands first Webcamp, last Wednesday 7th March. The afternoon was an enlightening look into the development, search, analysis and productive uses of social networks.

I’ve wiki’d some notes on event (Ed – 2013, notes below).

Particularly interesting was the response of designated Bebo’s spokesperson, Mark Tarbatt of webvertising firm Generator, to my questions about potential Bebo censorship. The impression Mark (whose firm seem solely responsible for selling branding on Bebo, at least in Ireland) gave was that, in the event of a conflict between a user video or community (the example I provided was a hypothetical ‘killer coke’ video on Votetube’s bebo profile) and a Bebo advertiser, such a user or community could be removed. This seems credible given that Mark stated Bebo’s recent adoption of comment moderation occurred not in response to problems of user abuse or sexually explicit spam, but to satisfy the desire of Coca Cola (a bebo advertiser) to prevent ‘harassment’ on it’s branded bebo site.

A quick search of Bebo indicates the existence of just such a conflict.

Notes

Topics, tags and trends in the blogosphere

Conner Hayes Slides

Looked at (inter)relationship between blogs, and their topics

sought topic related interlink structure
7k blog data set
Muhammad cartoon controversy tracked

Blogosphere user centric vs topic centric Usenet

Clutters of topic sharing blogs are short lived

Strong clusters hold users
but users drift from topics over time

Extreme topic drift increases user falloff

Tags poor method of tracking blog post content

Concept clustering better

A list blogs more similar to one another

more topic focused, consistent – authorities
tags chosen for comprehensibility
tight networks of clusters

C list blogs have higher user entropy

little or no inward linking

Notes

How were A list bloggers defined?

What about Maven Bloggers / influential but narrow popularity – Malcolm Gladwell’s Idea articulated in ‘The Tipping Point

Does user topic drift account for primacy of link aggregator blogs / communities

Collecting community wisdom: integrating social search and social navigation

Jill Freyne Slides

2 Aspects – social browsing and social search, combined to augment search of Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library (popular computer science pub database – with browsing and search navigation)

KnowledgeSea – social browsing

Collates anonymized browsing history
Provides the capacity for digg like ratings and annotation

iSpy – social search

Reranks results based on previous keyword searches by user group
Icon based visual cues on rating etc

Combined and integrated both systems – increased search efficacy
Notes

where’s the hook for students to build this system – are legal restrictions keeping the content closed ?

would it not be better to use off the shelf digg / del.icio.us like solutions ? alternately light weight sem web client on top of existing networks of databases ?

Quirky mystery meat interface – why do academic database sits have to be so unusable

Annotations could be used to increase utility of abstract

No information provided on stat significance of results

Control group browsing history is artificially useful seed for social group
How to compare trained systems fairly?

The demand for search in a social network

Andrew Page Slides

Founders of Bigulu – Bebo search, 2 Phd students

May expand to other networks

Crawls Bebo to allow superior profile search based on keyword, age, gender, location

Estimate Bebo at 7m users not 25m as claimed !

Slow linear growth of Bigalu

Sem web API would aid search and data migration

New features – inc user popularity (like Facebook radar)

Inbound links as social distance cue to search

limitations on social scraping due to private profiles etc

Notes

What is user persistence like?

Could they be underestimating Bebo network due to islands (isolated nodes or clusters – social darknets) ?

Is ‘low attention span’ really a function of high efficacy expectation

Are assumptions about viral growth of Bebo correct? Implied signup active network discrepancy

Where is the knowledge: reflections on social networking in corporate environments

Gabriela Avram Slides

(Virtual) ethnographic study of collaborative work practices

IBM Dublin software lab

Technology as tool inseparable from culture

technofetishism (sysadmin) vs fluffy-bunnies (people persons)
tools should be tailored to users
human guides to knowledge repositories vital
social networks facilitate knowledge aquisition

Lotus Messenger tool

IM – integrates: blog, wiki, org chart, social bookmarks, presence, contact details
Used to request ad-hoc meeting attendance
Used to reduce steps to data acquisition
Documents can link to individuals
Real time back channel in meetings

Data Retention

Legal and practical requirements to archive data
creates and enforces etiquette
no interdiction on personal contact – social honor enforces

Successful campaigns on the Bebo social network

Mark Tarbatt Slides

Small list of clients – A list Irish sites

Daft, Eircom, RTE, Bebo etc

Sell to ad agencies and brands

Internet only 1% Irish advertising market
UK internet ad budget = 2X Irish ALL media budget
Ireland € 24 per user, UK € 80 per user

Main income to Bebo (other than VC) = ads

All major Irish net spending brands advertise
Brand budget (overall) – 140k – 600k (top ten)
Some brands shy away from user content areas – use frontpage etc

Bebo top site for under 17 in Ireland (comscore)

Average visit 75mins ! (of 3 hour session)
95% reach
drops off list of top sites in older categories
Use by corps like Mcdonalds under pressure not to kidvertise on TV

Relevance, customer interaction / relationship to brand

Options

Sidebar ads
Branded profiles (eg: Disney Cars)
Branded Bebo mail window
Clickable in video advertisement tickers

Texter widget – Moco – € 2 a week

Anti sponsor brand comments / groups (eg: killer coke) would probably be removed

Notes

Ethics of Bebo spread? Via address book spam?

Growth of Facebook a threat?

Lack of direct access in school has not limited popularity

Corruption of utility of social media in ‘brand interaction’

Interesting to note bebo added comment moderation not in response to cyber bullying but concerns of Coke – insistence on stifling branded profile criticism

Texter widget is misleading

initially video states that service is free
only mentions charges towards end of video

Keynote: Social network analysis: 1987-2007

Valdis Krebs Slides

Any kind of network can be mathematically mapped

from social networks to computer networks
social / organisational network analysis
Inflow software

‘Highly between person’ connects networks

analogous to Gladwells superconnector

David Krackhardt – organisational structure related to power

Hierarchy, network position, and network knowledge – knowing the map

Six Degrees of Separation = Golden myth

original study flawed (response bias)
Noah Friedkin – UC Santa Barba – Social networks have a horizon
2 step clarity – blind after 4 connections max
outer reaches of network are invisible

Mark Granovetter – one or at most 2 intermediaries useful

in context of information (job) seeking
direct ties most useful of all

IBM and Valdis Krebs – adaptive organisations have higher average reach

data acquired through survey and interview, document sharing etc

Pharmaceutical firms market to opinion leaders

use social network analysis to target doctors who influence drug prescription of contemporaries

Formalising of common interest networks

Bounded vs unbounded (not task / job delimited) networks

Network weaving = analyzing networks to build communities
9/11 hijacker network – built on media published data

conclusion – project teams are similar
task focused group structures do not vary based on task

False positives can emerge from social network analysis

limited inferences can be reasonably drawn

Infrastructures are built on effectiveness not resilience

useful for network attacks

Notes

Evolution of social networks over time? – differ based on organisation evolution? – loose voluntary network migration

Richness of less visible ties?

Does similarity of group structure apply cross culturally?

Group Discussion – Future of social networks

Existing Networks

tribe, livejournal -> myspace -> bebo -> facebook

Do super connectors lead network migration / adoption?

Do teens socialise on social networks, or just mirror existing real world acquaintance?

do users actively resist socialising
are there different socialisation patterns culturally, network determined
Book – republic.com – reinforcement of preexisting connections
social networks not scale free

Social networks as dating substitute – exhibitionism

display, personality branding
rating and identity definition
utility of maintenance of connections over time
forking elitist / domain specific networks

Social networks -> open id -> light sem web clients -> device based ad hoc attentional aggrigators

carrying groups between networks
open attentional data
open identity data
balance of privacy, security, reputation and freedom

Hardware versions of my blog log / twitter

mobile ubiquitous anonymised positional aggregation
variety of possible consequences
loss of privacy vs great utility
branded flash mobs – ala Dublin’s black parade
social network manipulation and politicisation
SNA used to infer guilt by association / track dissidents
pattern matching by employers

Comparative safety of blogging – distance from ‘online friends’

Exaggerated fears of predation

Reputation as currency