God help me, I'm creating a top ten list – in this case, a list of my own social technology top ten for 2007. A few major successes leveraging high volume exposure on the network of networks convinced investors to take the web seriously again, so there's been real money flowing into web innovation, though nothing like the frenzy we saw in the late 90s. Savvy thinkers realize the web works better as a support for all kinds of things, including business, than as a platform for possibly lucrative applications. That said, a few very large operators who understand how to create and leverage web real estate – i.e. the very few Googles and Yahoos, and high-volume social platforms like Facebook and Myspace, providers of both infrastructure and services – are making piles of money and continuing to grow. Penetration helps: at least in the U.S., 71% of adults are online, according to Pew. U.S. broadband penetration among active users is just over 80%, up from 50% in 2006.
So number one on my admittedly US-centric top ten list: we have an established, stable critical mass of Internet users, and an established critical mass of those users have broadband access. There's also increasing adoption of 3G mobile devices (though the U.S. is behind many other countries in adoption of broadband and advanced cellular).
(Web penetration is similar to television's penetration in the U.S. in 1956. That year, television penetration reached a similar critical mass, 71.8% in the U.S.)
Consider Reed's Law: as the Internet scales its utility increases. Concrete example: when only a couple of people I knew had email accounts, my own ability to use email had very limited utility. Now that everyone I know has an email account (and a Facebook account, and a Twitter account, etc.), those systems and the environment that enables them, the Internet, are exponentially more useful.
The rest of my top ten list:
2) The tired practice of appending "2.0" to this or that term has, hopefully, lost steam. The label "Web 2.0" was useful, for a while, in that it gave us a way to address more or less concurrent advances in practice, technology, and attitude that were pretty unrelated except that they were associated with the web. It was an acknowledgement that the web of today is more than a set of interlinked hypertext documents. Anyone who'd lived with the "Internet industry" hype of the 1990s cringed to hear a term so clearly positioned to incite buzz. The Internet clearly facilitates certain kinds of business, but it is not itself a business; it's essential shared infrastructure that serves many needs, and whenever business interests assert their paradigm over others in this context, we have a problem – hence the persistent and unresolved network neutrality debate.
3) Much ado about "social media," a term that rolls more trippingly off the tongue than "blog," and is somewhat more expansive, including not just chronological bits of text, but other user-generated, participatory (via comments, if nothing else) media, including photos, videos, and audio (podcasts, we like to say, and we now use the term for any posted audio, and sometimes, video, regardless whether it's included in an iTunes-ready news feed). Social network platforms are also part of the deal, and social bookmarking, live tv, etc. I hear this term quite a bit from within the public relations world; they like it because it sounds professional and relates to their gig, working with media. They still don't completely get it, many of them, but they can always hire the expertise.
After so many decades of broadcast thinking, the various instigators of big media are sloooowly beginning to see a world of participants, not consumers. The rest of us who are out there participating already figured it out. That term "social media" might be seen as a last gasp of effort to think of today's media in yesterday's terms, but those of us coming from the web side find the term useful in creating lines of communication about what we do and why it's useful.
4) Speaking of which... Time Magazine suggests that 2007 was the year traditional media blurred with the web's world of user generated content – not the year of "you" but the year of "them."
Whatever the source, "you" or "them" or "us," there was a lot more video on the web in 2007, and more viral distribution of video via embedding. Okay, I don't have a statistic for that, it's anecdotal, it's what I saw personally. More people have video capability, even if it's through the cheapest video camera.
With expanded availability of broadband connectivity, we see more live video (justin.tv, Ustream, Kyte, etc.) I watched justin.tv for a while, when it was just Justin Kan, broadcasting his life. It took me longer than you'd think to become totally bored, but that was novelty, I suppose.
5) Twitter caught fire after attendees at the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference used it to keep track of each other. It was addictive, they couldn't stop. Twitterers post "tweets," also referred to as microblog posts, with a 140 character limit, in response to the question "What are you doing?" Though the length of a single post is limited, you can post as many as you want, so Twitter works as a short-burst messaging environment.
The Twitter engine is a Ruby on Rails application (that incidentally has had scaling problems along the way, and has probably contributed to a better understanding of load handling with Rails applications in general - this means nothing to you if you're not a Rails geek or Rails-geek-watcher).
Twitter is a great way to sustain casual conversation with your network of friends and acquaintances. Some are vocal, others lurk. For some, it's more broadcast than conversation: they swoop in, post their messages, and fly away. Some Twitter celebrities have far more people following their messages than they follow themselves. Turns out to be harder to follow sustained activity on Twitter if you're following a lot of messages - several pages of messages can appear in a minute or two, so you live in the moment and follow what you can. However there's a clear sense of community: more and more of the tweets I see are conversational.
6) With a new election season brewing, the establishment has appropriated the political uses of social technology that made Howard Dean's 2004 campaign happen. Since 2004, techs that were savvy about politics have found their way into major campaigns, which are all using social media as much, and as effectively, as possible. Daily Kos, a multiuser blog that picked up steam during and after the 2004 election season, has now become a Real Force within progressive politics. Its founder, Markos Moulitsas, is now an acknowledged mainstream pundit, popping up on various news shows, along with other bloggers... people like Ana Marie Cox and Sam Seder.
In 2003-2004, many activists hoped that the content management system Drupal could evolve as a widely distributed, easy to use platform to support their initiatives and communities. This was the thinking behind the Deanspace project, which, after the Dean campaign went away, became CivicSpace Labs. Unfortunately Drupal was never easy enough to use that a nontechnical person could set it up, and some had trouble using and managing Drupal installations even after they'd been set up for them. Drupal is still popular and used for many activist sites, but there's often some Drupal-savvy technician no more than an arm's length away. In fact, CivicSpace Labs stopped trying to create a package for distribution and started focusing on an on-demand (hosted) service that costs $50 per month. Drupal rocks on, and is still free, though Drupal advocates are encouraged to join an Association where individual memberships are €22 and organizational memberships are €73.
7) Despite an increasing number of OpenID accounts, a standard identity framework is still not happenin' – so number seven on my list is not something, but the persistent lack of something. Identity workshops are still happening, and there's a bigco-driven federated identity project called The Liberty Alliance.
8) Facebook gained ground as a social network platform, and generated a lot of buzz by creating an API so that developers could create even more stuff for Facebook users to do – activities and their exposure in the central "minifeed" are, combined, the not-so-secret of Facebook's success. Does this mean that the more there is to do, the more successful Facebook will be? Well, maybe not: you can only have so many friends and so much to do before you feel overwhelmed and less inclined to hang out.
9) Google launched of APIs (collectively labeled "Open Social"), apparently in response to the growing popularity of its closed, prorietary potential competitor, Facebook. Is Facebook really competing with Google? In a very real sense, Facebook is competing with any site or system that leverages Internet advertising. It's competing for eyeballs and attention, and to the extent users vanish into Facebook and spend less time with the public web, they're less likely to see ads brokered by Google, Yahoo, et al., a leading source of long-tail profitability on the web.
But it's not just about competition and profit, according to Google. Developers shouldn't have to build their applications over and over again for various site-specific APIs, so we need a set of common APIs – so that the kinds of apps developers are building for Facebook, or for whatever social platform, can more readily be extended to work with various other social apps. It's early to predict whether Open Social will catch on and make any kind of difference, but we're Paying Attention, as always.
10) The New York Times and the New Yorker revised their web presences; I had to acknowledge their upgrades because they were so dramatic and so right. These two venerable east cost publications were, for the longest time, conservative with their web presences, and you could tell that they just didn't get it. Both were overhauled – and both got looser about releasing content on the web and making it linkable. The Times realized it was actually losing money by archiving older news stories and charging for access to the archives. Allowing free access would increase signficantly the number and value of ad clicks. The New Yorker launched new, savvy web design and put a lot more content online... presumably from the same reasoning, more pages = more ads. It changed its Cartoon of the Week email distribution to a weekly newsletter that contains links to a slide show of the week's cartoons, articles from the current issue, and online-only features available at newyorker.com. These are the kinds of changes that will sustain traditional media through digital convergence. Great content will always be valuable, and we'll always have ways to monetize that value... but the models are changing.
Below, I outline an idea for bringing irresponsible manufacturers to heel for promoting products that pollute. Please consider it.
There is an important social principle that is currently being violated by many manufacturing activities: the principle that, while engaged in a profit-making activity, one must not leave a mess behind for the rest of society to clean up.
This principle is understood in a societal context as common decency, but is continually breached in our economy to such an extent that nobody even objects!
The easiest example is that of mineral water and soft-drink manufacturers, who sell a product that results in a consumer who usually discards a non-biodegradable PET bottle into the environment in an unregulated manner.
We should mobilize citizens to demand legislation that every manufacturer must repurchase/collect and recycle as many tonnes of raw material as he uses on a week-by-week basis. For example, if a mineral-water manufacturer uses ten tonnes of plastics per week to manufacture bottles, he MUST buy back ten tonnes of plastic scrap and safely recycle it. The same goes for automobile manufacturers, who must buy back that many tonnes of metals, plastics, glass etc. every week, and find ways to recycle them. The cost may be met by raising the market price of their product... but the responsibility to make the recycling activity happen MUST be fixed on the manufacturer of every product.
The same goes for manufacturers of tyres, batteries, plastic goods, newspapers, clothes, chemicals, auto-lubricant oils, etc. The list is long.
And if this makes some manufacturing and marketing processes unviable, it means that their economic activity was unviable in the first place, and was sustainable only by passing on hidden costs to the environment, to society, to consumers etc !
Many industrial activities are environmentally and socially subsidized to keep them economically profitable. Let us lobby governments to knock off that subsidy and see how many activities remain sustainable!
I propose peaceful demonstrations to remedy this
Small groups of citizens shall collect the branded packaging material of various manufacturers from the environment, and delivering them in large bundles every week to their corporate offices. It belongs to them, right? So let them have it back!
A peaceful demonstration like this, sustained over some weeks, would make a powerful statement. I think this will make a powerful media impact as well... and thereby, an impact on the consciousness of people.
What say? I would appreciate your detailed responses to this idea.
Member, Global Warming Committee
Indian Merchants' Chamber
Founding Member, Children of the Earth
Stop Credit Cards & Consumer Loans
Today, we all have generally affluent economies, with only a small fraction of our economies' output devoted to basic needs. Environmentalists say that we are reaching the limits of growth due to ecological constraints. In our cities, we have not only reached the limits of human needs but overshot them many times over. What we currently have in our metros is largely overconsumption or unnecessarily luxurious consumption which has many adverse consequences on us, on our economies and on our planet.
Economic growth is no longer improving our well-being. The extra time and energy that we must spend on healthcare, children's education, commuting and just keeping pace of changes are on the rise. The quality of our surroundings -- our neighbourhood, roads, civic infrastructure etc. are deteriorating even as more and more goods flood the supermarkets.
We have reached a point of counterproductive growth; additional growth now brings diminishing benefits while causing increased social and environmental costs.
As we urban Indians have become more prosperous, we have moved from consuming necessities to consuming conveniences to consuming luxuries. We are now driving to work one-per-car and spending many hours per week in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
This has severe environmental consequences. India's phenomenal economic growth of 9.5% per annum comes at the cost of farmers being deprived of electricity, of countless creatures of all shapes and sizes being deprived of their natural habitats and their food, of countless rivers and groundwater resources being both overexploited and polluted. Due to the continuous expansion of factories for manufacturing everything from cement to SUVs to cream-biscuits expand to meet the burgeoning demand, we overdraw on planetary resources and disrupt the fine web of life by cutting its strands.
But how can we stop? How to stop so many billion people from doing all the things they do in daily life?
In my mind, I keep searching for key points that are causing our present situation. I keep trying to identify places where the cancerous tumour, so to speak, can be clearly isolated from human flesh. Because these are the places where we can start cutting away surgically, methodically, without hurting too many people.
1) Consumer credit -- loans extended by banks for purchase of new vehicles and consumer appliances -- is one of the major arteries of this cancerous tumour. Easy loans affect our purchasing decisions. How?
Two calls from an aggressive marketer of car loans is all I need to make me feel that I NEED to step up from my family car to an SUV. I start believing that it is high time I bought a bigger car. "You can afford it, Sir," says the loan agent, sleazily massaging my ego into a full-blown erection.
I think about my employee who drives the same brand of car that I drive, thanks to the same loan agent's persuasion. Then I think about my neighbour's shining new Scorpio and think about how insignificant my own vehicle (read phallic symbol) looks standing next to it.
Some advice from my friendly chartered accountant reinforces this feeling: New SUV = more tax-deductible depreciation. Also, interest on loan installments is tax-deductible.
I reason: if I trade in my present vehicle, it brings down the price of the new one a lakh or so. Then I only need to afford the reduced EMIs (Equated Monthly Instalments) on the load. Can't I afford an EMI of Rs 12,000? Of course I can; what kind of man am I if I can't afford to pay a small installment like that?!
Besides, business is looking up; that new client who I have been pursuing for six months is almost in the bag. So what if he hasn't actually signed on the dotted line? His word is as good as gold.
That decides it: I just WANT a brand-new fuel-guzzler, and I want it NOW! Never mind the price, I can afford the EMI. Of course I can... Case closed!
2) Credit cards: Visa Power -- you've got it! If you have a credit card or two, you know what it means to be a really wealthy person, because you are able to securely carry large amounts equivalent to many months' earnings in your wallet.
And when you do that, you are potentially able to do all those wonderful, beautiful, generous things that you see in TV commercials -- things that can make your wife's heart go flutter-flutter, and that will make her give you that million-dollar smile. How about buying her that diamond solitaire? Or taking her out to dinner at the Taj Princess? Or booking the Presidential suite for your wedding anniversary? Or, better still, surprising her with a couple of air-tickets to Paris
Wow, that would be such a PRICELESS moment... just like they show in Visa commercials!
Credit-card bills? What's that? Oh, just a minor detail, that's all. Stuff that happens in the background, inconspicuously, as part of routine life. Life goes on, bills get paid... they always do. So let's not waste time talking about bills. Those airline tickets are one phone-call or one mouse-click away.
The point that I'm making here is: Consumer credit and credit-cards are the hot air causing the great big Economic Growth balloon to go up... and up... and up at the current rate of 9.5% per annum. Thanks to this banking 'reform', all of us are learning to increasingly live in perpetual debt, just like the Americans whom we all adore so much that they can do no wrong, not even in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thanks to easy consumer credit, we are all borrowing from the future. We aren't only borrowing economically, we are borrowing ecologically. As the previous article points out, "Globally, we are demanding 1.3 planets to support our lifestyles this year, and yet we only have one planet earth. Each year, we as a global community place demands on cropland, pasture, forests and fisheries that goes beyond their capacity to generate resources and absorb wastes. We are using more far more than the planet can regenerate in a year."
Conclusion: At an individual level, we should stop buying things with credit, and stop using our credit cards. It is worth cutting up our credit cards. Let us stop borrowing for the future.
And as a community of concerned citizens, let us lobby for a clampdown on consumer credit. Let us write to the government, to Reserve Bank and to individual banks and bankers.
Let each person in the banking industry be targetted with this message: Cap and roll back. Let us ask for a freeze of consumer credit at current levels this year, and a 50% reduction in the amounts of credit given each year. This would give the economy about three years to adjust to the changing scenario. (Three years is 36 months -- far more time than the economy and its stakeholders get for adjustment when the stock-markets crash or a bank collapse which happens within a few weeks time.)
Do you think there is truth in this argument? If so, please help by spreading the word.