Monthly Archives: February 2010
A few minutes ago, Google Buzz went live at http://buzz.google.com. Google posted a video introducing the Buzz, which ties together Google contacts into a distributed social network accessed through a new tab in Gmail.
In a live webcast on YouTube, Bradley Horowitz (@elatable) explained what Google was after with Buzz: a way to add relevance to the information firehose represented by social messaging and activity. The Web application will act as a user interface to for social data.
Based upon the demo, it will be a snappy app for processing, sharing and annotating images, video and conversations. “Organizing the world’s social information has been a large problem, the kind @Google likes to solve,” said Buzz product manager Todd Jackson, explaining at least some of the why behind the application of algorithmic authority to social media. Jackson writes more in his introduction to Google Buzz at Google’s official blog.
Content shared on Buzz can be posted publicly to a Google Profile (like the one for, say, Alexander Howard) or sent privately within a network. At first glance, the user interface and contrls looks like a Friendfeed clone, with the additional of familiar keyboard shortcuts from gmail and Google Reader. And, notably, Google has adopted the “@reply” convention from the Twitter community as a means of initiating a conversation with contact.
To get a user started with a network, Buzz will autofollow people you’ve emailed. In other words, as Jeremiah Owyang predicted last summer, Google made email into a social network.
Buzz is also mobile.
The mobile Web application, which works on both iPhone and Android, includes geotagging and voice recognition, allowing the user to make spoken updates. While Google profiles will aggregate a user’s Buzz activity, “Places” will aggregate location-based reviews. (In other words, look out Yelp.) A “Nearby” button provides location-based context for Buzz users. Google also launched a new mobile verion of Google Maps, adding a a social layer to its maps. The new “conversation bubbles” on Google Maps indicate geotagged Buzz updates and look like a lightweight, useful version of Twittervision.
Coming soon to the enterprise
Google Buzz will be launched as an enterprise product, says Horowitz. Buzz would likely serve as microblogging layer for Google Apps, providing helpful filtering for the noise of the social Web, unlike Wave, which added it. “A lot of the functionality is inspired by Wave,” said Horowitz, a likely nod to a decision to adopt the best features of the often maligned social messaging platform.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin was on hand to share his personal experience with Buzz, offering a preview of how it might be pitched to other business executives or CIOs. “I found a huge amount of productivity from using Google Buzz internally,” said Brin. “I posted [an] OpEd to Buzz. I looked at the broad categories and did a general edit based on that feedback. It was far more efficient.”
Public feeds are supported as an XML feed and are fully supported by PubSubHub as of today, said another Google exec. By going open API and openly courting developers to join them on Google Code, Google may be after the same fertile ecosystem that surround Twitter.
What does Google Buzz mean?
All of the above gives an idea of what Google’s newest Web application can do and how it might work. Altimeter Group’s Jeremiah Owyang has already posted a quick take on what Google Buzz will mean. Key insights:
At the high level, this is a strong move for Google, they continue to aggregate other people’s social content, and become the intermediatry. This helps them to suck in Twitter, Flickr, and any-other-data type as the APIs open up, giving them more to ‘organize’. This is Google acting on its mission to the world. For consumers, the risk of privacy will continue to be at top of mind. Although the features allow for sharing only with friends or in public. expect more consumer groups to express concern. Overtime, this will become moot as the next generation of consumers continues to share in public. For consumers, this could potentially have more adoption than Twitter as Gmail has a large footprint Google told me it’s tens of millions (active monthly unique). Of course, most Gmail users likely aren’t Twitter users, but there could be a large platform to draw from. For Facebook, this is a direct threat, these features emulate Friendfeed and the recently designed Facebook newsfeed. Expect Google to incorporporate Facebook connect, commoditizing Facebook data as it gets sucked into Google and displayed on Google SERP. For small busineses and retailers, this will impact their search engine results pages, as a single top ‘buzzer’ could cause their content to be very relevant, if that person was relevant, then their influential content could show at top of SERP pages. Expect Google to continue to offer advertising options now around buzz content –fueling their revenues.
Strong, near real-time analysis from Owyang. One area he didn’t dwell as much on is the utility to both businesses and many users of the social Web who want relevance for work or for specific topics, without the noise that often obscures both on Twitter, Facebook or other social networks. Power users have had to evolve many strategies to filter signal from the noise, including shadow accounts, lists, keyword searches or alerts. Google Buzz has the potential to allow over 150 million gmail users to quickly filter the most useful content from the social Web and then selectively share it with either friends, colleagues or the open Web. That action, often termed “curation” in the digital journalism space, is singularly useful.
If Buzz easily enables that activity for mobile users, it will have the potential to massively disrupt the nascent mobile social networking space that currently includes Yelp, Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt and Foursquare. If users turn to Buzz for reviews, to find who is nearby or what’s being discussed in the neighborhood, Google will also have made Google Maps much stickier, which could in turn make it a more useful platform for contextual mobile advertising. Given the potential for targeted ads based on location to be more useful, that might in turn be of great utility to both users and the search engine giant, though electronic privacy advocates are likely to look at the move with concern.
Will people use Buzz? That’s the multi-million dollar question. Facebook and Twitter own the social Web, as it stands. If Buzz offers a UI that adds relevance, it has a shot. If users find utility in the way that Buzz helps them filter social media from other platform, it could stack up well against Brizzly, Seesmic or similar “social dashboards.”
I’ll keep an eye out for the function to go live in my inbox in the meantime and read TechMeme for other reactions.
One might ask Tim O’Reilly, who has written eloquently about the topic and emceed the Gov2.0 Summit last year. One might also ask Mark Drapeau, who asked the question above earlier tonight on his blog, or Laurel Ruma, his co-chair at the Gov2.0 Expo last year, which showcased software and online platforms that used government data in innovative ways.
Or one might ask the nation’s technology executives, like US CIO Vivek Kundra or CTO Aneesh Chopra, both of whom participated in the Summit in Washington last summer. The attendees of the summit were asked by the organizers to define the term themselves in an online contest, offering up a multitude of interpretations of the nebulous term. Unfortunately, tonight I didn’t seek comment, turning instead to Wikipedia for the crowd’s opinion. As of tonight’s version, Wikipedia’s entry for “Government 2.0” defines it as:
“a neologism for attempts to apply the social networking and integration advantages of Web 2.0 to the practice of government. William (Bill) Eggers claims to have coined the term in his 2005 book, Government 2.0: Using Technology to Improve Education, Cut Red Tape, Reduce Gridlock, and Enhance Democracy. Government 2.0 is an attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses. Integration of tools such as wikis, development of government-specific social networking sites and the use of blogs, RSS feeds and Google Maps are all helping governments provide information to people in a manner that is more immediately useful to the people concerned.“
Well and good. The line I find most compelling in the above explanation for the term is the “attempt to provide more effective processes for government service delivery to individuals and businesses.” If I had to explain the idea to my technophobic friends, that’s the tack I’d take. O’Reilly defined government 2.0 as a platform, which I also find to be a useful metaphor, if one that demands the explanation that O’Reilly himself provided at TechCrunch.
Getting technical with government
For those more technically inclined, it might be useful to talk about open data, mashups, Data.gov, the Open Government directive, XML, XBRL, virtualization, cloud computing, social media and a host of other terms that have meaning in context but without prior knowledge do little to inform the public about what, precisely, the “2.0” means. Most people have some sense of what “government” is, though there’s no shortage of opinion about how it should be constituted, run, regulated, managed or funded. Those discussions go back to the earliest days of humanity, well before organizing principles or rules emerged from Hammurabi or were enshrined on the Magna Carta or constitutions.
In all of that time, the body politic and its regulatory and enforcement arms have been equipped with increasingly sophisticated tools. In 2010, agencies and public servants have unprecedented abilities because of the rapid growth of online tools to both engage and inform both their constituencies, relevant markets and others within government. The question that confronts both citizens and public servants around the globe is how to turn all of that innovation to useful change. Savvy political campaigns have already found ways to leverage the Internet as a platform for both organizing and fundraising. Few observers failed to see the way that the Obama campaign leveraged email, text messaging, online donations and social networking in 2008.
One area that will be of intense interest to political observers in 2010 will be whether that same online savvy can be harnessed in the Congressional mid-terms. Micah Sifry wrote about an “Obama Disconnect” at length; I leave it to him to explore that question. What I find compelling is whether any of these technologies can be turned to making better policy or delivering improved services. In theory, good data can be aggregated to create information, which can then in turn be used to form knowledge. Whether the Open Government Directive dashboard at White House.gov reveals information or simply adherence to defined policy is on open question.
Where Web 2.0 matters to Government 2.0
Does the public need to know what Government 2.0 is, exactly? One might wonder if the public needed to know about what “Web 2.0″ was? Judging by search traffic and years of Web 2.0 Conferences, my perception has been that there’s interest, if only to know what the next version of the World Wide Web might be, exactly. After all, the Web that Tim Berners-Lee’s fecund mind brought into being has been one of the most extraordinary innovations in humanity’s short history: what could be better? The short answer has often reflected the definition of Government 2.0 above: a combination of technologies that allows people to more easily publish information online, often with a social software or computing component that enables community between their online identities.
In 2010, the dominant platforms that represent Web 2.0 are well known: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Delicious, Digg, Ning, StumbleUpon and a host of new mobile communities or platforms. In each case, the company is often defined by what it allows users to do: upload pictures or video, stay connected to friends, track and discover news, save bookmarks or create communities that do all of those things.
When it comes to government 2.0, I believe that’s precisely how any service be defined: by its utility to helping citizens or agencies solve problems, either for individuals or the commons. The 2.0 term provides an umbrellas term for the movement and the technologies.
Why explaining Government 2.0 matters
As a thought experiment, I asked five people in the lobby where I write if they knew what “government 2.0″ was. I asked the same question of “Web 2.0.” In every circumstance, no one could explain the term.
And, in every circumstance, people knew what Facebook, Twitter or YouTube was, including the use of those technologies by government officials.
That’s one reason why Bill Grundfest’s talk at a “Government 2.0 Camp in Los Angeles was a useful balance this past weekend, not least because as the creator of “Mad About You” he’s part of the cultural and business fabric of Hollywood.
Grundfest sat through the morning’s sessions and took copious notes in a way that was novel, at least to this author, capturing the themes, memes and jargon shared in the talks on coffee cups.
As she captured there, the focus of Grundfest’s frequently entertaining talk was grounded in the entertainment business: communicate clearly, humanize what’s being offered and move away from jargon.
That message was delivered, by and large, to a room that knew and used the jargon. For that audience, getting advice from a true outsider held utility in both its clarity and lack of pretension. Grundfest may not have developed or managed government programs to deliver services but he has certainly learned how to tell stories.
Storytelling, as journalists and teachers know well, is one of the most powerful ways to share information. It’s an art form and human experience that goes back to our earliest days, as hunters and gatherers huddled around fires to share knowledge about the world, passing on the wisdom of generations.
The activity is scarcely limited to our species, as anyone who’s watched a honey bee shimmy and shake to pass on the details of a pollen gathering trip knows, but humanity’s language skills do tend to advance our ability to convey knowledge, along with the technologies we have at our disposal.
Grundfest recommended the use of video, testimonials and other narrative forms to provide an entrance point into the what, how, where and, especially, why of new government technologies or platforms for engagement.
Couched in humor, his audience responded with interest to the simplicity of the message. Embedded below is a video on the Gov2.o LA unconference from Govfresh that reflects that recommendation. (For others, visit YouTube.com/digiphile) By and large, I believe Grundfest’s message was delivered to a crowd of “goverati” for whom the message was valuable.
Instead of dwelling any further on what Government 2.0 might be or couching discussion or branding in jargon, explain what the technology or platform will do — and what problem it will solve. And at the end of the day, remember that on language, usage drives meaning.
When people talk about “government 2.o,” it’s often couched in terms of a new, shiny idea. Using a version number imbues the category with heady techno-futurism and taints discussions with the hype that surrounds social media and “Web 2.0″ technologies.
The morning of the first day of the Government 2.0 unconference in LA featured sessions and speakers devoted to something else entirely: history. Practical applications and an open forum on how to make the language used more approachable to citizens followed Cory Andrejka’s talk on how government can adapt to exponential technological change. As he pointed out, however, analyzing open data sets to in ways that help citizens and commerce isn’t novel.
Driving Adoption of Disruptive Innovation
According to Andrejka, one area to improve lies in identifying technological innovation within the private sector and adopting it where it makes sense. In the present day, that may be digital tools and online platforms where citizens gather.
To put the challenge in content, for good or ill, adoption has often driven by crises or societal disruption. In the 1800s, the Civil War in the United States drove the development of new military technologies, often with far-reaching effect.
That weapon could take seven shots for every one from traditional rifles. Unfortunately, the generals of the day within a conservative Department of War resisted its adoption for any number of logistical and tactical rationales. Spencer took the gun West, and, famously, to a shooting match with the President himself. Lincoln, a fine shot, put 7 bullets into a board, which Spencer saved. Subsequently, Lincoln put the gun into production.
Gaining access to critical “influencers” or IT buyers is no less important today. The use of Facebook, Twitter or Drupal by the White House has given each additional legitimacy as a means to engage citizens, amplify a message or collect information.
According to a Gov 2.0 survey conducted by Oftelie, however, the most valuable use of technology in government is for “enterprise-wide, net-enabled guidance and collaboration.”
Can the agile development cycle be applied to government? Cory Ondrejka, c0-founder of Second Life, offered up a provocative paean for more flexible adaption to new online platforms for citizen engagement and empowerment. “Who will know first if the rules have changed: customers, partners, clients?”
Ondrejka drew a fascinating parallel between today’s open government movement and an open data case study from another age: the Era of Sail.
In the The Physical Geography of the Sea,” published in the mid-1800s, a disabled sailor who could no longer serve as crew found something to do from ashore: aggregate the logs of weather, winds and current.
As Matthew Fontaine Maury started aggregating that data, he found patterns. Maury saw great value in publishing this data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all.”
Ondrejka suggested that government agencies and those creating applications that use open data “write less code, get more data.”
When it comes to resources, he asked, “who’s cheaper: a silicon or carbon employee?”
His observation that social computing platforms will “require different level of trust, support and information” is apt; citizens now have different expectations from a government that’s gone online than existed in an analog world.
As Ondrejka put it, online users represent the “largest focus group in the world.” And in that content, he says, there is a role for government innovation, and it should be occupied by both leaders and citizens.
Ondrejka provided one more “analog” example of how government data was used in the 1800s. By studying harpoon designs, Maury found that many whales in the Pacific has previously been harpooned in the Atlantic and vice versa. He used that as evidence of a Northwest Passage. While that didn’t go well for subsequent explorers who went north and ran up against a frozen ocean, the ’49ers were able to use the data to reduce the length of time it took to get around Cape Horn. In those days, it took more than 200 days to travel from New York City to San Francisco.
As the Gold Rush was on, time was at a premium, and for “extreme clipper ships” like Flying Cloud, any advantage that could be derived from patterns in the data had economic value.
A similar parallel to innovation using government data can be seen today in the use of the global positioning system (GPS) that the U.S. funded.
With any of these technologies, however, there’s a long-standing pattern in technology adoption, the data around which follows a “fairly predictable” curve, said Ondrejka. That “linear to exponential” is something that’s been true in multiple technologies, from email to the VCR to the DVD to social media platforms like Facebook.
In government, however, applying such technology has multiple considers, including regulations, transparency and cybersecurity.
“When you’re driving institutional change, you’re requiring people to be fearless,” said Ondrejka. “Experimental culture doesn’t mean just go try stuff.”
Measurement is key. “Stay out of the Church of Assumption,” he said. “The plural of anecdote is not evidence.”
Concerns about data ownership are also central, as are questions about vendor lock-in or the use proprietary formats. “We need to be careful about not releasing the data that taxpayers pay for,” said Ondrejka.
The wrangling about whether Twitter is revolutionary, useful or mindless twaddle simply will not end. Given the continued interest in the microblogging platform in the media, that is perhaps to be expected.
Last month, David Carr wrote in the Sunday edition of the The New York Times that “Twitter will endure,” exploring how he’d initially dismissed the platform and then found it useful. In late January, The New Yorker‘s George Packer responded to Carr, deriding Twitter as “information hell” and comparing it to an addiction to crack in “Stop the world.” That brought a flood of attention from online media outlets, including Nick Bilton, lead writer for the excellent Bits blog at the Times, who wrote that “The Twitter train has left the station,” defending Twitter from the point of view of a journalist who has found utility amidst the stream. On Thursday, Mr. Packer offered a rebuttal, positioning himself as neither a “Luddite or a Biltonite.” Jeffrey Goldberg has now weighed in at the Atlantic, consigning Bilton and others who might share his conviction to the arena of “info freaks.”
Well and good. (At least Goldberg tweets.) Two disclaimers:
1) I am a long-time reader of George Packer’s excellent work in the New Yorker. I found “The Assassin’s Gate” to be one of the best books written about the early stages of the war in Iraq.
2) I’ve found considerable utility in Twitter since I joined in March of 2007.
I don’t expect either truth to be degraded by the spat between Bilton and Packer.
I was, however, surprised that Packer had chosen to criticize a platform that he hadn’t used. Few serious technology journalists, book reviewers, movie or restaurant critics would consider rendering judgment without personal experience. Such considerations don’t hold back millions of Twitter users, bloggers or, I believe, any number of television pundits, but since I admire Mr. Packer’s professionalism, that approach surprised me.
When he wrote “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged” six years ago, my sense was that, despite his misgivings and evident frustration with pajama-clad pundits, he’d read some blogs, even if he doubted their utility as serious platforms for commentary or criticism. Given the maturation of blogs in the years since (including, I might note, at New Yorker.com), I wonder if revisiting that analysis might have been more useful, rather than dismissing Twitter without first dipping into the ebb and flow of news there.
In his second pass, Packer wrote that he had, in fact, “sought out a Tweeter,” without linking to or identifying that person. Well and good, but perhaps a weak strawman. As a commenter at Packer’s blog reflected, much of the content produced there is ambient noise, or digital “phatics” as Kevin Marks has rightly described them.
Twitter is profoundly social. That’s is why, despite the mindless hype surrounding the phrase, “social media” has had staying power in describing Twitter, Facebook or other platforms that allow two way conversations.
Twitter, like so many other things, is what you make of it. Some might go to a cocktail party and talk about fashion, who kissed whom, where the next hot bar is or any number of other superficial topics. Others might hone in on politics, news, technology, media, art, philosophy or any of the other subjects that the New Yorker covers. If you search and listen, it’s not hard to find others sharing news and opinion that’s relevant to your own interests.
Using intelligent filters for information, it’s quite easy to subscribe and digest them at leisure. And it’s as easy as unfollowing someone to winnow out “babble” or a steady stream of mundanity. The impression that one is forced to listen to pabulum, as if obligated to sit through a dreary dinner party or interminable plane ride next to a boring boor, is far from the reality of the actual experience of Twitter or elsewhere.
There’s also genuine utility there for the journalists who choose to experiment. When stories break, we can use it for real-time news and information. In the case of Haiti, Twitter was relevant, immediate and helpful, given that phones went down and the Internet stayed up. NPR was able to use Twitter and Skype to find sources on the ground. Disaster relief agencies were able to coordinate with one another. And in one notable instance, Doctors Without Borders was able to call attention using Twitter at @MSF_USA to the fact that its plane was getting turned away. Ann Curry heard them and helped to amplify the issue:
Packer and others are right to caution against hype and techno-worshipers. On balance, however, Packer errs in tarring much of the online community with a broad brush.
One passage in particular stands out: “There’s no way for readers to be online, surfing, e-mailing, posting, tweeting, reading tweets, and soon enough doing the thing that will come after Twitter, without paying a high price in available time, attention span, reading comprehension, and experience of the immediately surrounding world.” As Marc Ambinder tweeted earlier today, “I read many, many books in 2009. Including yours. And I Tweet.”
The same is true for me, and for many others. I read much of the New Yorker, the Economist and the Atlantic each month, along with numerous newspapers and technology blogs or trade publications online. (I write for one of the latter.) I also read on average 2-3 books every month, depending upon the rigor of travel, conferences or other factors. I also dip in and out Twitter throughout the week. That may not be an ideal information diet for everyone but for this tech journalist, it works. Even if I miss a story, it’s extremely rare that my network of friends and sources won’t find it and share it.
That’s why this “social news” phenomenon has become of keen interest to Google, as evidenced by the inclusion of social search into its results.
I share Packer’s concern about how the use of the Internet is changing literacy, critical thinking and creativity. Well and good, if not exactly novel. I look forward to more research on how and where those effects are found. I find hypotheses that place high consumption rates video games, television and movies is at the heart of poor information literacy instead of the wired world more convincing.
As for another comment regarding the tweets that flew about Ann Curry being stuck in the elevator, I share the amusement from the perspective of the man who sat next to that remarkable woman for ninety minutes. (So did the folks at Gawker, who wrote about the elevator incident at length.) Ann and I talked about Haiti, changes in media, religion, the utility of the iPad and yes, Twitter, all gloriously offline and in depth. I enjoy that memory; there’s a lovely montage of images up at GeoGeller.com, whose camera took the excellent shot below.
The fact that the world knew we were all stuck in that elevator was merely amusing, however, as opposed to a critical message that would best be conveyed to a 911 operator. We all found the intercom more useful than our smartphones, given the awful reception.
Sharing our experience with our networks of friends, however, was a natural extension of life in 2010. It certainly wasn’t breaking news but the act of communicating about it offered me, at least, an opportunity to interact with a broader audience of other humans around globe. That’s an unalloyed good.
I agree that “cheerleading uncritically” is not useful, nor a mentality that any writer should adopt. I do not share Packer’s conviction, however, that the news landscape can’t be occupied by more technological platforms, including reporters tapping away on BlackBerrys. One important example of that is Mark Knoller, the CBS White House correspondent whose tweets read like a they’ve been adapted from a history book already written.
If Mr. Packer would like to meet over coffee in DC to talk further about how life has changed in the age of Twitter, consider this an open invitation. Given my experience with his writing, I am certain that @GeorgePacker would be worth following.
-Alexander B. Howard