The Internet was once claimed as the ultimate democratisation of communication. Perhaps it still is, but in a global environment, the current online realm remains an unlikely paradox of fact and fiction. So many people are able to access this virtual world, and use it to connect to other likeminded individuals. There is no truth or confirmation filter on the mass of data uploaded and shared around. Data put there by humans for all sorts of reasons just ‘exists’ like thoughts in the cloud, and it is up to other humans who encounter it to decide its accuracy.
So intricate are the movements of messages, memories and online actions within the internet, some researchers have likened the structure of the internet to that of the human brain. The human brain can use reason and logic to filter misleading information whereas the internet has no such system. The internet entities like Google, Facebook and Twitter create the placeholders through which we communicate, but they exist in an unimaginative monoculture that doesn’t have the capacity to identify reality from fantasy. Is it possible that there is just too much chatter and noise within these networks to separate professional from personal, public from private, truth from fiction?
As journalist Markham Nolan points out, the modern process of news gathering is not such much about finding a story as it is ensuring the story is accurate. Thanks to modern communications and the popular social media channels (especially Twitter), ordinary people now break the news. Wars, natural disasters, scandals and tragedy; if there is a witness, they can broadcast it to the world within seconds. According to Nolan, the job of the journalist is now to make sure that the image uploaded or the statements made are indeed factual and can be relayed to the wider community through a trustworthy news source.
On another note, the more sobering aspect of Nolan’s technique was just how easy it was to verify some stories (using Google maps and other free apps); and Nolan’s comment that he could easily find out personal information about most of us using these tools. It is concerning that an enormous amount of personal data is available via the Internet channels we use, especially as more and more data is collected and stored in the cloud.
Some governments are now linking drivers’ license images to facial recognition software and surveillance cameras. Software that can recognize personal mannerisms (like the way you walk), can also be used to identify you. The proponents of these technologies maintain they are for public safety, but in the modern age these same technologies can be harnessed by crime to target the vulnerable and innocent. Although it is unfashionable to say otherwise, people that post their names and birthdates online, and publish their images, locations and activities in real time are opening themselves to serious exploitation. The next big crisis the Internet and the online community will face is likely to be a new form of identity theft that exploits the mass of personal data available online and creates virtual and fraudulent simulations of innocent individuals. If standard internet apps can be fooled or corrupted by false data, will human intelligence be the last bastion of truth on the net?
But back to the similarities between the internet and the way the human brain works. Some scientists see the communications structure of the internet as analogous to the neural connections formed in our brains. As a result, researchers are constantly developing tools to study the interactions between online networks and information. Will a greater understanding of the online environment give over the mysteries of human intelligence and personality? Could it mean that scientists such as Hayworth will one day discover a way for people to upload themselves to online immortality? Perhaps the real question is not if we can, but why we would?
Watch FiST Chat 98: Unlimited Uploading For All for more on this topic.
Welcome sports fans to London 2012, officially the games of the 30th Olympiad and the last of the modern era. That’s right- the last of the modern era. Due to the explosion of digital technologies, the games of the last 112 years are now about to change forever, morphing into a mix of social media, digital convergence and genetic engineering.
With few exceptions, most sports at the games falls into the individual competition category that only ever attract public interest during the running of the games. Hence the Olympic Games produce a rare breed of free-lance competitor- part hero, part personality and part brand. As way of example, you just don’t get athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps or Melanie Schlanger in regular professional leagues.
It’s for this very reason, the games will change forever after London, and a number of technological developments will create a whole new way for both competitors and fans to experience and interact with one of the greatest shows on earth. Perhaps we will see these predictions come true in the future?
Social Media is already revolutionizing these games. Athletes are keeping fans up to date on their progress 24/7- and commentators are even blaming loses on it. But by the next games in 2016, it’s hard to imagine that any one of the ten thousand athletes competing, won’t be recording their own personal experiences on a smart phone and using twitter, facebook, instagram and/or pinterest to share it with their individual fans. Try as they might, the IOC won’t be able to stop it. When they do the athletes will threaten a boycott, and a breakaway games of their own- perhaps the Goodwill Games will make a comeback?
Which brings us to the games broadcast, and a bold prediction that TV networks (free and paid) will not be coughing up the big bucks they are today for rights in 2020. The way in which we view all content is changing rapidly, and the trend toward on demand and internet delivery to mobile devices will erode networks ability to make money.
This problem is already occurring this time around as traditional media outlets struggle to cover the costs of broadcast rights with advertising. In future expect to view the Olympics through a combination of an Olympic pay wall, and non-exclusive media coverage, quite possibly hosted by your phone and Internet provider. This development will see top athletes become media outlets in their own right, and able to sell their experiences to fans on-line, complete with sponsors branding.
But the biggest change to the games are still a few decades away. In the meantime drugs and doping will become more and more difficult to detect. But by 2020 advances in gene technologies and changes to the rules regulating assisted reproduction, will see drugs and doping obsolete. Extra copies of growth hormone genes added in vitro or genetic trait promoters will produce athletes to order, physically perfect specimens for the sport pre-selected by their parents.
So good luck to all the competitors at London 2012, and for those of us spectating, let’s make the most of the 30th Olympiad. While the excitement of the Olympic Games will continue well into the future, whatever happens we can be sure that they will never quite be the same again.
Watch FiST Chat 79: The Twitter Olympics for more on this topic.
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.
When 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.
With 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.
In recent times the on-line presence of corporate behemoths Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook have given rise to a number of controversies over internet privacy policies. At the heart of these issues are the current business models that necessitate corporations to record your identity, track the sites you visit, store that data in their systems and then target you with personalized advertising.
Google’s new policy allows them to collate your data across the 60 or so Google services provided to online and mobile users. However, this only applies to those that have, and use these services within a Google account.
Under the new policy, once you log into a Google account, the way you use services such as Google search, Google maps, Gmail, YouTube and even your mobile phone (Android) can be tracked, stored and accessed by Google. The result is your on-line experience will now include targeted ads popping up that relate to the websites you visit, the keywords you search for and your location. Google does not offer an opt out on this policy.
So what’s the big deal? Google have flagged these changes openly. What’s more, if you avoid using a Google account and being careful with your history, then its possible to keep much of your web use data generic. By now all users should be aware that no matter what searches or sites they explore (Google or otherwise), someone has a record somewhere. The days of online anonymity and privacy have been gone for almost a decade.
So the emotive descriptions of internet, big brother, privacy and Google make great headlines, but in doing so they disguise the real truth about the erosion of our privacy rights. Data mining is as rampant in the real world if not more so than on the internet. Shopper and service based loyalty programs typically have your personal details (credit card, email, mobile phone), the times you like to shop, what you like to buy and where and how you like to spend your money. These organisations can then target you with a whole array of direct marketing that extends well beyond pop-up ads on the internet. Worse still, you pay them for this privilege. At least Google services come for free.
For those that want to be aware of where their on-line data is headed, there is a new Mozilla plug-in called Collusion. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/collusion/ This app allows you to see which organizations are tracking you in real time. Several minutes use demonstrated that visiting even a reputable news site might result in your data being distributed to as many as 10 tracking sites. This is a particularly sobering exercise as it demonstrates that Google’s policy is no worse than any other commercial on-line operation. Its just more visible, because it’s the service provider most of us use.
If we’ve learnt nothing else from the phone hacking scandal it is that private data held with third parties is always accessible to others. Social media might seem like harmless fun, but too often we allow it to reveal our identities: names, birthdates and locations. This is all somebody else needs to become you.
No person or organization can guarantee the safety or security of our personal information, not Google, not any corporation, not even governments. So its certainly not science fiction to suggest that somewhere in the not too distant future lurks another high profile scandal involving privacy that will shake public trust in the on-line environment, and change the way people use the internet forever.
Watch FiST Chat 62: Big Bad Google for more on this topic.