What Is Air?

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air-we-breathYou can’t see air, but it’s inside us, all around us, pushing down on us, blowing past us, and most importantly keeping us alive. For something so important to life on Earth, it seems incredible we give it so little consideration. Out of sight and out of mind; or so you think. You know you’re soaking in it?

Yes, soaking in it: so relax. And unwind. Gas is just like water, its just much, much thinner. The atmosphere at sea level is just like an invisible ocean and the roar of the wind is the sound of invisible waves crashing around us. The reason we can’t see the air as it moves around us is because individual gas particles are so tiny and so far apart, all we see are the empty spaces between them. Gases as a rule are about 800-1000 times less dense than liquids. That means if you condensed all the air in the room into liquid, it would only cover the floor in a layer an inch thick.

Even if we could see gas particles, at room temperature they are moving at a speed close to 7200mph (11500kph). They fly around until they bump into something, like a wall, like you, like each other. Then, they just fly off again in the opposite direction to bump into something else again. As the band Captain Pyjama sang all those years ago, “Wind blows, through the windows. Who knows where it goes, from here?”

So just like a fish in the water we animals are moving around through a sea of gas. The words water and air sound nice to the human ear, after all we cherish their meaning. The reality is that both these earthly entities are nothing but a seething mass of chemical soup. An animated soup that creates chemical reactions, to create new chemicals; to create new reactions. Its how life evolved on this planet. Maybe even on others. Chemicals, reaction, creation, soup.

The atmosphere would have been very different 4.6 billion years ago when lightning struck the cauldron of Hades and in that soup life began. From that point on, life took and then gave back to the soup, one converting the other in an endless cycle of chemical change. Today the atmosphere is completely different to how it was then. The same atmosphere that gave life billions of years ago would kill all life on this planet today. The second law of thermodynamics states that chemical soups change their flavor the longer they are left, and that’s what all soups do. It also proves its probably best not to piss in a swimming pool.

Today on our planet, the air made up of three main gases, nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%) and argon (0.93%). The remaining 0.07% is made up of carbon dioxide (0.035%), neon (0.002%), water (0.001%) and then the merest traces of methane, helium, krypton, hydrogen and xenon. The miracle of life depends on the oxygen-carbon dioxide cycle. Animals breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide(CO2), while the plants take the CO2 and convert it back to oxygen. This is the essence of mother nature and the reason you don’t want to piss in the pool. Disturb this balance and the world will end up a very different place.

As for the rest of the gases on the list, all are non-toxic to humans unless encountered in high enough concentrations that they can asphyxiate us. Which is a good thing, because all of those gases go into lungs with each breath and then into our blood. It’s a bit creepy when you think all those gases are dissolved in your blood right now. To be so intimate with chemicals you might never have even heard of. If it makes you feel any better, the Krypton and Xenon in your blood right now is pure and natural.

Speaking of natural, there are a lot of unnatural products that also find their way into the air. Technically you might want to refer to this as non-natural air. Particulate matter, industrial fallout and the poisonous carbon monoxide from engine exhaust, toxic industrial ozone, radon, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide are all mixed into the air we breathe. Before you reach for a mask and reach for the medical oxygen, take a deep breath and relax. Unless the air outside is brown and hazy you’re probably safe for now.

After all, you’ve been breathing it in for years. The good, the bad and the ugly. It’s been in your lungs, through your blood and back out into the big wide world where some of it feeds the trees and creates the weather. So maybe its best not to think too much, about this wonderful, invisible blanket drawn across our rocky world, for without it, the planet would be a dry, barren rock devoid of life. Maybe we should just appreciate it for what it is and what it gives. And to remember that just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.

A Utopian Vision: Recycled Waste and a Happy Planet

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recycled-aluminium-cansFor many there is a belief that the developed world is drowning in its own waste, and to some extent that is true. The combination of mass produced goods and consumer economies has given rise to our disposable society where we send these items to the trash once we’re done with them. But the news isn’t all bad. There is a revolution afoot that is changing the way we dispose of our waste and pointing to a brighter future.

There is already a trend toward household recycling, however less than 20% of household waste can be reclaimed through this process. Of greater concern is that our commercial and industrial sectors still dump the majority of their waste into landfill or industrial graveyards. These often toxic compounds present a long term threat to the environment and until now this has been seen as the best way to deal with this problem.

The ultimate solution would be to eliminate waste products completely by recycling everything we throw away. That might seem like an impossible task, but there are already a number of technologies and processes that realise the value of recycling in ways that we don’t often think about. After all, who would have thought there was money to be made from recycling human sewage?

Yes, the cheapest, nastiest and smelliest waste has real value- so much so one day we might see it traded on commodity markets. Who would have thought that recycled human sewage (sorry, biosolids) could yield such riches. Full of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, as well as other micronutrients, the waste products from our digestive processing are precisely what we need to help feed a growing global population. So as peak phosphorus bites and nutrient depleted soils lower global crop yields, expect the value of your excrement to go through the roof. It is clear proof that good economics can make just about anything palatable.

Although some might worry about fertilising the foods they like to eat with the bits they can’t digest, the real focus should be on the food that is allowed to go waste. According to the UN, the developed world wastes around 30% of its foodstuffs, most of it destined to landfill.

Seizing on this opportunity, the new Harvest Power sites use the same basic biochemical principles of composting green waste to convert rotting food stuffs to methane for electricity generation and fertilisers for soil improvement. While any outcome that sees food waste being utilised is welcomed, it hardly addresses the injustice faced by those going to bed hungry.

Of the hard rubbish discarded in urban environs, most is linked directly to the consumer product cycle. The recycling of scrap metals, plastics, paper, rubber and textiles allows these commodities to be re-introduced to the production cycle at a low cost. The Chinese have recognised this value add and are already the world’s largest importer of trash, taking it from the OECD nations and then converting it back into consumer products for those very countries. But although the industry is estimated to be headed toward a global value of around $1 trillion by 2020, it remains very labour intensive with much of that figure tied up in the transportation, sorting and recovery of the base materials.

An interesting alternative to the recycling process is underway in Sweden, which has banned all landfill. Just like the Harvest Power model, it too has taken to burning its trash as a means of producing electricity. And while there are merits in this approach, the downside is that the process converts waste (to energy and ash) rather than recycling the products for reuse.

The holy grail of recycling is to find a clean, green commercially viable process that reduces waste back to its raw components. Thankfully the development of the plasma incinerator is making this dream a step closer to reality. Essentially the plasma incinerator is a futuristic furnace that uses an electrical arc (like lightening) to atomise all trash (including metals) to their base constituents. The plasma reaches temperatures so high that everything inside this souped up oven is converted back to pure compounds suitable for use as raw materials. It might sound as science-fiction as Doc Brown powering the DeLorean with food scraps, but the plasma incinerator is already a reality, with several test sites operating around the world.

Perhaps these advances will eventually put an end to the disposable society and redefine the way we view and deal with waste. Maybe these technologies will even allow consumer products to become part of a continuous cycle that imitates nature rather than threatens it. Either way, it is not often that technology is linked to utopian outcomes, but if we can eliminate the environmental threat posed by our modern lifestyles, we may well be on our way to a cleaner earth and a sustainable future.

Watch FiST Chat 162: Turn Rotten Food In To Energy for more on this topic.

Solving The Mystery of Flight MH370

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Why we should always look for the most probable scenario

malaysian-airlines-flight-mh370-searchHumans are always searching for answers. It is a natural trait inherent to all intelligent species. Sometimes we can observe and test our theories in order to understand what is happening around us. But sometimes, when observation is impossible we tend to put forward the most plausible theory even though it is not the most probable scenario. The difference at times can be subtle, but the accuracy can be starkly different.

From the moment that humanity came into existence there were questions. They were not easily answered, but there were clues. That the God who throws lightning bolts through the skies is the same God that placed us on this earth kind of makes sense, whether or not you believe in a deity. Pixies at the bottom of the garden, sea monsters from the deep and Sasquatch in the forests are all explanations that refer to things we’ve seen but can’t explain. This is why universally, irrespective of culture, that scared children know there are monsters lurking in the shadows.

Of course if you stop and think about any of the above examples, the actual evidence for the existence of the causative entities is scarce. We rely heavily on our sight to make sense of the world, so a noise, a gust of air, a smell or a touch must often be verified by seeing the cause. When we need to be sure we will look for clues, search for a credible explanation just like looking for faces in the clouds. The reality is that while this might work some of the time, very often our search for answers misleads us into drawing the wrong conclusions.

Sadly it seems as I write this, the wreckage missing Malaysian Airline Flight 370 has been found somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, over two weeks after it and its 239 passengers and crew vanished during a routine flight. There have been all manner of theories around its disappearance ranging from terrorism, conspiracy, sabotage, pilot suicide and even meteor strike. All of these scenarios are possible. Yet strangely the public speculation is fuelling the thought that these theories are more likely than a catastrophic malfunction during flight.

So why is it that simplest and most obvious explanation was initially overwhelmed by the more dramatic theories? Is it because the Boeing 777 airplane has one of the best safety records in the sky and therefore human intervention had to have a hand in what happened? Add this to the fact that the plane flew on for hours after it appeared the communications systems on the plane had been manually disabled, pilots have been known to go rogue and there were individuals travelling on stolen passports on board. This information was released piecemeal, with day by day contradictions as the multi-national search team struggled for clues. It is not surprising that in the absence of any hard evidence, many observers constructed a terror scenario to fit the facts.

The search for the plane has revealed just how incredible the communications technology at our disposal is. That the plane could be tracked by an intermittent ‘ping’ sent from its engines to the satellites above is amazing. The ‘ping’ was nothing more than a ‘hello’ sent back from a working engine to the engine manufacturer. It carried no data and wasn’t even designed to locate the plane, but the signal strength allowed the position of each ping to be tracked and ultimately lead the search parties to the right location. From there authorities will calculate the location crash zone by analysing wind and water currents in that remote part of the planet. Finding the crash site is now a race against time, if we are ever to have answers to this mystery.

If they do find the wreckage and locate the black box recorder from MH370 it will be an incredible collaborative effort by all parties involved in this international search. It might also shed light as to what happened on that final flight. So far despite all the opinions put forward there is only one that has analysed the facts as we know them and come up with the most probable solution. For that reason, Chris Goodfellow’s article is a must read. Like any good investigator, he keeps an open mind and examines the facts as we know them, without speculation.

It is a timely reminder that no matter what the situation; in the absence of validated information, we should always stick with the simplest and most likely scenario until there is hard evidence that points another more probable outcome.

Be Big On YouTube

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Tips and tricks for making films that everyone will love

be-big-on-youtubeBen and I have been talking about filmmaking over the last two weeks, mainly focusing on ways to produce dramatic films that require a script with dialogue, cast and crew.

While YouTube, Vimeo or even Facebook are great destinations for these productions, getting an online audience for films above 3 minutes in length seems to be quite difficult. Is it because that’s the maximum attention span of a YouTube user? Is it because three minutes of goofing off is all you can get away with at work? Maybe it is a myth that anyone wants to watch a feature length film on a 3 inch screen.

Whatever the case when it comes to attracting a digital audience, short is best. But the real secret to making a short film that everyone will love is that it needs to be real. Give us a connection to the world around us. Reality is the new documentary! Here are my top five categories (in no particular order) of on-line film. These categories are tried, tested and proven. Better still, anyone can make one of these films. So if you want to be popular, post a film that fits into one of these topics.

Funniest home videos

Yes, they may be the lowest form of entertainment and you can hate them all you want, but “lol” cats, funny pets and any home-engineered tom foolery that ends in concussion are all guaranteed to find an audience. These videos don’t need a script, they just need a camera. If you have access to CCTV you can post your own classics like Carwash Crash Bang and allow others to share those moments when things go wrong. The Russian’s are great contributors to this style of filmmaking as most motorists seem to have dash cams rolling on every journey: for obvious reasons. Alternately the wedding video of a guest collapsing a tent dancing will also be guaranteed views. You can’t plan this sort of content, but if your hamster can do a trick, if your toddler can dance and lip sync, or if you captured a spectacular disaster it is your duty to share it now.

Magic tricks/optical illusions

Everyone loves a good magic trick and there are plenty of short videos with cool illusions by great magicians, but there are also some excellent instructional clips for would be magicians. For science buffs there are even some cool science tricks you can perform for audiences of any ages. Whether you love watching magic, or you’d like to liven up your next dinner party by trying a trick or two, these popular clips are the place to start. Likewise optical illusions are just as much fun and there is no shortage of amazing clips that will fool you into seeing the impossible and/or messing with your eyesight for a few moments.

Instructional videos

You might not even think of it as a special skill, but there might be 100,000 people out there also trying to fix a threadless headstem on their scooter. Whether you need to know how to apply makeup, or how to press a dumbbell, or use any digital device, it is all there, step by step for you to follow. So if you have something to share, and you have a camera handy, make a quick video. Somewhere down the track it’s bound to help someone out.

Microscopy

Ever wondered how a ring forms in a coffee mug, or what a butterfly looks like up real close or how a killer t-cell attacks cancer: these fascinating videos are already up and attracting thousands of views. There are even instructional videos on how to turn your smartphone into a microscope, allowing us all to explore the amazing world that exists beneath our normal vision.

Timelapse

It used to be the realm of professional photographers, but now, thanks to technology, patience is the only skill required to make great timelapse clips. With just a simple idea you can create a stunning visual sequence that will resonate with most viewers. But be warned, the real value in timelapse is the time taken to produce the clip. Decomposing fruit might take months, as might a stunning travelogue but you really can’t beat a selfie that takes 12 years to produce.

If you or a friend have posted any popular clips you’ve made yourself, let us know at FiST Chat. We’d love to share them too.

GoPro, Black Magic, Smartphones, Cloud Storage, And Social Media Tips For Modern Filmmaking

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old-filmmaking-camera-digital-storageBen and I have seen a lot of changes in filmmaking since we began swinging our mini-dv cameras around. Back then digital video was just starting to become popular. Small digital cameras were shipping with three (ccu’s) chips and broadcast quality (standard definition) resolution. For under $10 000 it was possible to create your own production house with one of these cameras and an Apple G4 for post-production.

But the film-making process was still an intensive process. Every minute of vision captured, required a minute of tape rolled for capture to hard drive. Every edit required a render. Every finished clip had to be output back to tape. Every tape ended up in a wardrobe for safe keeping.

Today things are different though. Opportunities exist to make films, quickly and easily, with small cast and crews simply by using the technology that exists around you; provided you have a decent script you can make a great film, so concentrate your efforts there. While today’s technology can’t help with the writing, it can help with the production: so here’s a few tips how.

Cameras

Cameras are everywhere, cameras are cheap and there is a camera for every occasion. Pro-video and still cameras might offer better lenses and low light performance, but they create big files that need specialist media players for viewing. Having said that, what these cameras offer is truly amazing.

Blackmagic Design Cinema

This camera is still a little ahead of its time, but it’s as big a game changer as the GoPro was 3 years ago. With a proper lens and a 4k capacity, stills or video this tiny camera really will allow you to shoot a Hollywood quality film for under A$2000. The only drawback is the format in RAW or ProRes, so you’ll need a decent editing system for the cut. But if you haven’t got access to a pro-set up, to speed things up you can try the following:

Mobile Phones

Your mobile phone probably has 1080p capability and is always ready to go in seconds. With a viewer larger than most DV cam’s you can sit your phone in a custom tripod, or wield it in your hand. With practice, you can get shots every bit as good as a steady cam. Files are immediately viewable and shareable. Great outdoors, but not so good indoors and/or in low light.

Action Cams

GoPros are small, wearable and great for getting POV perspectives in action situations, but they also work just as well in normal situations. I shot an outdoor wedding this week using two GoPros on a bright sunny day. The vision looks amazing, bright blue skies, vivid garden views and a beautiful blushing bride. Cameras were controlled remotely and shots were framed using phone apps. It was so quick and easy to turn around, the clips were played back on screen at the reception. Of course these cameras work even better in outdoor action scenes like surfing, skydiving or rally driving. Search online for action clips to see just how good these cameras are.

Creating a film and storing it

Once you’ve shot your film the next step is to assemble it into a story. There are many ways to do this. iMovie, Windows Moviemaker or Sony Vegas will all take the .mp4 / .mov files you have shot on your cameras and let you piece individual clips together to make a masterpiece.

Rather than having a closet full of tapes, your wild files can all be stored locally on a hard drive. To back them up you can send them up to the cloud where they will be safe forever. However, if you don’t want to pay for cloud storage you can always send them to your Dropbox, or YouTube and keep them there until later if needed.

The DVD is dead. Saving and Sharing:

Of course once you have your finished film there are even more digital storage solutions to keep it safe. But you can also store your finished film permanently in places where it can also be viewed. YouTube and Vimeo are usually the first stop for placing your content in front of an audience. But Facebook also has a video engine that allows you to share and store your film. There are also a whole range of independent film sites you can upload your film to which have the added bonus of embedding your film inside a filmmaking community. Choose a site that shares your philosophy and passion for film making and not only will you have viewers, but you might also find contacts that may lead to further projects.

With so many options and opportunities there are no longer any excuses. The time for talking about making films is well and truly over. For just a few hundred dollars, and with a little passion and desire there is nothing to stop you making a fantastic film that you can share immediately with your friends, family and fans.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 159: Storing and Archiving Film and Video.

Wikipedia: Other Stuff Exists

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And 3 simple things we can do to share our knowledge

wikipedia-free-encylcopedia-online-informationBen and I had an interesting discussion in our latest FiST Chat about Wikipedia and its importance as an online repository for human knowledge. It would surely be impossible to find anyone who doesn’t value Wikipedia for its fantastic contribution to open sourced information. That being said, Wikipedia will only ever be as good as the contributions it receives. Quality can only be maintained by the efforts of the volunteers who give their time and attention to ensure the accuracy of the posts. With that in mind should all of us be spending our time online more usefully and perhaps contributing to sensible content where possible?

For the most part Wikipedia gets it right. Four of the 5 pillars that guide Wikipedia’s open source contributors include: that it is an encyclopaedia, it is neutral; it is free, open and respectful. The 5th pillar is that Wikipedia does not have firm rules to govern its contributions and in this it includes, “do not agonise about making mistakes”. One can’t argue with the spirit in which this directive is intended, but in practice, this raises the all-important matter of accuracy. A respected encyclopaedia just can’t afford to be wrong; and it is downright dangerous to rely on some member of the online community to repair the damage an error taken as fact might cause.

And what of the ‘missing’ information that possibly should be found on Wikipedia but nobody has ever taken the time to post? Check out the other stuff exists page to see the extension of this debate. There is a danger that these omissions could result in some parts of our historical knowledge being overlooked, or that the overwriting of events over time will only ever reflect the colour of popular opinion. Whatever your thoughts on this might be, for some there will be comfort in that fact that this will continue to increase the value of the printed knowledge found in books long after the last press has stopped.

So what can any of us do about this? Well, as citizens of the digital age it really is up to us to rectify all the errors and omissions in our knowledge base. Wikipedia promotes this very worthy cause itself, but of course not everyone has the time or interest to become an editor on Wikipedia. Yet there are ways in which we can all do our bit just by contributing online. Here are three simple ideas you can try.

Share your knowledge of a special subject

If you have an area of expertise as a professional or even as a hobby, please share your interest. Write an article, take some photos, make a video and connect to others who share your passion. Even if you don’t know how to share online, there will be plenty of others who do (like bloggers who share your interest), and they will be happy to do it for you. Knowledge doesn’t have to appear on Wikipedia to be accessible or important, it just has to appear anywhere people can find it.

Make your own History

The online environment has been a boon to the Genealogy craze. Everyone suddenly seems to have an interest in family trees, history and records. Digital records are easy to create and very easy to share thanks to the internet. Often we forget that living people may have been a part of historical events. Primary sources of information are often very interesting. If you have a friend or relative who was at Woodstock in 1969, or was there at Dealey Plaza in Nov 1963 or was anywhere else of interest, get them to write about their experiences, or record an interview with them. Post it somewhere in the cloud, on YouTube, in Facebook, and share it as widely as possible. Sometime in the future, people will thank you, and you’re descendants will be so happy you took the time to introduce them to their Great-great grandparents.

Run you own campaign

If you feel strongly about an issue, get a group together to do something about it. Recently the Royal Society ran a crowd-sourced Wikipedia-edit-a-thon to improve the number and quality of Wikipedia entries that feature the achievements of women in science. This is a particularly important issue, as historically female contributions to every field of science have been marginalised by the men who have dominated the field. Campaigns like this not only find supporters to assist with the work (and in this case there was a lot of it), but also draw public attention to the cause.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 158: Wikipedia Vs The Traditional Encyclopedia.

WhatsApp with Facebook Fraud? 19 billion reasons to Instagram the competition

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facebook-ads-value-advertisRecently Derek Muller from Veritasium posted a YouTube video titled Facebook Fraud. Described as evidence that Facebook’s revenue is based on fake likes, it has been a social media sensation. As a result, the video clip has not only registered more than 1.5 million views in just a few weeks, but it has also attracted an incredible amount of commentary.

The video demonstrates that paid promotion of Facebook pages ultimately result in fake likes from click-farms. If that wasn’t bad enough the flood of fake likes from these click-farmed individuals then drives down genuine reach and engagement on the page you paid to promote. So in essence, once you start to pay for promotion, that page will require further paid posts just to have the same effectiveness as it would if you paid nothing at all. For those that are not familiar with the workings of Facebook, simply put, the more you pay to promote your page, the smaller your audience becomes. This of course is the exact opposite of what anyone paying for advertising would want.

Of course this has led to some classically predictable commentary (or online comedy) with people lining up to stick the boot into Facebook, trying to be the first to say, “I told you so”, or predicting the end of Facebook’s business model. On the other side of the fence are those seizing the opportunity to write blogs about the benefits of this counter-intuitive system, or how good marketing skills and digital strategies can circumvent this minor issue. As ridiculous as it seems, it’s hard not to agree with all of it.

For a start, this sham business model doesn’t affect the ‘classic’ Facebook user. Those that genuinely connect to friends and family, who use it to post pictures, message friends and connect their social network will never encounter this situation. It does however have serious implications for those attempting to use Facebook as a store front for their own businesses online. The system as it presently stands rules out the perceived capacity to set up a Facebook shopfront to a billion individuals and trade successfully overnight. Ironically it means that just like any bricks and mortar store, Facebook shop owners must build a genuine clientele through the social network itself. Anyone who has done this in real life or online will know this is a painstaking task that done right can take years. After all, if it was really that easy, everyone would be Facebook millionaires.

This expose’ really does put the Facebook business model in a precarious situation. Facebook has made its money promising those that paying for advertising gets access to larger audiences. If this is not the case, then the reality is that there is nothing to pay for and Facebook has been misleading advertisers. It also raises questions beyond the click farms and warrants an independent investigation of how many genuine profiles Facebook actually has. Research shows that 90% of online audiences are largely inert and 10% of genuine users possess click farm personalities and will like/click anything in front of them anyway. If this is the case you would think Facebook shares would plummet. But they won’t because the majority of Facebook investors probably don’t understand the basics of social media.

That aside you can be sure that the hoodies behind Facebook have known about this weakness in their business model ever since they foisted it on the public via their share offering. Since 2010 Facebook has acquired over 20 apps and 10 companies, often purchasing them at way above their market value; leaving many of us wondering why the Bureau of Competition isn’t asking questions. The answer as revealed in the Veritasium video is simple. Facebook has widely overstated its number of real users in its rush to market. While there is a solid core of people who use the social network as it was originally intended, these personal networks are not as open or easy to reach through advertising as might be suggested.

But it seems Facebook has already found a quick fix for the problem. Instagram and WhatsApp are both social media applications used by real people to communicate to each other. The former is an image sharing app, purchased for $1 billion price tag, the latter a mobile SMS service just purchased for $19 billion. Their value is not actually in the app, which Facebook could create themselves if they wanted, nor is it a strategy to prevent drift away from the blue and white timeline. The value is that in these purchases Facebook also acquires the genuine audiences using these apps. The added bonus is that many of these people (Instagram 150million/ WhatsApp 400million), quite possibly don’t use Facebook regularly but can now suddenly (and unwittingly), be included as part of the Facebook audience.

We’ve seen from the Facebook app Paper that the social network knows where it is headed in the future. They obviously have plans to combine all their platforms into a personalised content stream. The only hitch so far is that their business model requires genuine profiles and people, not click-farmers. Ultimately the solution has been as simple as buying a real audience from wherever they currently exist.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 157: Does Facebook Advertising Work?