CAT | Debate
Millions of people sleep at night completely unaware that personalised search has steadily been revolutionising the way they see the web and, as with most Google led initiatives, there’s essentially nothing we can do about it…or is there?
Imagine the internet as a vast department store filled with everything you could possibly think of and many things you’d rather not. Google’s place in this department store is the plucky store attendant; tell them what you’re looking for and they’ll gladly guide you to the relevant bits of the store. In the carefree days before personalised search, Google would guide everyone searching for ‘shoes’ to the same shop filled with only the most relevant items, presumably shoes. Now this store attendant takes us to our own bespoke storefront filled with shoes in exactly my size and taste; some utopian retail fantasy where the bricks and mortar are data culled from my past shopping excursions and those of my friends. It’s a favourable analogy: this notion of personalisation has been the death of the retail high street. In the online world where everything is freely available in shiny web 2.0 style, the consumer and search user expects, nay demands, to get exactly what they want.
But the façade of user control is a thinly veiled one. The problem with the covert landing of personalised web over the past few years is just this – it’s entirely justifiable from a user experience point of view. Hate them as you will, but the Panda and Penguin updates did actually provide better results for the casual searcher; this has always been Google’s prerogative despite the indignant gnatter of the SEO’s keyboard. This new UX incentive seems a little twisted though. Clearly everyone likes what they like so there is considerable justification in throwing up related items again and again in search results. But we may also like things we don’t know we like and more importantly, things Google doesn’t know we like. Perhaps I don’t want the same Italian restaurant in my area, but even after the food poisoning subsides the search history remains. I want to holiday somewhere new this year, far away from all my friends and everything they like and generally everyone else on the web, will Google let me? What if I want to boldly go where my search history has never taken me before?
Internet searchers have responded to the increasing relevancy of Google’s search results by making it their shop attendant of choice (alas poor Jeeves, I knew ye not), but personalised search have moved away from this key metric. The notion seems to be that by showing us results we’ve responded to before before, Google is second guessing our future preferences, presumably to make the choice easier, quicker or remove it altogether. But my search history is a terrible approximation of who I am and what I want and thus what is relevant to me. What if I’m on a public computer, my friend’s browser, his Gmail account, what if I mistyped those saucy search terms and never want Google suggesting them at work again? The illusion is that I have already chosen these results through my past search activity, that I am in control here – the reality is that Google’s algorithms are in control.
So is personalised search better in any sense? The pedantic answer is that it depends what you mean by ‘search’; Google, after all, would be the first to concede that not all searches and searchers are the same. Whether any of this bothers you or not will probably depend on whether you’re the semi-mythical user who always knows exactly what they want, or, more likely, if you’re just conducting a basic informational search. But to fall in the other camp you don’t even have to construct leftist arguments about equality and freedom of online information to all, you just have to posses that very human characteristic of mutability.
One site that seems to recognise this is Match.com. Their occasional suggestions of people who don’t fit your ‘type’ recognise the fascist half-truth that the people probably don’t know what’s good for them. ‘I am not just what I search’; a new kind of social rallying-cry against the algorithmic oppressors. Don’t shout it from the streets, rage against the search engine my friends. Turn off personalised search now and rediscover the joy of finding what you weren’t looking for.
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This week we lament the loss of Ceefax. The information service has been running on televisions since the 1970s but is now outdated and underused. The digital communication of information has evolved and Teletext has died out. Ceefax is replaced by the BBC’s Red Button but ultimately the internet is winning in the digital communication jungle: it is more visually appealing, faster and contains far more information. But obviously this isn’t the end of the evolutionary line, so what does the future hold?
Several factors can influence the future of the internet – government intervention, corporate behaviour and us, the public. Government policy and business decisions shape internet supply, availability and functionality but we drive usage and demand. In response to unwelcome changes by the former, websites have been set up to complain or monitor effects, books have been written and large scale protests have taken place.
Tension is increasing between two opposing views of the internet – as a haven for freedom of speech and expression or as something within the jurisdiction of legal and moral rules. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive; offline we normally consider ourselves to have a right to freedom of speech whilst at the same time culpable for illegal offenses. Yet in the case of the internet, either side seems to believe that to make even the slightest concession to the other is to open the floodgates to a worst case scenario – be that a heavily censored internet under complete government control or a hive of illegal and immoral activity.
The argument is between pragmatism and idealism- do we accept that the internet must be regulated in some respects or do we maintain an ideology of the internet as free, universal and limitless? There is a huge debate surrounding the issue with influential supporters on both sides and the way in which resolution – if possible – occurs will dictate the future of the internet. Modern technology is ‘completely out of control‘ according to Lord chief justice, Lord Judge – but is this in practice or in principle? Sarkozy argues that the internet ‘isn’t a parallel universe’ – why should we allow anything online that we legitimately do not permit offline? Meanwhile, Neelie Kroes, the vice-president of the European commission, calls for the removal of ‘digital handcuffs’ in agreement with Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s belief that the internet is ‘for everyone’.
But this is not just a verbal dispute – this year we have seen action on both sides. In the UK we have seen the removal of videos featuring and promoting gang culture from youtube, a crack down on illegal downloads and the proposal of an ‘opt-in’ system devised to protect children from online pornography. There have even been multiple arrests over offensive tweets in cases of racism and other types of abuse prompting questions over whether this type of action is too ‘heavy handed’. From the other side, we saw websites such as google and wikipedia take part in a blackout protest against US government anti-piracy proposals in the allegation that they would lead to government censorship.
The issue with individual governments exerting control over the internet is that the internet, in that it consists of the world wide web, is intended to be world wide. Sir Tim Berners-Lee claims that ‘This is a question of principle, it’s a right to be able to access [the web] anywhere‘. Government controls introduce localised differences raising worries that the future could bring a series of fragmented, independent internets. This is already noticeable on a small scale – the internet looks different depending on where you are in the world. Many countries ban specific websites containing political or religious content and social media sites completely. This year we have seen Twitter introduce and implement a new ‘Country Withheld Content’ feature, allowing the removal of specific content from one country only. It was recently used to remove neo-nazi content in Germany and France but not the rest of the world.
Perhaps protestors are too idealistic in regarding the internet as something ‘universal’ because this is merely a concept and not the reality of the internet as we know it. The internet did not begin freely open to all and is now being restricted- perhaps as an idea but as an actual entity it is limited by hardware and physical infrastructure which are not equally freely available. A digital divide has existed between developed and developing countries preventing equal access to the web. In view of this, maybe the recent government interventions we have witnessed seem less like a drastic and sudden attempt at control.
So is the internet out of control, uncontrollable or beyond control? Which side is right, or perhaps more importantly, which side wins will shape the future of the internet. We can’t predict the future of the internet as clearly as these children from the 90s but one thing is clear – hyperbolic slippery slope arguments are not what we need, because if we remain at a standoff then we miss opportunities for mutual benefit.
This Christmas will see the 2012 Furby revival. The mechanical fur covered children’s must-have of the late nineties has been revamped and is back for a new generation of children to enjoy. The 2012 re – furbish – ments include LCD screen eyes which are even more disturbing that their slowly blinking predecessors, a more complicated mechanical body for an impressively large array of dance moves and more sensors so it will be even harder to turn off. Furbys remain without an off switch. But the most exciting addition is that the 2012 Furby comes with its own smart phone and tablet app.
You will be able to feed your Furby by virtually flinging food at it via an app – a vast improvement on just putting your finger in its mouth. And at last you can get an app that will translate Furbish. So you can finally understand that “yoo?” means “Why will you not play with me today?” along with the subtext “This usually means the Furby is upset”. This is, of course, only useful if you are too lazy to teach your Furby English.
The return of Furbys may not seem significant and indeed the popularity of the 2012 Furby may prove to be as short lived as its forebearers. But the kind of technology they offer and the uses to which it is employed are unlikely to be a fad.
Smart phone and tablet apps for children are very popular – 75% of parents share their smartphones with their children according to a recent study in the UK. There are thousands of apps specifically designed for children which range from educational games to apps for their favourite Disney character. The combination of an app with a physical – more traditional – toy is the next step in the evolution of children’s entertainment. The simplest way to integrate an app and toy is to create an app that functions as a remote control. For example, you can use your phone or tablet as steering wheel to control toy cars or helicopters. More impressive apps go beyond this, such as the app gun which uses a device’s camera to turn the screen into a view finder; transforming your surroundings into a battle field.
The app enhances the toy and the act of playing with it beyond the physicality of the toy itself and in doing so the app creates an augmented reality. Playing and experimenting is how children learn, so there will inevitably be worries regarding any detrimental effects relating to augmented reality i.e. that children will somehow be unable to function in reality.
Will it confuse children? Will it spoil them? Will it make them lazy? Whether augmented reality and gaming are beneficial to learning is a topic that we discuss regularly in this blog. Augmented reality creates new experiences and new ways to interact with topics and as a result facilitates learning.
Many commentators on news reports favour the ‘in my day we had nothing but imagination’ approach to attacking advances in augmented reality. The danger being that children could be presented with toys so brilliant that they don’t have to use their own imagination to have fun. These commentators forget that augmented reality works with imagination to ignite it not to replace it. Augmented reality involves the suspension of disbelief which requires imagination.
There are augmented reality apps that harness children’s imagination for their own benefit, for example the app that claims to make plasters fun. It aims to take away the fear associated with plasters for the child’s –minimal – health benefit demonstrating the possible constructive applications of this technology.
In 1998, age 8, I had a Furby for Christmas. A year later my sister had a Baby Furby. My main memories of the late nineties Furby craze are children telling horror stories. Terrifying tales of Furbys awakening mysteriously in the middle of the night were swapped around the classroom. Furbys that mysterious moved from across the bedroom through the night. Furbys that kept talking when they had their batteries removed.
Just typing the phrase ‘furbys are’ into google produces the above results indicating my recollections may be part of a wider phenomenon. It is very hard to prevent a child’s imagination from enhancing any toy and I doubt that the toys of the future, including this year’s Furby, will escape any imaginitive improvements.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are running for president in what has widely been said to be the first true social media election. The Democrats’ superior use of social media is claimed to be one of the factors behind Obama’s victory in 2008 and four years later the Republicans are determined to keep up. When 94% of social media users of voting-age are likely to watch an entire political message online the opportunity to be heard is unmissable.
Much of the debate surrounding this issue focuses on what social media means for politics and future political campaigns. Will facebook friends, followers and retweets become marks on a ballot form? Will events such as Obama’s ‘Twitter Town Hall’ replace more traditional grassroots political activities? Social media might be reshaping the political landscape, but what does all this political interfering mean for social media?
Politicians need to spread their message as far and as wide as possible and social media provides a platform to communicate with a vast network of users. We’ve seen businesses do the same and use social media sites to spread their brand message. But are they ‘taking advantage of’ or ‘manipulating’ social media? No, because social media can facilitate communication between politicians and citizens; on a broad scale as well as a personal one but most importantly it allows citizens to communicate back.
There is something about harnessing social media to aid political campaigns that makes me feel uneasy. But I think the reason for this is because campaigners’ approaches feel measured and calculated in a way that is in opposition to the free and easy flow of information that I associate with Web 2.0. There are teams of people who run the social media side of political campaigns and this can make them feel orchestrated or fake. Facebook even have their own Political Outreach Manager to advise political officials on how to use facebook most to their advantage in campaigns. However, social media can also facilitate interaction on a more genuine and personal level; Obama took part in an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on reddit and Romney is running a competition to win a ride in his private jet. In these instances both candidates are trying to engage with individuals rather than a whole population; a task made much easier by social media websites.
The wonderful thing about Web 2.0 is the control it gives to users. Politicians can try to use social media to spread their political messages but ultimately they have little control over that message once it is released and as a result their attempts can backfire. Web 2.0 is a two-way street and if you communicate through social media you become involved in a dialogue. Therefore, politicians can’t carelessly throw out propaganda on social media sites because it will inevitably be thrown back and normally in a much more amusing format.
The fact that social media facilitates a dialogue means that it also allows citizens the opportunity to express political opinions. Social media is reported as playing a role- the size of which is disputed- in the recent political revolutions in Egypt and Libya. Twitter provided a fast way to spread information of protests with hash tags detailing times and dates. Facebook pages with times and dates of protests were created. But it is not true to say that social media provides a universal platform for communication free from the confines of geographical and political boarders. Mark Zuckerberg may intend Facebook to “bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people” but the ways in which politics and social media interact differ vastly between cultures with some political regimes ban social media sites completely. In comparison to this, politicians engaging with social media and using it to increase interaction with citizens looks like a very good thing.
UK politicians have made tentative steps into social media but it will be interesting to see if the recent trends observed in the US are mirrored over here. If the run up to the 2015 UK election has a strong social media focus, we may have more than just the return of WebCameron to look forward to. Is politics reshaping the landscape of social media? Yes, but social media is a constantly changing entity. The beliefs and actions of politicians shape every aspect of our lives – a lot more than a tweet about someone’s breakfast or a youtube video of a surprised kitten.
On 24th August this year Apple won $1.05b in a lawsuit against Samsung for patent infringement. This is just one stage in an ongoing battle between the two companies over intellectual property rights. Samsung challenged the verdict and have recently retaliated by extending their counter claims to include the iPhone 5 . It appears that the war between them is likely to rage on.
What does this mean for us, the consumer? If the situation continues with a constant back and forth of claims and counter claims then we might lose interest because it doesn’t seem to have any direct effect on us. Why should we care if one mutli-billion dollar company has to pay another a billion dollars?
We should care if we want newer designs, more choice and more innovative mobile phones. Here’s why: intellectual property patents, which are the subject of such disputes, are designed to protect ideas. They protect the investments made in the generation of these ideas. New ideas lead to new innovations and as consumers we benefit from new innovations because they provide us with more choice and better products. The Apple/Samsung dispute raises the issue of whether these same intellectual property patents can sometimes stifle creativity and innovation instead of protecting them.
US Judge Richard Prosner recently claimed that the US system of patent protection can be “excessive” and many commentators have questioned the relevancy of intellectual property patents in a digital age due to the incremental nature of technological advances. Some go a step further and claim that through preventing imitation, patents prevent innovation. This is the philosophy of highly popular open source systems which are owned by no-one and freely available. According to this side of the argument patents create barriers to competition and perhaps Steve Jobs would agree having once expressed the sentiment “good artists borrow, great artists steal”.
It is a problem if patents stop acting as incentives for companies to invest in R&D and instead shelter companies from industry competition. Competition is good; it is what drives business forward. Industries develop and grow through companies learning from each other and building on each other, if they don’t – or indeed can’t – do this then progress is slowed and the consumer loses out. However, it has been a long time since phones just phoned and if additional functions are recognised as an industry standard they can be protected by essential patents. These are licensed to competitors on ‘fair and reasonable terms’ in order to prevent barriers to innovation and competition.
But it is the presentation of such functions and their interaction with users that forms focus of recent disputes. Apple’s legal claims against Samsung are focused on physical design, visual design and features such as ‘scroll-down and bounce up’ or ‘tap to zoom’. This is where the other side of the argument surfaces: patents – even if excessive – force companies to invent different approaches to products in order to compete. This type of competition is arguably more valuable because it creates new ideas. Different user interfaces may introduce switching costs to consumers in terms of time spent learning to navigate a new handset and different software complicates app designing, but they do provide the consumer with a real choice between alternative products.
We need to find the best way to protect ideas, promote competition and create incentives for companies to keep producing new, exciting, cutting edge designs. Perhaps patents – at least in their current form – are not the best way to do so. The Apple vs. Samsung case is so complicated that it may never be fully resolved but spending large amounts of money, time and effort in court doesn’t seem the most efficient way to try.
Is print dead? This has been constantly asked, re-asked and over-analysed during the last few years with the expansion of current media developments. However, focusing on the traditional newspaper’s death sentence precludes us from examining the real and very exciting changes that have taken place – and are currently taking place – in the news industry as a whole; that is, how newspapers and news sites are interacting with social media creating news that is centred on your photographs, your videos, and perhaps most importantly, your opinions.
Newspapers and news sites have responded to demands with a new age of digital, personalised and unedited news. Whilst sites are exploring different angles, the overall agenda is the same; giving us an enhanced experience of the news where we all take part. The BBC News website’s ‘Have your say’ and ‘Your pictures and stories’ sections are just a couple of examples amongst countless. CNN uses ‘iReport’ – a user-generated site where ‘the way people like you report the news’ – influencing the way that CCN itself reports the news. And perhaps most groundbreaking is the ‘Guardian Zeitgeist’, a news feed application that literally captures the spirit of the times, pulling in stories from the main site according to ‘social signals’ (i.e. reader trends and mentions on Twitter). The day’s ‘Zeitgeistiness’ is calculated at midnight each day and is frozen in the archives for posterity. We create each day’s Zeitgeist; the news has been democratised.
Since news is now presented as something to which we should respond, actively contribute, and shape, the traditional client-editor relationship in the media has been overhauled. We now expect to have a voice in the news – to play a part in the debate – whereas in the ‘Letters’ section in traditional newspapers, the editor decides which of our opinions are worth publishing. The power has shifted from the editor to us; our opinions have become part of the news and the way it is told.
The relationship between news sites and social media is therefore ever-changing and increasingly significant. Recent turmoil has proved this: the London riots showed the BBC to be getting much of their information from Twitter, enabling journalists to collate news from many different places simultaneously; and Twitter is particularly useful in covering the Middle Eastern conflicts, as Syria for example have banned journalists. Twitter has become a new Reuters. Does this make the journalist redundant by simply using information from tweets? News sites certainly no longer appear to be the front line for news. However, we perhaps need journalists more than ever to sift through the copious amounts of information; not only creating a story, but actually providing an analysis.
If sources from ‘non-professionals’ have become the norm, can we trust the news? What are people’s Twitter agendas? There is no regulating body – or even necessarily an incentive – to maintain a reputable journalistic standards on Twitter. In which case, perhaps we should be increasingly sceptical of the news the more democratised it becomes. Whilst we assume news sites check their sources, these are becoming increasingly difficult to track down with the anonymity of the internet. Or, alternatively, should we potentially regard tweets as having less of an agenda than journalists’ articles, allowing Twitter and its counterparts to provide an oasis of democratisation in the agenda-driven world of journalism?
If recent years have indeed seen the democratisation of the news, can we say that this is for the best? Inevitably, new media can be used for good and bad, but where can the media go from here? Whilst having space to voice our opinions is undeniably significant, is there perhaps too much equality, and have we lost a sense of what is important news and what is self-important rambling?