I think anyone who has used Google Plus in the last year of its operation is going to have a difficult time describing it as a success story so far. There was a lot of early enthusiasm for the new “social network” when it first came out, but the odd sparsity of the early system left a lot of people wandering back to their respective corners of the social universe. Recent changes, particularly to the mobile application for Plus, have made me rethink what Google is actually after.

Google Plus is going to change the way a goodly portion of the web views the web by the end of this year, I think. Here are three good reasons why.

It is not a social network

The most limiting thing about the way people regard Plus is that we tend to see it as a rival to Twitter and Facebook. In some respects, this is true. But the sense of a global conversation that Twitter encompasses or the sense of a get-together with friends that Facebook (in its most generous light) encompasses isn’t really on Plus. Because it isn’t a social network.

It might best described as a social reader. Think of it like your NOOK, except immersed in sharing culture. You set the channels up that you want – Circles of popular web pubs, great photographers, local journalists and (ahem) media sources – and they build your reading list.

It is beautiful

Particularly on the mobile client, this is true. Content flows elegantly from one box to the next, sometimes two wide, others just one large block dominates a row. Content creators are rewarded for using rich media posts, readers are rewarded for following content creators that take Plus seriously. Browsing Plus on my (jailbroken) NOOK is a pleasure. Photos are bright and clear, articles with featured images look like something straight out of a magazine.

Compare this to Twitter’s attempt at adding rich text, their Twitter Cards and it’s no contest. Facebook’s embrace of rich media has been around longer, but honestly, I can’t say it has done better. Photos are grainy, YouTube and other video content is clunky and too small. And the mobile version of Facebook has the maddening (to a web developer, anyway) habit of allowing images to break the bounds of their containers. It all looks.. well,.. rather MySpace-ish.

The beauty of Google’s rich text adds to its appeal as a browser: you can read news articles, watch HD videos and see gorgeous pictures from National Geographic in the same vehicle.

We are all content creators

Google Plus makes it pretty clear that the primary thing that every other social network has struggled with is the beast they created: the effortless means by which we can all create content. If all you do is endorse someone else’s work with an RT or like, you can and will create a stream of content that others feel compelled to pay attention to.

Twitter has for the most part stuck with the egalitarian sparseness of their interface, bringing CNN down to the exact same level of pomp as any other person you follow. Facebook has made misbegotten attempts to embrace rich media over and over again, and sloppy formatting aside, has created a logical mishmash of the whole thing. Why, for example, can content creators who have Pages not see their fans’ timelines? Pinterest allows you to be a visual creator if you wish. That’s about it.

Ultimately, each platform will house its own content and its own communities. Twitter’s “news first” community will not be dented by Plus. But I think as a new means of quickly scanning news of interest – and of social collaboration to shape that news – Google Plus will be the one to watch this year. Since Google has made every attempt to tie their every product back to Plus, you can bet that whether you want to or not, you’re probably going to have plenty of contact with it. And for many of us, Plus may be our window on a large section of what makes the Internet worth sharing elsewhere.

One of the cornerstones of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon is, in my estimation, political speech. That’s not just because I’m very political, though I obviously am. Rather the dawning of the wider acceptance of the Internet as a communication and entertainment medium goes hand-in-hand with the rise of news websites, political blogs, Net Roots Nation, online petitions and a host of other outlets that either are inherently political or else lend themselves to political action. We’ve even heard calls for online voting – just dispense with the meat-based world of civics, altogether.

But we’re so accoustomed to speaking our minds on the Internet, perhaps it is worth considering just what online voting might eventually take away from us. Pew Internet Research has released a report suggesting that the mere existence of the blabbermouth Social Networking set is taking away some of the anonymity of the secret ballot.

According to the report, 30% of us have been asked to vote for one candidate or the other and 20% have done the asking. Overall, 22% of us have told our social networks for whom we planned on voting. And if we’re being honest, most of us have social networks made up of a lot of people we don’t even know.

When I first voted, I was sternly admonished by a former girlfriend’s father to never tell anyone – including people who agreed with my selection – for whom I voted. Ever. But these days, people put Obama or Romney pictures up as their Timeline photos. We post someecards with snark about our opponents. There are even tools designed specifically to mute your politically-active friends and relations, should the need arise.

Vexingly, the report does not break the numbers down by social networks, which I think might also be illuminating. Regardless of the demographic break down, it is clear that our social network world is considerably more free with voter information than our time-honoured, traditional model.

But perhaps our behavior says as much about the culture and political climate around us as it says about anything? Perhaps social networking serves in this case as a metric, rather than a cause? The reason a secret ballot was so important in decades past was that there was a genuine threat of reprisal for voting “incorrectly.” Not simply a few nastygrams from your crazy aunt, but actual thugs from Boss Tweed’s organization to help you see the error of your ways. I don’t think that’s much of a threat in the United States, these days. The Black Panthers, of course, being the obvious exception.

The threat of reprisal remains genuine in other parts of the world. So the question then becomes: do people in other, less-secure democracies have the same libertine view of social “voting’ that we do?

President Obama is a socialist Nigerian who wants to give you M&Ms for life if you fill out this survey about the girl who needs a kidney that was stolen from a dude left on ice in a bathtub. Its true. And watch for spiders on the toilet seat, while you’re at it.

And if you think these emails are going away any time soon, guess again. Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life project reports that for the first time, a majority of seniors over the age of 65 – 53% – now regularly use the Internet. Or email, which by leaps and bounds continues to be the aged set’s weapon of choice in the information wars.

While about a third of seniors use social networks, a whopping 86% use email.

Meanwhile, the growth trend for seniors continues with gadgets, as well. 69% of seniors report having a mobile phone, up from 57% two years ago.

Elsewhere in the land of magical thinking known as Opinion Poll Land, a sizable majority of Americans polled by Pew think the government has a role to play in curbing childhood obesity. But on the same day and without an apparent trace of irony, Zogby releases a poll saying three-quarters of Americans oppose the Bloomberg plan to limit the size of sodas sold in public spaces.

Its worth noting that “bans” never sell well with Americans. And what Bloomberg proposes is not so much a “ban on large drinks” as it is a “limit to the size of drinks,” which might have polled better. But it begs the question: if this plan is so unpalatable (pardon the pun) to Americans, what exactly does the “role of government” in curbing obesity look like, exactly?

Have you ever defriended or unfollowed someone based on their political speech on social media? Have you ever thought you knew a person’s politics, only to find them screaming about fluoride in toothpaste and spies in our televisions on Facebook?

Pew Internet Research set about finding answers to these and other questions about how our social networking world has affected our understanding of our civic life. Much of the information confirms what we all know: the more politically-active we are, the more likely our politics are to affect our friendships. And unsurprisingly, the farther-removed our friendships are, the more likely they are to be affected by politics.

What is interesting to me is the number of self-identified liberals who say they have unfriended someone based on their political statements is consistently double that of independents and about a third more than Conservatives. Specifically, it seems posting something we liberals disagree with is what sets us off. There are lots of variables to this: what was posted, what is considered defending, how honestly the respondents respond. But the trend is pretty remarkable.

And unsurprisingly, nearly a fifth of all social networking users say they have avoided making political statements on social networks for fear of offending others. And by-and-large, people with similar political beliefs tend to flock together on social networks as much as anywhere else. Nearly half of all liberal and conservative political “commentators” say they agree with their friends’ political posts all or nearly all the time.

Social networking sites and politics | Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The situation in LeRoy – the “mystery illness” if you like, or the “mystery refusal of diagnosis” if you’re more in line with my thinking – has predominated much of the time here on DFE. But that’s not to say that we didn’t have some fun. Ashleigh Banfield and the comedy of errors on CNN’s morning show starts us off, Miss Piggy jumps in Fox News’ shit, our Jillian Seaton talks condoms in schools, and a local boffin discovers a way to figure out where you live based solely on your tweets and Facebook posts… no location needed!

Have a great weekend, folks! Big things in the works for DFE, so stay tuned. Until next week:
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CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield Quizzes David Vitter Over Prostitution Scandal » Huffington Post

Could any one screen cap more perfectly capture CNN's irrelevance?

As if they hadn’t had enough after the prank calling fiasco, CNN continues to let their morning show just sort of “wing it” through their day. This time around, they brought David Vitter on to talk about Newt Gingrich for some unknown reason, then end up interviewing him about his prostitution scandal. Really? Is this why I should be tuning into CNN?

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Doctor Issues Statement About Meeting With LeRoy Teens » WGRZ.com

Photo: WGRZ.com

The list of uninvited guests in LeRoy continues to climb, but answers other than the original diagnosis – which has been so summarily dismissed by the media and parents alike – are not forthcoming. One doctor claims the girls are suffering from a condition known in some circles as PANDA.

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The grey area in LeRoy: when is a diagnosis not a diagnosis?

Thera Sanchez and Katie Krautwurst appear on the Today Show

After all the speculation, I think it might be time to reevaluate what the media wants out of this story. Trading one medical mystery for another does not get us any closer to getting the people affected by this problem better.

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What your online trends reveal about where you are   New Scientist

Little did they know: the CIA considers blended ice cream treats unamerican.

Local boffin comes up with an algorithm that can predict your location within a few hundred feet. Is he using Lo-Jack on your car? The recently-overruled GPS tracking systems the White House wanted to install? No. Just your tweets, check-ins and general townie-ness. By the way: you need to clean the cat box.

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The best rejection letter rejection, ever » Geeks are Sexy

Don't go down without a fight! Or at least, confuse the shit out of them so they think twice the next time.

We’ve all been there: after working your hands numb filling out job applications and working your mind numb going to interview after interview, sometimes that rejection letter is just too much to take. Well, one inventive job seeker decided to have a little fun with it. Hell, if it was me? I’d hire him just on the strength of this letter alone.

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Anyone who has ever spoken to me knows I’m a product of my generation. A day without my smart phone is comparable to the day I was cut from my mother’s umbilical cord. I must have Spotify on any computer I use because silence is the devil. I own paper books – but they’re becoming dusty because I have a Kindle now. If you still use an AOL email address, I assume you’re elderly; if you still use a yahoo email address, I assume you live under a rock.  I multi-task like a champ, at all times keeping two browsers open with six tabs running on each to toggle between my work tasks and my personal branding and you better believe I will click off a website in under a second if I don’t like the fonts it uses.

I’ve always loved reading, and though I enjoyed George Orwell’s 1984 when it was assigned in high school, it was almost laughable to think of this supposed futuristic world taking place a year before I was even born. I hadn’t really given the book, or the premise behind it, much thought until this week when my friend told me she had quit Foursquare.

“I have to check in before my roommate gets home so he doesn’t steal my mayorship.”
“Yeah, I recently just lost all of mine.”
“How?”
“I quit Foursquare. Twitter, too.”
“Why?”
“I reread 1984. It really creeped me out.”

Light bulb. While I didn’t react with the same Big Brother fear that she did, I definitely got that feeling of everything coming eerily full circle. Facebook asks what’s on your mind. Twitter asks what’s happening. Foursquare asks where we are –and we tell them. 1984’s constant tabs on everyone was government mandated, but we voluntarily share everything and anything with anyone who cares enough to read it.

That’s okay, though – we have privacy settings we can select! Sure. But just how private are they? After I had accepted my position with my current employer and submitted my two week notice to my previous one, I updated my Facebook status with my exciting news. Two days later, I received an email from another company I had interviewed with, informing me they had wanted to extend a second interview to me, but found during their “standard social media search” I had accepted a position elsewhere and wanted to know if this was true. I double checked. All my privacy settings were set to friends only. Unless I have a friend working in this company’s HR that I was unaware of, there’s more than one way to find someone’s information if you really want to.

Privacy settings aside – what about the individual who chooses not to partake in social media at all? Well, that comes with the price of an attached stigma. In college, one of my internships told me they had checked to see if I had Facebook before interviewing me because if I didn’t have one, I wouldn’t have been offered the internship. Why? Because everyone has a Facebook account. If you don’t, you’re weird and behind the times.

The future of 1984 that George Orwell so vividly painted for us may now be 28 years in the past – but is it? Giving up all our info is voluntary, of course, but I’m sure I speak for many when I say I’ve become very relaxed and almost lazy about it. We all have things we’d never tweet, update, or check in with, but when I think about how open I am about the tiniest things, anyone, anywhere, could easily figure out who I am, what I’m about, and where I’ll be at any given moment- and I even use those fancy, new-fangled privacy settings available.

So knowing this, and being called out on it, am I likely to get be more mindful of what I do or don’t post on my social networks? Nope. Big Brother, feel free to keep watching. It’s Follow Friday, and I have a Twitter feed to catch up on.

 

Remember when you were told that there was this thing, called the Internet, that allows you to speak to anyone, anywhere in the world any time you like? Remember wondering what it would be like to have friends in China, which would surely happen, because of course, it was possible?

I’ll bet you’re still wondering that. Unless of course you already had friends in exotic locations.

Because as Nielson reports today, despite the global reach of the Internet, Facebook users are extremely provincial when it comes to their choice of friends. Rather than the uber-national conclave envisioned decades ago, it turns out that when faced with genuinely social relationships online, we all trend to what we’ve always done in the past: stick to what we know.

82% of respondents to the Nielson poll said that pre-existing meat-based relationships are the primary motivator for friending on Facebook. And of course, friend-of-a-friend relationships also play a big part in finding new friends online, just as they do in reality.

None of this is terribly surprising: trust is a big part of building friendships and its hard to imagine building genuine trust in the absence of at least some connection between you and whatever total stranger is on the other end of the cable. And the social nature of the modern web actually makes trust more important, not less.

For the rest of Nielson’s revelations, have a look at their press release below:

Friends & Frenemies: Why We Add and Remove Facebook Friends | Nielsen Wire.

The Nielson ratings agency has released its 2011 review of the biggest names in tech, and the list is.. not at all surprising.

The biggest brands in tech are Google, Facebook and Yahoo! (ok, one surprise), toping out at 153k unique visitors a month for Google. Unique visitors are people who visit a site for the first time in a day. Subsequent visits by the same user are not counted in this tally. Facebook’s 137k uniques earn them the top slot in the social network competition, with really no particular competition at all, Blogger coming in at a paltry 45k and Twitter at a nearly-embarrassing 23k.

Interesting to note, however, that Google+ made the grade in social with 8k uniques.

The video category holds no surprises, with YouTube winning handily, followed by VEVO and Facebook. Really, when you put together social networking, the Google home page and video, Google seems to swamp the competition in the terms of this review, which is page views.

One interesting note: Blackberry still holds the #3 slot among smartphone manufacturers, which is surprising, given the dirges played for RIM at every hour, seemingly on the hour.

Nielsen’s Tops of 2011: Digital | Nielsen Wire.

The Nielson company that has told you for years what we’re all watching on television also now reports on mobile media. This quarter’s results show just how much media is being converted to digital and just how fast. Among the key findings cited in their summary:

  • Smartphone subscribers have increased 45% since the same quarter 2010.
  • In just the third quarter, 26m consumers viewed video on their smartphones.
  • 62% of smartphone users have downloaded apps (why else own a smartphone?)
  • The vast majority of smartphone users have used deal sites like Groupon.

Not surprisingly, the study also shows near-saturation of the young adult market, with a whopping 64% of 25-35 year olds owning smartphones. Meanwhile, in the classic PC-era irony that we never seem to quite get away from, Apple is the largest manufacturer of smartphones with 26% of the marketplace, but Android is the top Operating System with 44% of the marketplace.

Most of us with parents will also not be surprised that the older set is getting into the texting game with a vengeance. While young-uns like the texting – 13-17-yo’s receive as many as 3400 texts a month! – the number of messages received by the 55+ set has doubled in two years.

And here’s the kicker: Facebook applications are the single most-used applications on both Android and iPhone platforms. Mobile websites that are popular include the stand-by Google, Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

On the issue of smartphone applications, the download rates are telling. The Apple iOS market remains consistent since 2009, with around 35% of users downloading applications. But Android users are much more download-y, apparently, with an explosive 45% growth over the same two years: 49% of Android users have downloaded an application in the last 30 days before the survey. RIM and Windows are both lagging behind, with a 21% drop for RIM and a 15% drop for Windows.

I wonder if Twitter’s presence in this survey is muted by the fact that its application ecosystem is so varied: while Facebook has its own well-used application, Twitter users tend towards third-party apps such as HootSuite Oosfora and Seesmic. Like Twitter’s linking problem – which they have recently moved to cure with the t.co shortener – Twitter’s proper place in social networking is not accurately calculated because of this flexibility.
Nielsen | State of the Media: Mobile Media Report Q3 2011.

As we go, Google makes more and more products conform to its new Google Plus look-and-feel, pushing what seems less like a bid to add a new product to the social media sphere and more like a complete transformation of both Google and social networking. This morning, my Google Reader made the switch, which I had trepidations about, but so far it looks pretty decent:

Changes to the front page balance the new white space aesthetic with plenty of info

Because Google Reader is central to what I do online, I was more than a little worried about this change, but as you can see, the look is actually a lot cleaner and tighter. The white space aesthetic of the new Google Plus layout actually makes things a lot easier to read without sacrificing too much space on the screen.

And the +1 button has been added to each article, making it possible to share articles directly to Google Plus without any intermediary steps:

Click the +1 button to share right away.

The sharing window, which should look fairly familiar to anyone whose been using Google Plus for the past few months.

Am I going to start sharing articles with my G+ friends like this? Well, a couple things jump out at me as limitations. First of all, while sharing an article manually usually also allows you the opportunity to select the thumbnail to display along with the article, this new system does not appear to allow that. Also, I live and die as a link blogger and social media presence by measuring click-throughs from my articles, but Google+ so far has no such metrics and does not allow me to specify a shortening service. I’m fairly dependent these days on being able to shorten and analyze through Bit.ly.

Over all, I would say the new changes are a success, though they are also largely cosmetic. But cosmetic changes to many other systems (Facebook? I’m looking in your direction) have been a lot more disruptive in bad ways to the user experience than this one is. So far. But there’s lots more to do to make it really great.

And if you’d like to join me on Google+, my profile is here.

Think you deleted that message about scoring pot from your buddy on Facebook? You might be surprised to find out that no, you didn’t. Quick: smoke now, before the cops show up. I’ll wait.

You cool? Ok, so here’s what a German law student discovered about the information Facebook’s got on you. Not only did he find 1200 printed pages of documentation on himself, but he also discovered messages sent through Facebook which he had “deleted.” Those messages still existed, but were flagged as ‘deleted.’ In other words: while the law student could no longer see the message, anybody else with access to this data could. And he found out that it was all available through a form on the web:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEC-vk9psTw

IdentityBlog – Digital Identity, Privacy, and the Internets Missing Identity Layer.

While I’m not at all immune to paranoia under certain conditions, I’m not inclined to think of this as a show-stopper. The fact is: data such as this is already being collected about you every day. Google Analytics tracks what many would find a frightening amount of information on you just by visiting a website. Now Facebook is as well.

In fact, as we go forward, I’m finding it hard to even accept the idea of some sort of universal data retention law. The sheer volume of data available and shared on a day-to-day basis seems to make the concept impractical, requiring not just Facebook but any owner of any website to delete massive amounts of data on a regular basis or be subject to, dare I say it, “privacy trolls.”

What the article points to, if nothing else, is the lack of understanding we have for what data actually is. You cannot make an educated decision about how your data should be kept private or not without understanding what data actually is and means.

This weekend, many Google Plus users got a rude awakening, when they discovered that their Google Plus user accounts – along with all other associated Google Accounts – were unceremoniously deleted from the Google system. This without the slightest notification or recourse. The reason, as explained in a CNet news piece, is that Google would like to maintain a friendly air at Google Plus and therefore prefers real names:

Why Google+ requires real names | Digital media – CNET News:

In a reported conversation Sunday night with tech blogger Robert Scoble, Google’s senior vice president of social, Vic Gundotra, acknowledged that Google has made mistakes in its first pass with Google+. But he explained that the requirement to use real names is an attempt to set a positive tone, “like when a restaurant doesn’t allow people who aren’t wearing shirts to enter.”

The comparison to a restaurant’s shirt and shoes policy is cute but not at all apt. There are perfectly legitimate sanitary concerns about walking around barefoot in a restaurant, plus half-naked Baby Boomers do not belong anywhere near my garbage plate, thank you very much.

Using a real or assumed name on the Internet is a trickier issue. One of the luxuries of being on the Internet is the ability to remain anonymous and I think we eliminate anonymity on the Internet at our peril. It is easy to discount the importance of not being associated with an account when we see trolls on websites, but the reality is that, whether looking into deeply-personal medical information or just wanting more information of a type that might hurt one’s relationships or career, there are plenty of times when the freedom to not have to identify yourself is paramount. And its important also to remember that, whereas in the past you simply looked at websites completely anonymously anyway, the social nature of the modern Internet means you can’t ever really be sure which sites are hooked into which of your social networks.

Put it another way: if Google’s intent is to allow you to maintain your own personal data and keep privacy as you see it, then Google also has to acknowledge that your identity is itself a piece of personal data. To be shared or kept private.