social media

IRC journalism in 1999: a nostalgic take on the evolution of the Internet

In 1999, I was 17 and I had been on Internet, as we used to say, for about 3 years then. I was still at school – in Southern Italy – and as part of our curriculum we had to write a monthly essay, having a choice of topics and styles including that of a newspaper article. The only reason why I chose this was that it was the only one for which our teacher would pre-announce the topic (all other being surprise).

Back then, the Yugoslav Wars had “ended”, pretty much, in 1995. No one had ever heard of Kosovo, a small region of what became Serbia, with a relevant Albanian minority. After alleged genocide and the international community condemning Serbia, despite a veto from the UN Security Council, NATO decided to bomb Yugoslavia.

In those years, there was no Twitter, no Facebook, not even Orkut. Actually, not even Google. Blogging was, maybe, something people would write on their home page (mine was provided by my local ISP, and it had a grey background). But the world fascination with the Internet was getting bigger and bigger. People would start talking to random people in public and private chats. Those were the years of ICQ, the beginnings of MP3 as a music medium – when MP3 files could be searched for on Altavista.

My essay about the Belgrad bombing was born on IRC. I joined the channels #kosovo and #belgrad. I started calling random people, declaring my intentions: I wanted to ask about the war, what it was like being there, what were their feelings about NATO, Kosovo, Serbia.

Most chatters, on both sides, were happy someone was asking about them. Some of them were expats trying to get in touch with relatives; some others managed to get an dial-up internet connection in their garage, turned bomb refuge. I spent a number of nights mostly trying to collect balanced views, but more importantly establishing a direct, sometimes emotional connection with people who were living not that far away – my town being about 600km and a fly away from Pristina – and experiencing a terrible situation, in a very polarised way.

IRC helped me gather those view and write my essay. Internet became to me, in the 90s, a superb means of getting to know people who were far away from me, understanding them, perceiving their experience; despite a limited, text-based, medium, that connection could happen. Real-time journalism was a reality; it was by its nature a one-to-one experience, not a collection of tweets on a given hashtag.

We’re moving away from that, and let me be nostalgic: something has got lost. We’re now damn good at aggregating content, but with all of this aggregation we’re probably failing to make that one-to-one connection. The early Internet facilitated that connection; the current, social-based Internet, paradoxically cannot.

social media Web 2.0

Instagram’s T&C and the hipsterization of the digital economy

The twittersphere has gone mad after Instagram’s announcement that they were changing their T&C, sparking a users’ revolt. The issue revolves around the possibility, for Instagram, to sell photographs without the author’s consent.
Needless to say, I had been expecting this announcement for quite a long time.


In the beginning was the dot-com boom
Once upon a time, Flickr had won the competition of the photo-sharing web services. I say web service because that was what Flickr was: not an “app” in today’s sense. After the dot-com boom with all of its “join us for free, one day we’ll have a product“, which failed to deliver that promise of creating a viable business model, history brought us a new concept: Freemium. Flickr incarnated perfectly that concept: it offered a very basic service for free (only 200 pictures), and offered a paid-for photo storage option for a reasonable price. What could beat them?


Hey, hipsters
Years passed, and something began to shift. Freemium started to look dull. There was a big return to the very idea that had created the dot-com bubble: you don’t need to concentrate on the business model, just execute the idea. Plenty of VC money fostered this idea. The funding for $41,000,000 of the product-less start-up (and the attempt Google made to buy them for $200,000,000) is recounted as an example to follow (or as a total joke by the outsiders).

What were the reasons behind this return? I think it’s down to two facts:

  • the progress in technology, that made mobile devices available to an increasing number of people, and their penetration reaching ratios never seen before: this convinced VCs that there was nothing that could possibly go wrong having the right mass of users (i.e. a model based on conversion rates)
  • a culture switch in the type of people setting out to create businesses: from product nerds (think of Bill Gates) to hipsters.


Growth is the word
Hipsters have the big merit of having turned entrepreneurship into something cool, fashionable, and exhibiting good taste. Unfortunately this came with the attached condition that good ideas don’t need a money-making component straight away. No, you first need to concentrate on growth. Growth became the mantra, the magic word that could move capitals. Companies started to receive an evaluation no longer based on their profitability, but on their growth ratio. Sometimes, not even on their growth ratio but on their growth expectations. Instagram itself was acquired by a panicking Facebook for a whopping $1,000,000,000. At the same time Flickr became unfashionable.


Murder by growth
There is one problem with growth, however, and it’s rarely spoken about: growth can kill. A profit-less company can’t sustain growth. Well, it can, provided it constantly finds VC to back it. As a consequence, a relevant part of the business ends up concentrating on increasing the appeal to VCs rather than to paying users. The two aren’t necessarily two planets apart, but they’re not exactly the same.


If the product is free, you are the product
This is one of my favourite quotes, because it’s so true. When a product is free, you are consciously or not accepting T&C that allow the company to use your data. It’s what Google does, making money on ads made relevant to the user by what they know about them. Think about it just a second: Instagram and Flickr offer basically the same service. Storage and sharing of photographs. Surely Instagram’s offering is cooler and sleeker. And the lack of a proper mobile app for Flickr has never been received positively by the market. When Yahoo acquired Flickr, they paid $35,000,000. Instagram cost considerably more than that. However, Flickr had a product and sold it. Flickr has become profitable very quickly and in a very tangible way. Will Instagram ever be able to get to the green valley?


Flickr is the new Flickr?
There are many ways Instagram might get out of the PR fiasco that the T&C change has become. Certainly, they could just wait and hope that people will forget about it. They could offer an opt-out fee, but this would create two sets of T&C for two categories of users. They could start charging for the app, following the example of the very popular Whatsapp; what’s even more interesting is Whatsapp’s explanation of why they refuse to display ads (because they want to concentrate on selling a product and service). I think there’s a lot Instagram can still learn from Flickr. For example, Flickr offers the option to license images to third-parties, making a commission in the process. This is smart and puts the user in a better feeling towards it than being forced to give up all their pictures. Instagram was the new Flickr. But with Flickr re-entering the photo-sharing game from the front door (with an incredibly – and unexpected – good app) it might place itself as the new Instagram. In two steps, Flickr might be the new Flickr. Teaching the digital entrepreneurs that having a clear idea of how to generate revenue can be what keeps a “startup” successful – renovating and innovating – for years.
social media

Are companies starting to understand digital engagement?

Some time ago I had an issue with my current account and decided to try the social media way to solve it. Surprisingly, it worked!

I tweeted @AskNationwide, my building society’s social media account, saying that for a transfer I received (from PayPal) there was some missing information (the PayPal activation code) in the description.

After exchanging a couple of Direct Messages, they responded with the details, by sending a message directly inside my bank account’s “inbox” (a facility provided by Nationwide). The whole matter was sorted in 47 minutes.

I think this shows a great way of using social media and is pretty much forward thinking for a simple reason: I made a personal request, and they responded promptly in a way that could not damage anyone.

To put it clearer: other times I’ve asked help via Twitter to companies I hold accounts with. Airlines, utility providers, mobile companies. Most of the times the standard reply is “we cannot help you for security reasons”.

The whole point is that often security reasons are greatly exaggerated.

Despite being unable to verify my identify via Twitter, Nationwide thought

  1. that it wasn’t a problem to respond with the actual details, given that I had to login to get them
  2. that even if I had been an impostor on Twitter it was safe to assume I could not login onto the current account (without also having stolen at least the holder’s debit card)
  3. that the information I was asking for could not be used for illicit reasons.

Rather than sticking behind a “we can’t for security reasons” they proactively and pragmatically retained a happy customer.

Things are starting to change. Many companies are starting to understand that users in 2012 expect a quick conversation on Twitter. Notably, O2 has been known for engaging users on Twitter using a remarkable sense of humour.

Companies are also starting to understand that helping users directly online can benefit them: having an active online presences can take less resources and resolve problems in less time than a full-fledged call centre.

The transition is not easy. On the same issue, I also tweeted @AskPayPal. It took them a couple of hours to get in touch. By then, the problem was already solved. Good attempt, but it’s clear that they are struggling to scale the service up.

I suspect we, the users, need to start pushing for companies to shift their culture. It will make us more satisfied, and they will retain customers more easily. Win-win.

humour recommender systems social media

The most powerful weapon

This is one of those answers that keep me going to check Quora from time to time. Not just because it’s totally true.

social media Web 2.0

Is Social Media changing our relationship with Death?

“This morning I’ve started the most amazing journey”. These are the opening words of a Facebook status update of a friend of mine, announcing her own death. The status goes on to explain about her terminal illness (many of her friends, like me, were unaware of it), explain why she kept it private, and say good-bye, all in first person. How peculiar yet powerful is it?

Surely my friend was not someone belonging to the “Internet generation”, being in her seventies. Still, she was a moderately active Facebook user. Especially as someone living far away from many of her friends, she used Facebook as a way to keep in touch. And when she understood that her illness was terminal, she decided to arrange for what was going to happen on her profile. Hence my question: is social media changing our relationship with death?

There are many examples of how death is represented on social media and how social media becomes the first point of arrival for mourners (and the curious). Especially with famous people, their Facebook profiles become sources of photographs for the press. Their final status updates are used to show how sudden their departure was. On Twitter there is a flow of messages from mourners using hashtags as #RIP. Steve Jobs’ death became a trending topic on Twitter, as Amy WInehouse’s. But all of this is just the digital transposition of an non-digital process.

Announcing one own’s death is a new kind of behaviour, a novel need emerging as a consequence of the perceived importance of social media in our everyday lives. As we have become less worried of posting photos of our children and to display our location to a level of accuracy that would have scared us ten years ago, so we have started experiencing death in unexpected ways. We can still see the profiles of dead friends as they were still part of our daily lives. As an eternal memorial to their lives, they stay with us, presumably forever – or until Mr Facebook decides to delete them, sometimes upon request of friends and relatives. But differently from Twitter, where a profile of someone who dies just disappears from their followers’ timeline, Facebook profiles stay there and occasionally make a comeback in the most painful way: “today is your dead friend’s birthday – write happy birthday on their wall!”.

In a new model of human relationships, friends end up writing that well wishing message. The birthday of a dead friend becomes the occasion to revive them. Hundreds of messages from common friends will spread on all the common connections’ timelines. New behaviours, shaping a new attitude towards death. It’s collective mourning. Death has become social. Can you think of an equivalent of this in a non-digital context? Have you ever been at a cemetery, making a mass-visit to a dead loved one? I don’t think so, and that’s where social media is changing our relationship with death. It makes people remember once more and at the same time it provides ways to celebrate a person in their social circle.

Given that death becomes so relevant to our daily digital lives, it’s not surprising that people start making arrangements for their digital after-life. Expressing the need to make your death manifest on your Facebook profile is acknowledging that your digital self is an important part of your life. Some people might behave differently; some might decide to close their profiles, or ask relatives to delete them. As in a non-digital context, for some life will go on, for some will not. But there’s no denying that social media is affecting our perception of and reaction to death in the same public, open way that it has changed other previously private aspects of our lives.