Monday, September 29, 2008

Why Facebook?

You have probably heard of facebook, a so-called "social networking" site. But you may not imagine why you'd want to use it yourself if, like me, you're well beyond the typical under-30 facebook user. After spending a little time as a user, I've found some compelling aspects of the service which provide benefits not otherwise available with previous paradigms (i.e., email, instant messaging, blogs, personal Web pages).

Most of all, what you might find surprising and appealing is that FB provides a kind of "firewall" between you and the world, despite the "social" nature of the site.

A little over a year ago, I created a facebook account with the intention of seeing how social networking sites worked. After initially finding 5 or 6 people (by having FB search my email address book), I never got back to spend time with the site. Four or five months ago, one of the people who I had "friended" wrote me a question through facebook. I was inspired to try a new search of my contacts to see whether there were more people I knew, and the list grew to something like 15 or 16. At this point, I have still have only a couple of dozen "Friends," but that's been enough to finally get a sense of what the site has to offer.

Facebook was initially available only to Harvard University students, where its founders were enrolled. Over time, it grew to allow any student, then (apparently as these students graduated but continued to want the site's services) to anyone over 13 years of age. It's generally acknowledged that FB was a response to MySpace, a social networking site which has famously become the domain of "tweenies."

Here are just some of facebook's features (the ones I've noticed):
    • Like all social networking sites, their goal is for users to find other users. To that end, the inital steps in creating a new (free) account encourage you to search for friends already on the site. FB (and other sites) provides a tool to search through your email addresses within popular email sites (AOL, Gmail, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) and informs you whether any site members' are in your contact list.
    • As another vector for connecting with others you may know, FB maintains a database of existing schools. If you choose to fill in your educational information, your exact school will auto-fill as you type. Consequently, you will be presented with "people you may know" lists which match educational and professional institutions.
    • You can optionally associate yourself with one geographical region defined as a "network." This also allows others to more easily identify you.
    • Many of you choose to be private about your online presence. This is completely understandable. A cool thing about facebook is that unless your accept someone as a "friend," you can severely restrict how much anyone can know about you. At a minimum, you reveal only:
      • Your name
      • An "Add as Friend" button
      • A "Send a Message" button
      • A "View Friends" button
    • If anyone presses any of the buttons, you are privately sent an email informing you of the request, which you can choose to accept or decline. Your true identity and email address remain secret, unless you choose otherwise.
    • You can choose to display an image - presumably of yourself. A single tiny thumbnail is all that is viewable to non-friends.
    • Optionally, you can display more information - email addresses, geographic region, schools, etc.
    • Once you have accepted another user as a "Friend," your personal profile information is now visible to that person. The profile can be as elaborate as you wish, including photo and video albums, favorites lists, and any facebook "applications" you choose to install.
    • Once you have "friended" someone, you will be provided with opportunities to review their Friends to see if you know them, so you can add them as Friends.
    • Friends can see thumbnails of profile images provided by your other Friends.
    • A very cool example of a fundamental FB feature is that if you upload a photograph, you can click on any point in the photo and type an identification of that person in the photo.If they are Friends, their FB name will automatically appear as you type. As a result:
      • ...when others view your photos, they can see location-specific captions of every person in the photo
      • ...any photos you have tagged as a facebook user automatically appear in that user's Photos space. Very slick.
    • In addition to being able to send text messages between users, FB has some great ideas for less-demading ways of interacting with other users:
      • News Feed - A profound aspect of FB, the News Feed appears by default on your FB "landing page." Depending upon the privacy settings your friends have made, you can see some or all of all your friend's FB activity in a continuous list of exchanges. These reported activities include:
        • Adding Friends
        • Removing Friends(!)
        • Making changes to one's profile
        • Adding photos
        • Having/making comments on photos/text
        • Actions taken in facebook Applications (more below)
      • Poking - At many locations on FB where you can see lists of Friends, a "Poke (Friend's name)" button is typically provided. Clicking this simply sends a "You have been poked by (Friend's name)" message and an opportunity to poke back. I like this as a way of saying "I'm thinking of you," but not having to invest time or energy in an actual topic. Third-party applications like "pillow fights" and "food fights" provide alternative wordless interaction fun.
      • Wall Writing - Every user has a personal "wall," on which their friends can write. This provides a person-to-person note with the tacit understanding that no response is expected.
    • I really like these mechanisms. For years, I've been looking for an alternative to email for sharing information with others without the expectation of a response.
    • There are myriad ways to share photos and video, as well as URLs and just text.
    • These are online services which do anything, from communicating, to creating quizzes and surveys to playing games. I've only installed two:
      • TravelBrain - Lets the user populate a world map with "pins" of locations they've visited, and shares/compares this information with other users.
      • Movies - Lets users discuss and rate motion pictures.
    • Two examples of extremely popular "fluffy" FB Apps are the various "pillow fight" and "karma" apps, which allow users to "hit" other users with pillows and "send" karmic wishes.
    • Here is facebook's Application Directory.
I certainly don't feel like the typical facebook user. Only about a half-dozen of my Friends are over 40 (two so far over 50), and many are under 20 - mostly children of my (f)riends. I don't expect to meet new friends this way, though I have re-connected with some old friends. I'm not sharing every moment or every personal thought with others, but it's proving to be a neat way of casually staying in touch.

Update 3/3/2009
Since I wrote this original post back in September 2008, I've observed a noticeable rise in the use of facebook. Whenever I happen to have facebook search my email address book for users, there are always new matches - not because I've added those people to my address book, but because those people have joined facebook. Most significantly, the "over 50" demographic of my facebook friends continues to increase, so apparently the compulsion of family and friend users is continuing to cause growth in the user base.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Digital Rights Management and Citizens' Rights' Managment

I wrote this email to friends and family in November 2005 and just re-discovered it. The issues discussed continue to challenge our rights as citizens and consumers.

On November 1, a story broke about certain copy-protected Sony BMG Music music CDs surreptitiously installing software on the hard drives of Windows computers. This software, intended to control the number of copies a legitimate user of the CD was allowed to make of the original (an increasingly common practice in the intellectual property business), used a strategy known in the computing world as a "rootkit" to hide the location and presence of this installed software. Rootkits are typically considered to be devious mechanisms for computer processes and files to be "cloaked" from the operating system itself, and therefore most software tools which might be utilized to detect such undesirable organisms as viruses and "Trojan Horses."

The rootkit was discovered by a Windows consultant who posted his discovery of the rootkit (using special rootkit detecting software) on his weblog on October 31.

The special music CDs (not conventional audio CDs, but CDs which require installation of a software "player" on a Windows computer to be played) did not disclose to the purchaser that the Digital Rights Management (DRM) software was being installed on their computer. Furthermore, it appears that the rootkit process uses a small but tangible amount of processing time whether the music CD is being played or not - essentially costing the user some computing power.

Within days, malicious virus authors exploited the rootkit's already-hidden nature for their own purposes, cloaking their viral mechanisms on computers already "infected" with the Sony DRM software (actually written by a British company, First 4 Internet).

The backlash has been enormous.Sony released free software to detect the presence of the rootkit on November 2. Class-action lawsuits have been filed against Sony, citing damage to users' computers, poor consumer disclosure and deceptive trade practices among the allegations.

Sony had been distributing these CDs for at least 8 months. Friday Sony announced that it will terminate production of the CDs. Microsoft has announced that it will update its malicious and spyware detection tools to detect and eliminate the rootkit.

DRM issues will continue to intrude upon our lives. I've been commenting for a couple of years now that just as we enter a technological era when consumers could have the best media experience of all time (consuming, making and distributing print, audio and video), that very nature of this digital revolution (especially that media can be perfectly duplicated and rapidly distributed) is so upsetting content distributors and producers that we can expect only to have hobbled tools and media.

As disturbing are legal trends, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998. This law challenges, and in many cases, explicitly prevents "Fair Use" of many activities, such as making a backup copy of a software or music CD which a user has legitimately purchased, or simply recording a program from the television to watch at your convenience. In many cases, this actiivty is specifically illegal under the DMCA. "Fair Use" activities, such as making a recording of a television program to give to a friend or relative to view, are becoming increasingly threatened as we enter the age of digital tape and disc recorders.

Recorder manufacturers are already being pressured by organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) or distribution studios into making consumer recorders into incorporating such tactics as which only allow playing of discs recorded by the purchaser of the DVD recorder on that same machine. More frightening is that its possible for content providers to, for example, subsequently decide that a recording that a consumer made of a show aired on television will no longer play. So a program you recorded yourself, on a recordable disc for which you paid money, would simply stop working. This information identifying what recordings could or couldn't play might be received into your DVD player via phone call or embedded in television signals. Let's say in this fictional example that a weekly automatic phone call from your DVD recorder (our TiVo makes phone calls for programming info) downloaded a database which indicated which programs it could and could not play. Your unplugging that phone cord to prevent that database from updating - in order to extend the time that your programs might play, and therefore circumventing a DRM mechanism - might just be in violation of the DMCA, and therefore a Federal felony.

As ill-conceived as the DMCA is the Federal Communication Commission's " Broadcast Flag" mandate. This provides television providers a mechanism to "flag" any program (by embedding a tiny "bit" within the digital television stream) with viewer permissions. The FCC could (and has already) mandate that any newly manufactured recording devices (hard disk, DVD, digital tape) sold in the U.S. incorporate the mechanisms which honor these flags. Here are some possible attributes - some of which I've heard, some which I'm speculating:

-inhibit recording of any kind on any device honoring Broadcast Flag
-allow playback for a limited number of times
-allow playback for a limited duration after the initial air date
-allow playback for a limited duration after the initial playback
-allow only standard-definition recording, even if the program is in high-definition
-delete from hard drive at an arbitrary date provided by broadcaster
-allow one recordable disc copy only - the disc will not duplicate

Note that for the last item to be enforced, both "set-top" DVD recorders and computer-based DVD "burners" would have to support Broadcast Flag infrastructure, so that copies could be "serialized." Furthermore, I've seen mention of uniquely IDed recorders being used to control whether copies were being used by the original owner or distributed to others. This suggests that all future media recorders will be uniquely identifiable as being recorded on a mechanism. Furthermore, evidence suggests that this "fingerprint" of the original recorder could be encoded into subsequent copies, leaving a "breadcrumb trail" in every copy ever made. Which means that you, the consumer, might be held personally responsible (and possibly in violation of a Federal Law) if a copy of something recorded in your home ends up in the wrong place. Pretty scary stuff.

But as scary as that stuff is, I'm extremely annoyed that in order to "protect" themselves from (perceived or real) piracy issues, content providers are prepared to take us 30 years into the past and prohibit consumers from "time-shifting" - or recording a program to watch at our convenience. On a hard-drive based recorder such as a TiVo - where there might be no normal way to extract the program from the hard drive (though there are many hobby hacking solutions), broadcasters think it makes sense to prevent TiVo users from recording programs. I can tell you that as TiVo users, less than 5 per cent of the television we watch is live. We have no idea when the programs we watch even air. If broadcasters prohibit us from recording their shows, we just won't see them. And this isn't just a threat - the FCC made a ruling in July that it was illegal to manufacture a Digital Television (DTV) tuner which did NOT have support for this kind of DRM. Thankfully, special interest groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation rallied to fight this FCC ruling, and got DC Circuit Court of Appeals to unanimously overturn the ruling, arguing that: "the FCC lacked authority to regulate what happens inside your TV or computer once it has received a broadcast signal."

There's a truth here that honest citizens will be inconvenienced or even lose some personal freedoms as a result of these attempts to protect commercial interests. That part of the (worldwide) population which is responsible for massively profitable piracy will NOT be thwarted by measures such as the DMCA or Broadcast Flag - there are clever people on the dark side as well as the light. Ideas about how media content makes money will have to change - perhaps by a radical change in the purchase/pricing model, or by providing some unique value to legitimate purchasers. There will always be people who want and get something for nothing. Penalizing those citizens who are willing to pay for their content isn't the answer.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"The Secret Life of Machines" Online!

For anyone who is interested in how things work, and anyone who likes to be entertained, there's cause to celebrate.

Artist, inventor, tinkerer and thinker Tim Hunkin and motion-picture effects friend Rex Garrod hosted the British television series "The Secret Life of Machines" between 1988 and 1993. In eighteen 35-minute episodes, these two eccentric British wizards create practical demonstrations of everyday inventions which define modern life.

The mixture of grass-roots fabrication, dry British wit, intellectualism and charm of the two rumpled presenters make these shows some of the best television - and possibly the best educational material - ever.

Now, the best science museum ever (the Exploratorium in San Francisco) is hosting all eighteen episodes as streaming video and small-format downloads.