The Freedom Box — the future of social media, the Internet and personal freedom

Eben Moglen, the famous free software attorney (wikipedia entry), talks about the world we live in today where we are tracked, measured and monitored in real time, in the video below. A world, where we are no longer anonymous.

He talks about many of the things that have bothered me for a while now. Let me give you a simple example: I wanted to attend the Triggr event in Noida, India today (Saturday, June 18, 2011). When I went to register for the event, I was asked to sign in via Twitter.

These are the things Triggr wanted to do:

The permissions that Triggr wanted from my Twitter account

Reading Tweets from my Timeline is fine, seeing who I follow is okay as well, since that is public information. But follow new people, update my profile, posts tweets, and the show-stopper: access direct messages till June 30th!

I didn’t register, and I didn’t attend.

Facebook has data about 700 million individuals. So, Facebook knows who we are, where we live, who are friends our, what we like, what we want, what we think…

Watch this video:

Eben Moglen is trying to give the internet, and our lives, back to us.

Track the Freedom Box Foundation here: whose goal “is to write free software that enables widely distributed social networking that runs on tiny automated individual home computers.”

Rant: When Social Media and Crowdsourcing gets hijacked by Groupthink

I read a guest post on Cult of Mac today that got me hopping mad. Written by Adel Zakout, it’s basically about how Apple’s new campus needed to be crowdsourced. Oh, and incidentally, Mr Zakout owns a crowdsourcing platform (and a mobile app) for buildings etc.

It’s a reaction to this video (I tweeted about it yesterday):

And here’s my comment reproduced in full below (with minor edits to fix grammatical slips and typographical slurs 🙂

This post reminds me of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. More specifically, it reminds me of the architects who opposed Howard Roark’s heretic designs since they didn’t include the sort of features that the others were including in their own buildings (think Grecian columns).

Let me quote Mr Zakout and address each of his points:

“To be able to take part in an open process of deciding what types of buildings, spaces and community projects are planned, that ultimately affect our everyday lives.”

How exactly does the Apple campus, or any company’s campus affect the everyday lives of the people who live in the area but don’t work there?

The biggest Effect? Traffic: A large campus housing a lot of people will result in more commuters. That was a question that was asked and addressed — the current offices there have 9,500 people working, and therefore, commuting to and fro.

However, Mr Zakout goes further. For some reason he believes “the community didn’t seem to be involved in the decision-making process behind the building.”

How exactly does he want the community to be involved — help Steve buy the land, or pay for the architects so they can be part of briefing and review meetings, or perhaps become architects themselves …

“although I would question how considerate it is to its local history and surroundings. Yes, the increase of green space and the fact that it is a low-rise building is thoughtful – but, architecturally, this building could be located in London, Beijing or Dubai. It doesn’t seem to have any specific contextual link.”

Correct me if I am wrong but that reads to me like the author is suggesting that every locality has an architectural style that needs to be preserved, and copied ad nauseum.

Also, buildings aren’t located anywhere architecturally, they are located in places physically. So, this building, whatever you may think of it is NOT located in London, Beijing or Dubai — this is, at best, a specious argument.

“What about the thoughts and concerns of the local residents – whether positive or negative?”

Ah, Mr Zakout, how nice of you to take up cudgels on behalf of the local residents. It’s so easy to get free publicity when you become a champion for the poor, the needy, the downtrodden. How about we wait for the meeting where the building permissions will be discussed, and any objections that the town may have will be aired.

“Developers and Architects need to also be able to engage with the local community when thinking about buildings in order to manage their process more transparently.”

In other words, Mr Zakout, developers, architects, steve jobs, and the town of Cupertino needs to sign up on your website. This last point is perhaps the most vulgar of the lot.

I have a day job heading one of India’s leading social media agencies. I have built tools enabling crowd-sourced ideation that are being used by fairly interesting people in interesting ways. But, I also have the good fortune of a childhood that included reading Orwell and Huxley.

What Mr Zakout suggests is not a crowdsourced alternative, he is pushing for groupthink. He seems to believe a collective intelligence can design a better building than an individual expert. Leave architecture to the architects Mr Zakout, and let the good folks of Cupertino fight their own battles.

Three lessons to be learnt from Vodafone’s Social Media Fail

Today, Vodafone India got a story on the front page of the Economic Times — India’s largest financial daily, for perhaps, the country’s biggest social media fail. And I’m sure some people reading the story are going to blame social media campaigns for the soup Vodafone is in.

The fact of the matter is simple: Vodafone told a customer to shut up. The question they need to ask themselves is this: would they tell a customer to shut up if he were standing in front of them, complaining face to face. Chances are, no matter how tempted they might be, they would control themselves, listen, and try and mollify the customer.

You see that’s what happens in a conversation.

When brands and companies continue to treat social media as a method of communication — a one way street, where they can “engage customers” (read “get customers to click the like button”), this is what could well happen to them.

Three lessons for brands:

1. Publishing has been democratized. Everybody online is a publisher with the power to reach millions of people. Everybody. Having more money doesn’t automatically mean you can out-publish an individual.

2. Don’t tell people you don’t like to shut up by sending them legal notices. If a customer is complaining, you need to listen and either choose to respond if he’s genuine, or ignore the guy if he’s making a mountain out of a non-existent molehill.

3. You can’t afford to not be on social media. And you can’t let advertisers tell you what to do. Advertisers sell. They communicate. They don’t know the first thing about a conversation — because that’s not how they’ve been trained. In fact, most social media agencies operate like ad agencies — they talk marketing speak “reach”, “impact” etc. Wake up and smell the coffee: it’s a conversation. And you, the brand, is a participant in a conversation. Behave like you would if you were at a meeting: don’t shout, don’t ignore what others are saying, listen, and respond.

How hard is that?

Very. Most marketeers and advertisers are trained from day one to think about communication aimed at selling and brand building. Their tools are mass-media vehicles that lots of people consume, or “interact with”. I’ve always wondered what that means — interaction. Press a button and hear a sound. So what! The answer, normally, is couched in a sentence that includes the phrase: “brand recall”.

Here’s my take on it — it works.

But, it doesn’t work everywhere. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

If everybody’s a publisher, what you need to become is a reporter. You need to think editorial NOT advertorial.

Welcome to my world.

Buying A New Phone: iOS vs Android vs WP7 Part 2

There have been a wide variety of opinions expressed to me since I wrote the first part — catch up on the story till now here: Buying A New Phone: iOS vs Android vs WP7

Most revolve around people recommending phones that they already have, or phones they wish they had bought. In the meanwhile, I started to focus on a single thought: how the would phone evolve over time.

Today, the phones we buy are a combination of hardware and software. Most features on the phone are dependent on the software. And with operating system upgrades, we have come to expect the phone’s behavior to change.

Here’s my dilemma: the Android operating system update path just isn’t clear. For one, the device manufacturer controls when a phone receives an update (if you don’t root the device). So, while the world may have moved on to Android 2.3, a number of HTC phones are stuck with 2.2 or earlier.

With Windows Phone 7, there is a major update on the horizon, called Mango. The problem here is also related to the software: while the OS is good from what I can figure out,  not enough phones are selling for an app ecosystem to thrive. And that’s the other part of the puzzle: our phones evolve because of the apps we install on them.

The only people who seem to have got this right are Apple: a tightly controlled hardware-software combination has ensured that the evolution experience is the same for everybody. The number of phones they are selling has ensured the BEST app ecosystem possible.

The only problem is the cost. And I am torn between buying an iPhone 4, which launched today in India, for INR 34,500 or buying a cheaper Android phone and an iPad 2.

For the moment, I am swinging towards the iPhone 4. I’m going to wait till Sunday, when unlocked versions will be available on online stores like Flipkart.

I guess the iPad will have to wait.

So, Apple wins. More appropriately, iOS wins. It offers the best experience amongst all the phones available. Perhaps, only because I believe that whatever surprises await me will be pleasant.

And yes, Samsung Galaxy S2 has better hardware, more RAM etc … but Samsung is in the middle of a dispute with Apple over whether they’ve been copying the iPhone. That doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in me: what if Samsung are forced to issue a UI update that completely changes the look and feel of the Galaxy S2? There’s no guarantee they’ll get it right — if they had the chops to build great UI, they wouldn’t copy Apple.

No story is over till the credits roll — and I still haven’t bought a phone. I doubt my experience, and my vacillation, is unique. I’m sure more phone buyers today are as conflicted as I am. I guess, we’ll just have to wait and see where I put my money.

Will post photos and an update as soon as I buy a (i?)phone.

A new media business model for old media

Apple has changed the world again today.

Apple® today announced a new subscription service available to all publishers of content-based apps on the App Store℠, including magazines, newspapers, video, music, etc. This is the same innovative digital subscription billing service that Apple recently launched with News Corp.’s “The Daily” app.

Read the press release here

Content is not free, it costs money to create good content. It costs even more to create great content. And the people who write well deserve to be paid more.

By allowing content publishers to charge for content, Apple has laid down the gauntlet.

Now, it is now up to content publishers to screw it up … and here are the top three ways there’re going to screw up:

1. Insist on people paying for monthly/annual subscriptions … ONLY, and that too, at the same rate that it sells for on a news-stand.
2. Forget to take into account the stories/writers who’re making them money — so they end up losing the writers to competition, and their subscribers will follow.
3. Think that video is only done by TV channels, so stick to text and images.

I’ve been saying for a while now that the ipad is going to change the way media is consumed, and in turn, the way media businesses are run.

The most interesting change, however, is going to happen in advertising. The ways ads are designed, the way copy is written … everything about an ad is going to go through a sea change.

I am willing to bet most of the old guard in India are going to pass around two, tired, arguments:

1. Not enough people in India use iPads.
2. We know what sells.

Things are getting interesting.

Barkhagate: there is a reason editors do not go out and report

The newsroom is a strange place filled with large egos, competing motives, and everybody suffers from the illusion that they are RIGHT. The only reason that a newsroom works is that there are checks and balances. At least, that’s what we’re told.

As a former journalist, I think its important to point out the most fundamental premise on which all these checks and balances are based: reporters are too close to the story, so editors who have no interest in keeping sources happy grill reporters and satisfy themselves before allowing a story to get published.

That’s how it works in newsrooms across the world, and in most in print newsroom in India. Television newsrooms, however, are a whole different story. Almost every news channel in India has a reporter at the top of the pyramid. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in an anchor going out and reporting. There is something wrong when a reporter, talking to sources all the time, calls the shots.

You see, a reporter needs to cultivate sources … to string them along, to build relationships based on something that, for all practical purposes, resembles trust.

An editor doesn’t need to do any of the above. In fact, most editors I’ve known have to put up with all sorts of pressure to carry, or more often not carry, stories. The fact is, having reporters do the reporting gives them a certain amount of distance and deniability, which is often invaluable in not only judging a story’s merits and dealing with external pressure.

In TV newsrooms it doesn’t work like this any longer. Barkha is the Group Editor of NDTV, Rajdeep can have the last word if he chooses to in CNN-IBN, Arnab at Times Now is more commentator than editor, or reporter.

I had the pleasure of working with the former head of Sky News UK. He never appeared on TV. He never reported on a story while he was there. But he was the boss, he was the one with the ultimate responsibility for news calls. And simply because of this distance, even in the hurly burly world of 24×7 news bulletins, he could take calls that the reporter bringing the story in never could.

Unfortunately, in India, almost no checks and balances are imposed in TV newsrooms on the senior-most reporters.

Barkha was too focused on the story of the moment to wonder about the big picture. That’s her explanation. And she’s right. No reporter can be expected to think about the big picture. Their job is to focus on the here and now.

That’s why you need editors …