Month: May 2012

Facebook: like or unlike?

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Last week’s Facebook IPO is a milestone for the social media industry and its meteoric rise over the last decade. It signals the coming of age for social media, recognizes ‘information’ as a commodity and establishes a commercial value for any other business in the same sector.

facebook1When you really think about it, Facebook is a marvellous idea. In its original form it was little more than a personalised webpage, which could be regularly updated. It was a simple format, with an easy layout that allowed you to share your personal activities with friends. All Facebook provided was the standard template and a web-based network, you provided the ‘friends’ and the content. That was what the site was designed to do, it was free with no strings attached; people ‘liked’ Facebook.

Fast forward to the present, and Facebook is the premiere social media site, boasting 900million users, thousands of shareholders, offering mobile access, video calling, advertising and sales, informatics, apps, social/media impact campaigns, the list goes on and on. The enterprise is now valued by the markets at around $100billion- very impressive, especially considering you still provide the ‘friends’ and content. Facebook still provides the user with a template and network for free, but creates monetary value from controlling the network and accumulating data about its users which it can then on-sell.

What is truly remarkable is the nature of this social media business. Facebook grew with the evolution of the online community, in an amazing and dynamic symbiosis. Mark Zuckerberg has been both inspirational and at times visionary in his approach, but it would be misguided to suggest he could have planned this, no one could have. Rather his brilliance has been to sense and harness the mood and the needs of the Facebook users and in essence create two intimately connected businesses, one for the users and one for the advertisers.

facebook4With the listing of Facebook on the bourse he has now added a new business situation to the equation that may start to complicate matters. Shareholders want returns, company value is pegged to share price and profits. In this case, profits depend on happy advertisers, which depend on happy Facebook users and the information and networks they generate around themselves. Such is the nature of the social medium, should this balance is upset for some reason, then the entire enterprise could be left behind as quickly as we’ve seen Blackberry and Nokia lose their markets.

At the moment there are no competitors to Facebook, and any potential competition has been bought out quickly. While this can be done easily as a private company, it might be more difficult for a public company to do so without the approval of shareholders. Some of this could even be considered anti-competitive, although its hard to see how current laws could be applied in this situation. A significant privacy scandal could also cause an exodus that would see Facebook’s popularity wane. With a focus on profit maximisation working against the needs of users, a scenario such as this becomes all the more likely.

But social media is business built around human behaviour, and our species is a strange one. We can be convinced to follow all manner of fashions until our interest fades. On Facebook it only takes a single click to ‘unlike’.

Watch FiST Chat 69: Facebook Goes Public for more on this topic.

A human put the Z in Antz

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As the planets self proclaimed most intelligent species, it’s a little unsettling to find our society compared to that of the social insects like ants, bees and wasps. And although there is almost no similarity between our species on an individual basis, it is kind of eerie that in some respects the way we humans live in our super cities has much in common with the super colonies of ants.

ants2Ant super colonies may consist of millions of individuals and spread for vast distances, covering hundreds of kilometres. Sounds familiar? Researchers are fascinated by how ants maintain their networks and social structures in these situations. After all, humans and ants have little in common physically, and can’t be compared for in IQ. Intelligence is a human construct, but while individual ants are considered ‘limited’, as a colony they have proven to have a group intelligence capable of problem solving.

Ants don’t communicate by word of mouth, but they do communicate through chemical expression of pheromones and physical interactions with other ants. It is speculated by some that this form of communication works a bit like an ant Facebook, allowing them to send and receive messages (without blogs or images) across distances, from other ants they will never know or meet. Sounds weird, sure, but hey, humans seem to think it’s a brilliant idea good enough to invest in.

Social insects also have a highly defined social order and so researchers have focused on this in the hope of unlocking the secrets of human group behaviour. It is true that ants live in a very ordered society characteristic of humans. As a result, films such as Spielberg’s ANTZ can take the hierarchical aspects of ant life and humanize them in such a way we not only find them familiar, but also compelling.

ants1With that perspective in mind, ants have been studied for answers on everything from predicting share market behaviour, to crowd movement, to electronic communication networks. But the surprising outcome of this research has been that instead of finding how ant colonies behave like human colonies, we now see that human colonies are slowly adopting some ant-like social behaviours.

So how can it be a sophisticated, sentient species like humans, has anything to learn from insects and why are we, errrgh, becoming more like them? Well until recent times, humans like most mammals lived in smaller communities where most individuals were in direct contact with the others in their clan. With the rise of super cities, the emphasis has moved away from the individual toward the wider community and the division of labour. Once the members of human settlements adopted specialist jobs or duties this allowed modern civilisation to form- where one person’s life is reliant upon someone they might never meet- like sanitation, sewerage and road maintenance workers.

The theory is that by understanding how ant colonies can communicate and maintain social order across such great population numbers and enormous distances we humans might benefit. But while this might result in better communications networks, we should remember that ants don’t have emotions, a sense of being, personality or even the concept of a ‘future’.

What we can really learn from ants is that like humans, they can only access finite resources to maintain and sustain their colony. Unlimited growth of any colony is impossible without infinite resources- and both ants and humans have proven that many times through history.

Watch FiST Chat 68: Humans Are Actually Ants for more on this topic.

Help The World

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The most important invention of the 20th Century was without doubt the silicon chip. It ushered in a new era of post-industrial prosperity for the Western world and revolutionised the very nature of communication, through the rise of mobile phones, email and the internet. This removed the constraints on communication imposed by time and geography and allowed the process of globalisation to commence.

phil2But while globalisation hasn’t always come with the benefits promised, communication technologies are now starting to make real differences in the developing world. The spread of low cost, phones and computers combined with the spread of global communication networks is enabling many in developing nations to access useful knowledge and information via the internet.

While the cynical might mock the benefits of exporting Google tracked searches, pop-up advertising, on-line shopping, porn and spam to all corners of the globe, the reality is that access to the internet means so much more to those in need. Beyond the standard consumer based services and activities, the internet has a real capacity to empower the communities who need it most.

Access to information on education, health, social policy, commerce, government, agriculture and communications democratize science and technology allowing individuals and organizations alike to both network and exchange information. It provides a pathway for people to learn and improve their lives through education and cooperation, and does this with the added potential for cultural exchange.

phil3There is no question that access to information and knowledge advance and empower underprivileged communities, and over the long term prove to be the most effective form of aid to developing nations. That’s why its important that all of us as global citizens take the time to contribute the very worthy cause of helping others in any way we can. Even more so when it comes to education.

Although education is valued highly in developing nations, schools are often poorly resourced. Despite excellent teachers and dedicated students who happily attend school 6 days a week, the lack of basic educational materials and resources often means classes and curriculum are very basic in design and delivery.

My visit to Dhruba Tara school in Nepal in 2005 opened my eyes to the many challenges schools in developing nations face. You can see for yourself the conditions many students find themselves in by viewing this short documentary housed on Film Annex. http://www.filmannex.com/movie/dhruba-tara-a-school-in-nepal/17448 If you wish to assist this program further, please contact the Nepalese-Australia Friendship Association at the email address seen at the start of the film.

So its great to see Film Annex now setting up an internet classroom in an Afghan school. The introduction of the internet to schools like these allow access to on-line knowledge and experiences which can make up for a lack of books and materials. It allows bright-eyed kids thirsty for knowledge to explore and learn more about the world. It helps them aspire to a better life for themselves, their community and their country.

So do your bit, get online and search for a cause. You can make a microdonation to a small community enterprise, you can send textbooks to a school, sponsor a student or just share your knowledge with someone who needs it. It only take a few clicks to make friends and help those in need make a better future for themselves. And the best bit is that thanks to the silicon chip, you can be a very real part of it.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 67: Better Philanthropy Through Technology.

4K v 3D: ultra hi-resolution without glasses

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3D-3By the end of this year a brand new format for moving pictures will appear before our eyes in all its brilliant ultra-high definition glory. In the most significant advance in motion-picture technology since the first celluloid film was developed, 4K represents a massive watershed for the production industries, content providers and moving picture enthusiasts.

For those that haven’t heard of it, 4K is a new digital format for moving images that has been quietly developed over the last 10 years and is destined to re-invent cinema and home entertainment. Discussion of screen resolution is always a very tricky affair, but a very basic explanation is HDTV has a resolution of 1K, traditional film, chemically developed has a notional resolution of 2K and so the new format will have twice the detail again. The motion picture industry will soon shift to 4K as its production format and the major electronics companies will start releasing 4K capable Ultra High Definition Televisions by the end of this year.

3D-2So what will this mean besides having to completely upgrade your home entertainment system? Well firstly, it represents the passing of film (celluloid) into the annals of history along with Kodak, as well as the most significant technological advance in the motion picture industry since the advent of sound. By comparison it makes other notable technologies like 3D and CGI seem relatively ordinary.

This is because 4K is a whole new ballgame and the marketing will be massive. Of course Hollywood will still produce the same second rate offerings we’re used to, but now you will see them so much more clearly in the cinema or at home. The hype you’re used to hearing will be a little closer to the mark- finally it really will be like being there, (well almost). Screens in Cinemas and at home will be larger, clearer and you will have to sit further away from them to enjoy the added resolution.

But once you get past the hype of 4K, and understand it is the next step in digital convergence, its significance is revealed. The new format will allow cinematographers to create stunning scenes and sequences for their movies and documentary producers will be able to feature incredible images of science and nature in previously unseen detail. And most importantly, it will eventually be available on any platform, on demand and without a loss of resolution.

To emphasise, the improvement in resolution offered by 4K is far more than a new spec, it’s a totally new format, which will facilitate a range of new viewer experiences. A format that doubles the resolution, brightness and clarity has applications beyond movies that include gaming and simulation scenarios as well. As a result, 4K could even resuscitate the fate of the 3D format within its resolution, finally producing crisp clear three dimensional images while avoiding the unwanted eyestrain that currently affects viewers during longer sessions. This opens the doors to completely new ways of story-telling, which include genuinely interactive scenes and stunning visual experiences that truly immerse the viewer.

So it is time to rest the word ‘film’- from now on its motion picture or movies. The celluloid era is over, replaced by an evolution of technology that provides bigger, better, brighter pictures and richer more detailed experiences. Humans have a close (almost natural) relationship to moving images on a screen. The new 4K technology will take this to a whole new level.

For more on this topic, watch FiST Chat 66: 3D vs 4K.