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Archives for November 2010

George W Bush's facetime at Facebook

Maggie Shiels | 11:12 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010

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The 43rd president of the United States of America and the 26-year-old upstart behind the world's biggest social network are destined to become a double act following their performance on Facebook.

George Bush's Facebook page

 

For nearly an hour George W Bush engaged in lively banter as he fielded questions from Mark Zuckerberg and those submitted by staff and Facebook users.

The antagonism among users on the live feed before Mr Bush took to the stage suggested that he might be in for a rough ride and that this could be a tough audience.

In the end the questions were ones he has been asked a thousand times, especially while punting his memoir Decision Points.

Over the last couple of weeks no prime-time stage - be it Oprah's or Jay Leno's - has been complete without an appearance from Mr Bush. His visit to Facebook's Palo Alto office was a brilliant coup by his wranglers, given the potential reach of more than 500 million users.

Mr Bush has an inside link with Facebook: the company's general counsel Ted Ullyot has strong ties to the Republican Party and worked as a White House lawyer.

However the appearance came about, it generated a lot of buzz; the site lit up with comments, praise and criticism.

From the get-go, Mr Bush was candid about the reasons for his social media volte-face:

"You got a lot of people paying attention to us and I'm trying to sell books.
 
"I've got over 600,000 friends on my Facebook page and I have watched your company grow. I love a country that enables somebody like you to have a dream and actually make it work and employ a lot of people and give them a chance to create wealth and create jobs.
 
"Plus the truth of the matter is I am shamelessly marketing. I hope people read my book. I have written this book because I recognise there is no such thing as short-term history and I want to give future historians a perspective - mine."

Even though Mr Bush referred to the social-networking service as "the Facebook" (as it was originally known), he insisted that he is not the Luddite many cast him as.

He told the audience he was the first "e-mail president" and that while he didn't want his name on any e-mails because they are all archived and could be misconstrued in years to come, his administration generated 170 million of them.

Mr Bush said that today he is a Blackberry person and an iPad person and gave his own view on subjects from the financial meltdown to management styles. Nothing seemed to be off the table. Many of the answers, however, didn't really delve deep despite the near-hour-long session.

Take Iraq, a subject that has divided this country and others: Mr Bush's answer was a tad long-winded, beginning with a description of the process which included bringing in new team members to move forward on the surge.

"I had to get everyone inside the administration on board because this is one of these decisions nobody was for at the time and any criticisms within the administration would have made it really hard to get funded in Congress.
 
"I hope people find it interesting [in terms of the] process. They may not agree with the decision but nevertheless it will give you a sense of what it was like to make a decision like this particularly since the country was against it.
 
"But what you didn't know at the time is I was deeply affected by many members of the military, particularly [by] the families who had lost a loved one. When they came to see me, and many did, they really wanted to know whether or not I was going to lead their child on the battlefield because of politics or whether or not I cared more about my standing politically or did I care really about completing the mission so that some point in time history would validate their loved one's sacrifice.
 
"Those words echoed in my mind all the time, just all the time."

Mr Zuckerberg shifted the issue of foreign relations to China, seen by companies like Facebook as a major growth area given the size of the population and the numbers set to come online. Again, Mr Bush offered an anecdote:

"I actually believe trade with China will change the Chinese system. I do believe in this case the markets will drive change. I think there is enormous freedom in the marketplace.
 
"When I first went to China to visit my dad, who was envoy there in 1975, everybody dressed the same. And I went back in 2001 the marketplace was flourishing. People had choice. That is freedom and it is the ultimate expression of freedom where a collection of consumers can demand product that then gets produced.
 
"A more effective way is for the marketplace to change, then the political system follows. One of the things I like to ask these leaders is 'What keeps you up at night?' And they said the creation of 25 million new jobs a year.
 
"To me it explains a lot about China. They are inward-looking. They are gluttonous for natural resources. It explains a lot of their Iranian policy and their Sudanese policy."

What kept Mr Bush up at night when he was in power?

"It seems kind of far-fetched probably, here in Palo Alto, this idyllic setting, that there would be another attack [like 9/11]. But I thought about it every night," said Mr Bush.

One question that was, oddly, presented as a foreign policy issue regarded U2's singer Bono, who appears in the book. Mr Bush joked about his chief of staff's concern about the extent of the president's musical knowledge:

"Josh Bolton says, before I meet Bono, he says 'You do know who Bono is?' I say 'Yeah, he is like an Irish rock star...'
 
"And Josh says 'You got it right.' And I said '...married to Cher.'"

Alongside the joke, Mr Bush said that at first he thought Bono was a "self-promoting rock star" but, after working with him, regarded him as a "friend" and "a really good guy".

Mr Bush was also candid about his feelings and imparted some sage words for fathers based on his own upbringing:

"If you are a father out there, my advice is to love your child unconditionally. I was given a great gift by George HW Bush and that is unconditional love. Life is full of risks and if you have the love of someone you admire, it mitigates risk.
 
"I tell people half-way jokingly that running for president is risky. You can run and lose and they can say 'what a pathetic candidate', or you can run and win and they can say 'what a pathetic president'.
 
"Either way it doesn't matter if you have the unconditional love of somebody you admire. And if you are fortunate enough to be a father my advice is: love your child with all your heart and soul."

Mr Bush denied that the book was his way of burnishing his image in the light of events like Iraq and the financial meltdown. Though he said he hoped to be remembered for the right reasons, it doesn't keep him up at night:

"A guy who protected the country and didn't sell his soul for the sake of politics. I am not worried about it. I am a comfortable guy. I have a great wife. My daughters are awesome. I am blessed.
 
"You've got to live life to the fullest. I didn't want it to be said I didn't seize that moment. I thought long and hard about running for president. I could have passed on it and ended up being governor, finished out my term and gone back to the private sector but I had an opportunity.
 
"Ultimately it boiled down to: I wanted to live life to the fullest. I wasn't going to let the moment pass and you have seized the moment here at Facebook and I congratulate you for living life to the fullest and going for it.
 
"Your life is not going to work out the way you expect. The unexpected will happen. You will get dealt a hand you didn't want to play. That is going to happen to all of us. The question is: how are you going to play it?"

Even though the fist-pump Mr Bush gave Mr Zuckerberg came across as trying too hard, it appears that his appearance was a success and one that other politicians will be only too eager to copy.

Mr Bush certainly hopes it won over a few more "friends" who will part with their cash and buy the book:

"This book is my way of letting you in on my life as president and that is it. I am not trying to shape any post president. If you see me in an airport I hope you wave with all five fingers, but if you don't, you won't be the first."

3D trees in Google Earth

Maggie Shiels | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010

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Google Earth is about to get something of a makeover thanks to more than 80 million 3D trees populating the product.

"Trees are part of the world we live in and if you fly over San Francisco with the trees turned on versus turned off it presents a different sense of what the city looks like," said Google Earth's vice president of product, the aptly-named Mr Birch.

He added that planting more than 80 million trees presented some technical challenges: working out where to put them; ensuring they were of the right type for the area and making them distinct enough to determine one species from another.

To start, six major cities have been populated with more than 60 different species: Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo are now home to models of dozens of species from the Japanese Maple and the East African Cordia to the cacao tree and the flowering dogwood.

Google Earth trees

Google Earth also gets a bit political as Mr Birch explained that they have started to model forest lands and areas of the world under threat such as the Amazon and Kenya and some of the work being done to restore the environment there.

The search giant worked with groups like the Green Belt Movement in Africa, the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil and Conabio in Mexico.

"We want to tell a broader story of the trees and deforestation and climate change to draw attention to the things happening to our planet," he said.

"This brings home just how special trees are and how they need to be protected," added Raleigh Seamster from Google Earth's outreach team.

"Modelling these areas of deforestation will draw more attention to what is going on there."

Street View also gets woven more tightly into the offer. Yes, that same product that has been slightly tarnished of late with issues of collecting snippets of data it shouldn't have as the cars drove by people's homes to snap photos of neighbourhoods.

"Our goal is to really create this mirror world where people can travel to distant lands and learn about the planet and different areas. One of the problems is that the experience doesn't connect you all the way to the ground," said Mr Birch.

"It does a great job flying over mountains and cityscapes and your old childhood neighbourhood. But we all live on the ground and walk about the street and that is how we experience the Earth and this tighter integration with Street View gives us a great opportunity to complete the connection between the street level and this flying around."

The final change is an effort to make it easier to find out what historical images are available for a given area.

The upgrade was included in the previous release; this version invites users to fly to an area where historical imagery is available and see the date of the oldest images on a status bar at the bottom of the screen from London during the Blitz to Port-au-Prince in Haiti before and after the devastating earthquake of January 2010.

Did Google and Verizon scupper net neutrality?

Maggie Shiels | 11:24 UK time, Thursday, 18 November 2010

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Net neutrality is a thorny subject for advocacy groups, internet service providers, carriers, internet companies and of course the government.

The tenet of net neutrality is that all content should be treated equally regardless of whether it's a bare-bones blog or a bandwidth-hogging piece of video.

The majority of the Federal Communications Commission, three Democrats versus two Republicans, agree that net neutrality is key to guaranteeing global dominance for America and paving the way for further innovation.

Internet service providers (ISPs), however, say that innovation and investment will be stifled if they can't charge more to those who clog up the internet's pipes.

Until recently the FCC could have pushed through its point of view regardless but a court decision changed all that. When the agency sanctioned Comcast for slowing down traffic from Bit Torrent, the court ruled it did not have the authority to do so. That meant the FCC did not have the power to insist on net neutrality as a standard without changing how it viewed broadband.

The FCC faces going to Congress to enshrine net neutrality in law or re-classifying broadband under a set of rules that would give it more power over the ISPs and cable providers. For months critics have said the agency is stuck in neutral.

Julius Genachowski

Julius Genachowski

At a major internet conference in San Francisco, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the FCC, insisted that they have not been sitting on their hands, but added that a move by Google and Verizon to resolve the apparent stalemate did not help.

In broad-brush terms, the world's most powerful internet company and the telcom titan championed the idea of an open net for fixed-line services ensuring that ISPs could not charge companies more to send their content over a "fast lane."

However the deal suggested loopholes for mobile traffic and for some specialised content.

In short, advocacy groups said it amounted to a two-tier system or "toll booths on the information superhighway".

Google and Verizon saw it differently and said that their approach was a "step forward".

At the Web 2.0 summit, Mr Genachowski reluctantly gave his assessment of the deal; it was not flattering.

"I would have preferred if they didn't do exactly what they did, when they did," he said. "It slowed down some of the processes."

So what now?

Advocacy groups are jumping up and down trying to goad the FCC into action, but Mr Genachowski said a lot has been going on behind the scenes with lawyers trying to find a way forward.

"All options are still on the table," he said. "We will make sure that we get the rules right, we need to make sure that what we do maximizes innovation and investment across the ecosystem."

In the meantime, the chairman noted that there are still 24 million Americans who have no access to broadband. He also cited America's poor standing in the world where the nation is ranked sixth out of 40 industrialised countries in terms of broadband deployment and adoption.

Mr Genachowski claimed that less-than-awful number concealed the real story: that the United States ranks bottom in terms of the rate of improvement on broadband.

Hours after Mr Genachowski's appearance, the Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon is looking at ways to charge consumers based on the speed of their wireless data connection in addition to the amount of data they use.

Mark Zuckerberg: 'I've made so many mistakes'

Maggie Shiels | 10:01 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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Isn't it good to know that the world's youngest billionaire and the co-founder and CEO of the world's biggest social network is just like one of us?

Mark Zuckerberg

 

Despite his enormous success with his business, Mark Zuckerberg admitted he is fallible in front of an audience of hundreds of journalists, industry peers and admirers.

Of course we are all too aware of some of those blunders when it comes to the issue of privacy on the site, which is home to over 500 million users. But it was nice to hear him admit it during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco.

"I've made so many mistakes in running the company so far," he said.

"Basically, any mistake that you can think of I've made or will make in the next few years. If you're building a product that people love you can make a lot of mistakes."

The trouble, he said, is figuring out which of the company's myriad problems "really matter."

When users shout from the rooftops and jump up and down on Facebook as they did with Beacon and as they did with privacy changes that is the time to act.

With every product announcement the company makes, the issue of privacy always bubbles to the surface. Mr Zuckerberg once famously said "privacy is dead". Despite the backlash he endured as a result, he told the conference that as time goes by those that are asking for more control today, are going to get more and more comfortable of letting go of it tomorrow.

"My guess would be that over the next few years...the data portability and openness side of this, it will become a lot more obvious about why this is valuable and the great things that can be created from this."

He also held his hand up over a recent spat the company has had with Google over importing users contacts from Gmail. Google blocked Facebook because the social networking site does not reciprocate.

"I'm not sure we're 100% right on this," admitted Mr Zuckerberg.

"The correct answer isn't completely obvious. I'm not sure that we're completely right, but I think it's not completely black and white."

As part of his on-stage confessional, the 26 year-old said he had a soft spot for the scrappy underdog and for budding entrepreneurs some of whom told him they were inspired by his story as portrayed in the movie The Social Network. Be it fact or fiction.
As to the ethos of the company, Mr Zuckerberg said they have a pretty straight forward set of beliefs:

"We have five values we write down. Two especially: move fast and be bold. Technology companies are interesting, they get slower with scale.

"One of the things I think about every day is how do we make this company move as quickly as possible. That's a really big deal. A company with a few hundred engineers putting out the quality of products we do, I'm really proud of it."

For weeks the young CEO has been talking about how the world is moving to be more social. For businesses he has said there will be a lot of disruption and it was a theme he echoed again during his conversation at the Web 2.0 Summit.

Gaming was the first industry to become more social on Facebook. Earlier in the week, the Summit heard from the founder of Zynga games which created Farmville and Mafia Wars. Mark Pincus said that to date 320 million people had played his companies games.

Mr Zuckerberg predicted that other industries such as music and television would experience the same kind of growth and disruption in the future:

"Over the next five years, most industries are going to be rethought and designed around people. Our view is every product is going to get social.

"I think this is going to be a really exciting period. Some are going to make things around people. Some aren't going to make it. But over the next five years, everyone's going to have to think about this, just like they have to think about mobile.

"I think people will get there. They just need to take the steps to get comfortable. A slow approach isn't necessarily bad."

And for those not so sure, some succinct advice from the guy now in charge or a company estimated to be worth $40bn, he told them to "Get on the bus."

Yahoo: Fun and relevant?

Maggie Shiels | 08:45 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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For the past couple of years, Yahoo has struggled to define itself in its own mind and to that of the industry plus the user.

Carol Bartz

 

At a major tech conference Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz jokingly admitted it had taken her two years to hone it down.

It is a "simple story of a technology company, innovative and the largest media content communications company in the world. Content, communications, media and innovation.

"Yahoo has stood for a lot in the internet" added Ms Bartz.

"It has stood for fun, it has stood for relevance. It has stood for context around information. Has it had some tough years, sure? I think companies can be tested, and companies pick themselves up when they've had some challenges, and that's what Yahoo is doing."

Ms Bartz also told the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco that "I think it went off track a little when people thought it was a search company.

"Search is half of our business and we can do it very well. Search is a hard problem - big capital expenditure. It's an arms race at this point."

Yahoo has since partnered up with Microsoft's Bing search engine to power its searches.

"Aligning with Microsoft with their huge pile of resources has really been a big win for us," added Ms Bartz.

As to the biggest player in this arms race? Well that would be Google. On the question of Yahoo's identity, Ms Bartz made it clear that one thing they are not is Google.

"Who wouldn't aspire to be Google but that is not the environment we are in. We are not a Google. We are a Yahoo.

"They are a fascinating company and I think one of the most important things I did, we did, in the first year as a management team is explain we are not Google. We are Yahoo," said Ms Bartz.

She also upbraided Silcon Valley's myopic obsession with this question.

"People outside the Valley are not confused. They don't ask this trick question "what is Yahoo?"

"I am never asked that outside the country or in Iowa."

Ms Bartz, who was dressed in the company's colour purple, did admit that just like Google it was also locked in a war for talent.

"I've been in this Valley since 1983. I have watched this talent race in this 60 mile circle for 27 years.

"Engineers want to make a difference. They want to come in and not just be one of 15,000 smart kids. They want to have a really interesting job.

"There are a lot of fascinating jobs at Yahoo and we are hiring every day."

The latter should come as good news for Yahoo employees amid rumours that the company is set to lay off as much as 20% of the workforce.

As to following in Google's footsteps by offering an across the board 10% pay rise to retain top talent, Ms Bartz said that just wasn't going to happen.

At the end of the informal chat, host John Battelle played a game with Ms Bartz asking her to think of the first word that popped into her mind in response to a word he gave her.

For Apple, Mz Bartz replied Beatles.
For Twitter, she said tweet.
Microsoft - partner.
Facebook - competition.
HP - where's Leo? (the new CEO of HP following the departure of Mark Hurd).
Google - great company.

Facebook Messages: In the war room

Maggie Shiels | 11:41 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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Facebook launched its new messaging system yesterday on the rooftop of a swanky San Francisco hotel. As co-founder Mark Zuckerberg waxed lyrical about the new service which blends online chat, text messages and other real-time conversation tools with traditional e-mail, a roomful of engineers were holed up in a conference room around the corner coding like there was no tomorrow.

Facebook's 'war room'

 

The "war room" of around 30 Facebookers was led by Joel Seligstein, the engineering manager in charge of the product.

The BBC was among the few journalists given access to the area as the coders huddled over their computers turning on the new product.

"Every time we turn on a new set of users we have to move their data from the old system to the new system - so one by one we have to run that process. Right now we are moving the first set of users over," explained Mr Seligstein.

"This is the first time we are getting to see some real production traffic and real users doing different things."

While Mr Seligstein said he couldn't be precise about numbers, he told the BBC that the coterie of engineers was moving over "tens of thousands today just to get a good base run and will roll out from there depending how well it does."

This is the company's biggest project to date; while there was a core team of around 15 engineers working on the product for over a year, Mr Seligstein said when they first started they didn't grasp the enormity of the task:

"It started out pretty small before we really understood the scope of what we were trying to do. It turned out to be a much bigger task than we thought, especially after we decided to go with our own custom infrastructure. It was a big technical adventure.

"We wanted to really convince our users that we were launching a scalable infrastructure and that we were going to do really well here. So we spent a lot of extra time than we normally do testing our software. I think it was a bigger endeavour than we thought but I feel good about what we got."

E-mail arguably remains the killer app when it comes to how the majority of people communicate.

In the main room, Mr Zuckerberg told reporters and analysts that he had spoken to high school pupils who told him they found e-mail slow and cumbersome. To his delight, he said, they used Facebook to send messages and stay in touch.

Before the launch, there was much speculation over whether Facebook Messages presented an e-mail killer. Mr Stelistein said that when his team started work on the product, code-named Project Titan, that was the furthest thing from their minds:

"I don't think we used that term internally even once. It was all about getting those conversations to happen in one place; targeting e-mail was never our intention.
 
"We never really set out to reinvent anything. We always talked about this as an evolution and not a revolution and a lot of the things we did came out of us playing with the product and saying: ' This is what we want. We wish it did this and someone would build it.'
 
"We knew we wanted to combine these channels (IM, online chat, e-mail and texts). From day one, we asked: 'How do we get this context that we are missing? How do I stop checking my e-mail everyday from those people I want to contact?' We knew we wanted to get those people conversations in because they were important and I want to check them in one place.
 
"We were also frustrated about how SMS works. And we were fascinated by how the iPhone works. How those things funnel into Facebook. We wanted to do the same things for people without iPhones as well. We really wanted to pull those communication channels together and the rest kind of fell into place.
 
"I think it's about making communication shorter and simpler."

In an effort to be less formal than e-mail, Facebook Messages don't have subject lines, cc and bcc fields and don't expect you to type "Dear Rory" or "Thanks from Maggie".

One industry watcher told the BBC that she predicted a learning curve for users; Mr Seligstein did not disagree:

"When giving it to our test users and employees, it takes sometimes up to a week or two before they really get it. The first day they say 'not much is different apart from I have an e-mail address now'.
 
"Two weeks later they have an experience they really like. They are having a conversation and they leave their computer and they continue it on the phone or they come back and it magically pops up in chat. Most of the time they won't really notice."

He added that he thought younger users would get used to it first:

"I think we will have a little bit of an adoption problem - not a problem, but it will take a little longer for the rest to hop on board. We've noticed that even for us, it takes a week or two before you really grab on and get this system. I think they'll slowly come on board but I think the younger guys will grab it really quickly."

In the longer term, Mr Seligstein hopes the product will change the way people communicate:

"The next generation of messaging online will be shorter, faster communication. I also think we will see a convergence.

"The next question is: how do we integrate this into other products? What does this mean for groups? How do you talk to your groups and plan events? How do we pull them together? Where else are communications happening, especially on Facebook? And what model really works best for them?"

The war room continues to port a trove of data; slowly but surely over the coming months, Facebook says, every one of its 500-million-plus users will be offered an @facebook.com address.

Facebook e-mail: The battle with Google heats up

Maggie Shiels | 11:58 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010

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Today could see a new battle between Google and Facebook.

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

At 10:00 Pacific time, Facebook is expected to launch an e-mail service that will challenge Google's Gmail and further tie its own 500-million-plus users to Facebook products.

Tech news blog Techcrunch reported that the service is known as Project Titan, "unofficially referred to internally as its 'Gmail killer'". Of course, Google is not the only company that would be affected by the rumoured product. Other e-mail providers include AOL, Yahoo with 303 million users and kingpin Microsoft with 384 million users.

At the weekend, AOL announced a timely preview of Project Phoenix, an update to its e-mail service. The press release did not specify how many people use AOL mail but did say that it "remains an important part of AOL's business; in fact it represents 45 percent of the page views on the AOL network today".

If the rumours of "@facebook.com" addresses are accurate, imagine the clamour for tom@facebook.com, dick@facebook.com and even maggie@facebook.com - addresses which carry a certain cachet because they will seem so "in" with Facebook. "Hey, look at me: I don't even need my last name!"

But I digress from the rivalry between Facebook and Google.

The thing to remember is that Facebook's users are a very engaged bunch; with so much of their information locked in Facebook's walled garden, they are the envy of Google which is unable to trawl through all that data and point adverts at them.

On Facebook, people share status updates and photos, write on one another's walls, buy and send virtual goods, play games, ask questions, and check into places and cash in on deals. Add a decent e-mail service to the mix and you need almost never leave.

In return, Facebook will get to know more about you and your interactions with friends and colleagues: where you shop, where you are going on holiday and what you are up to this coming weekend and in the future. It will know more about your work, likes, dislikes and contacts. And of course all this e-mail will be personally identifiable and open to monetisation through advertising.

Worrying stuff for Google.

A report by the research firm Gartner says that "greater availability of social-networking-services, coupled with changing demographics and work styles, will lead 20% of employees to use social networks as their business communications' hub by 2014."

"The rigid distinction between e-mail and social networks will erode," says Gartner senior research vice president Monica Basso.

"E-mail will take on many social attributes, such as contact brokering, while social networks will develop richer e-mail capabilities."

The Facebook e-mail rumours followed a very public spat about address books. Google recently blocked Facebook from importing Gmail contacts because Facebook was keeping its own contacts private. Google says it believes in the open sharing of such data.

Last week Google awarded its staff an across-the-board 10% pay increase in an attempt to stem the flow of talent to Facebook, seen by many as having a more innovative culture because of its smaller size.

Facebook has around 2,000 staff; Google has 23,000. Recent high-profile departures included Lars Rasmussen who created Wave - which was nixed because it wasn't getting enough user traction - and was also the co-founder of Google Maps.

Chrome architect Matthew Papakipos, Android senior product manager Erick Tseng, and top ad executive David Fischer also decamped to Facebook earlier this year.

Other notable departures include Bret Taylor, the former CEO of Friendfeed and now Facebook's chief technology officer and platform manager Carl Sjogreen who led the team that gave the world Google Calendar.

At the Redfin corporate blog, Glenn Kelman recently noted that of the 2,174 Facebook employees with a profile on networking service Linkedin, 378 previously worked at Google.

Musical chairs aside, all attention here in Silicon Valley is focused on Mark Zuckerberg, who is coming to a swanky San Francisco hotel to make an announcement - which will come hours before an appearance by Google's CEO Eric Schmidt at the Web 2.0 Summit in a nearby hotel.

Mr Zuckerberg will be appearing at Web 2.0 on Tuesday.

It is worth remembering that it is all about the data. While Google has quite a bit to lose and Facebook has much to gain, what's in it for the humble user?

Online privacy: Controlling your digital teens

Maggie Shiels | 09:12 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010

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While parents might find it hard to accept, children today share more than they might like them to on social networks and on their mobile phones.

Just because you might not be as tech-savvy as your offspring, it doesn't mean you can't control what they get up to online. That is the message behind a new booklet aimed at aiding and abetting parents in looking out for their teenagers on Facebook, the world's biggest social network with over 500 million users.

Larry Magid

 

Simply called A Parent's Guide to Facebook, co-author Larry Magid told the BBC 'this goes into detail about why you need to be aware of your teenager's privacy, security and safety online and gives a step-by-step guide on how to keep them safe."

"Facebook not only has a half a billion users, it also seems to have every teenager on the planet. That is somewhat of an exaggeration but the overwhelming number of teens in America are using Facebook and a very high percentage throughout the world are using it," added Mr Magid, who is also the co-founder of Connect Safely.

"Parents need to be part of this conversation."

The how-to guide is produced in conjunction with the I Keep Safe coalition.

"I speak a lot around the world now on this subject and I find that most teens are aware of privacy - they are aware of basic settings but they are not aware of the granular customised settings. So we want people to know that you can make a couple of clicks and tighten those controls," said Mr Magid, who has served on the Obama administration's Online Safety and Technology Working Group.

"Kids listen to their parents. It is a myth that they don't. The fact is that parents are the number one source of safety and privacy and ethical information for youth and despite what people think, teens will listen. We know not all parents have the technical skills and that is where we come in.

"In the same way you should know who your kids are hanging out with and where they are going, you should know where they are going online. That doesn't mean you need to stand over them looking over their shoulder but you should talk to your teens and help them set boundaries," added Mr Magid.

Facebook is constantly on the rack over privacy with frequent stumbles ranging from a near meltdown over the summer to claims in the Wall Street Journal last week that a third-party developer was harvesting user ID information.

Famously, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg ramped things ups earlier in the year during the Techcrunch awards ceremony when he declared that the age of privacy was finished.

Facebook is in the firing line of a number of politicians, chief among them the Republican Joe Barton, potential chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce committee who's making it plain what he sees as priority number one.

"I want the Internet economy to prosper, but it can't unless the people's right to privacy means more than a right to hear excuses after the damage is done.

"In the next Congress, the Energy and Commerce Committee and our subcommittees are going to put Internet privacy policies in the crosshairs," warned Mr Barton, who is also co-chairman of the committee's privacy caucus.

For his part, Mr Magid, whose Connect Safely group is supported by Facebook, said he believed that the social network had improved in this arena and seemed to genuinely be doing better.

"By and large, Facebook is doing a pretty good job - but I would like to see it redouble its education efforts," he said.

National Unfriend Day: Cut the 'friend' fat

Maggie Shiels | 09:27 UK time, Monday, 8 November 2010

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If you use Facebook, how many friends do you have? Are they really your friends - the kind you would call and say "Let's go for a glass of vino/dinner/movie" or ask to borrow that blouse/fiver/book?

You have probably "friended" some other users just because they know someone you vaguely, but don't really, know. I know I have. It all depends of course on what you use Facebook for, but that is a whole other story.

Jimmy Kimmel

 

"These people on Facebook are not your friends" is the message actor William Shatner is trying to convey as part of the National Unfriend Day orchestrated by late-night TV comedian Jimmy Kimmel.

The funnyman says that friendship is an issue he has been giving a lot of thought to lately.

"Friendship is a sacred thing. And I believe Facebook is cheapening it. I go on Facebook and I see people with thousands of what they call 'friends' which is impossible. You can't have a thousand friends," he says, launching a new holiday on 17 November: National Unfriend Day or "NUD".

"I encourage you to cut out some of the friend fat in your life. A friend is someone you have a relationship with," says Mr Kimmel, professing that he has finally "found a cause": "I found my thing... and it's friendship. We should have less of it."

The initiative has a kind of medical stamp of approval from US TV show presenter Dr Mehmet Oz.

"Facebook friends can lead to severe anxiety, hypertension and even possible death. This National Unfriend Day, let's stamp these silent killers out once and for all," says Dr Oz.

Among the 40,000-plus people who "like" the idea of National Unfriend Day on Jimmy Kimmel's Facebook page are one or two Facebook PR folk.

It's interesting to note that the word "unfriend" was the New Oxford American Dictionary's "Word of the Year" for 2009, as reported by the social media news site Mashable.

Does Mr Kimmel have a serious point: do too many of us have fake friends on social networks that need to be given the heave-ho?

An alternative to Google search?

Maggie Shiels | 13:32 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010

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Google has long been the kingpin of search but every so often some start-up comes along thinking it can unseat the behemoth.

One very public contender was Cuil which was made up of former Google engineers.

It launched to great fanfare and claimed to do search better than Google. The company exited "stealth mode" in 2008 but two years later bit the dust.

Cuil's demise was also very public here in Silicon Valley and serves as a warning to another entrant, Blekko.

"We don't expect to put Google out of business and that is not our goal. That is not going to happen," Mike Markson, co-founder and vice president of marketing told the BBC.

Of Google and its closest rivals, he said: "They are here, they have 85% of the market but that doesn't mean to say there isn't room out there [for] someone who has a differentiated product and who approaches search in a novel way."

Rich Skrenta and Mike Markson

 

Blekko chief executive and co-founder Rich Skrenta added: "We are fans of both Google and [Microsoft search engine] Bing and the fact that Bing has actually made strides in growing its market share with their investment we find encouraging.

"This shows that people are willing to try another search engine and that it's not just all these inert people are going to stick with their Google habit."

Mr Markson chimed in: "Our goal is to get a good audience that likes what we are doing, likes our approach to search and we think our beta proves they will."

So what is this new approach and how does it differ from Google and its famous 10 blue links?

Type your query in the Blekko search box and three billion web pages, deemed worthwhile through a mix of algorithms and human input, will be scanned through. It then organises these lists around a "slashtag"; the company's tagline is "Slash the web".

The aim is to ensure relevant results and weed out spam results and content created by companies like Demand Media - this is where people are paid to write articles around popular topics so that they rise to the top of search results.

Screengrab of Blekko homepage

 

Blekko said that, for example, searching "cure for headaches" on its search engine will return results from the best quality sites in the health category, like the National Institute of Health - in contrast to the results on Google's first page which range from WikiHow to Yahoo Answers.

Blekko is starting small and, like Bing, offering deep dives in seven subject areas where it thinks it can do a better job than Google: health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges. Blekko's pitch is that there is a greater level of human involvement in its search process.

"An algorithm can't tell the difference between two articles, both of which are written by humans but one of which is on, say, MayoClinic.com and another written for 50 cents to have it put on eHow.com," said Mr Skrenta.

"They both look like medical information to an algorithm but one is just a cut-and-paste job and the other high-quality material. Looking at what the trend is, we see that this is accelerating to a point where we are going to [see] a web with a trillion URLs.

"Look at what happened to e-mail traffic where 95% is all spam. What happens when 95% of every URL on the web is spam? At that point an algorithm can't tell the difference between the good content and the bad content.

"The only way to fix this is to bring back large-scale human curation to search combined with strong algorithms. You have to put people into the mix," said Mr Skrenta.

Mr Skrenta said the initial goal is to identify the 50 best sites for the top 100,000 search categories. Its use of volunteers to identify those sites is modelled on Wikipedia.

"Crowdsourcing is the only way we will be able to allow search to scale to the ever-growing web," said Mr Skrenta.

Over the past few months, users in a private beta have created more than 3,000 collections of sites that users can search through by typing a "slashtag" and topic next to their search query.

As Blekko goes worldwide on Monday, Mr Skrenta has his eyes set on becoming the third search engine: "This is only the beginning for us. We are only getting started."

Blekko has raised $24m since its founding in 2007. Mr Skrenta has earned his stripes in organising content and information on the internet. In the 1990s, he co-founded NewHoo, a human-edited web directory that was later sold to Netscape and renamed the Open Directory Project.

The company's name comes from Mr Skrenta, who called his personal computer in college "Blekko".

So what does Google think? The company says: "Having great competitors is a huge benefit to us and everyone in the search space - it makes us all work harder, and at the end of the day everyone benefits from that."

PS: Mr Skrenta is a man with a very interesting background.

He was one of those young students who pushed the boundaries by messing about with code. This resulted in the creation of the Elk Cloner virus that infected Apple II machines. It is widely agreed to be the first large-scale self-spreading personal-computer virus.

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