Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is Facebook the web's Wal-Mart?

So says Michael Brush on MSN Money:

As a one-stop shop that lets users easily build networks of friends to share news and photos, join groups and search for school and work buddies, it has the potential to bury MySpace, and other competitors the way Wal-Mart has busted local retailers.

In fact, even giants Google (GOOG, news, msgs), Yahoo (YHOO, news, msgs) and Microsoft's (MSFT, news, msgs) MSN might be getting nervous, because tools such as instant messaging and e-mail are built right in.

Brush notes, citing Nielsen, that time spent on social networks and blogs grew 63% from December 2007 to December 2008. Also, the fastest-growing age-group is 55-plus, followed by 45-54--this is not actually surprising, since pretty much everyone else under 55 is already on networking sites.

Brush's thesis is that Facebook's biggest advancement is not in sheer numerical growth (amassing of members and production of traffic), but the fact that as it grows it takes over more and more of the functions of other sites--IM chats, MySpace's music pages, etc.--as Brush notes, a one-stop shop. This is convenient for users, but by its very nature creates a monopoly that drives more specialized sites out of market share.

The difference, of course, is that Facebook is not a straightforward profit-making enterprise like Wal-Mart. It relies on ad dollars and more nebulous notions of network-building followed by profit:

In the end, however, Facebook knows so much about its users and has gotten so big -- so much like Wal-Mart -- that it's likely to find some way to make a decent profit. "When you gather a large enough audience, the means will come in terms of generating significant revenue from that," says Darren Chervitz of the Jacob Internet Fund (JAMFX).

Facebook is growing so fast that it might even be a threat to the Internet giants someday, one analyst says.

By 2012, Facebook could surpass Google for total worldwide unique visitors, predicts RBC Capital Markets analyst Ross Sandler.

One reason is that so many people now use Facebook as their starting point on the Internet -- instead of a search engine or a portal. Whether Facebook will actually hurt Google's profit margins, or produce Google-size profits, remains to be seen.

Facebook long ago locked the network-building phase of the project, now they just need to make sure they can keep getting money out of it. The more niches they conquer and the more market share they gain, the easier this will be--just as long as they don't bombard users with enough ads to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. But if Facebook really does get big enough to rival Google (something of which I remain skeptical) then networking users will have fewer alternatives to run to--at least until the next big thing debuts and the life-cycle starts over again.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Body-building cop's day in court turns ugly


Be careful how you set your mood on MySpace, your status on Facebook and never post dumb comments on video sites because it all can and will be used against you in a court of law.

Most of the article is made up of the fairly standard warnings not to incriminate yourself on networking sites, and noting that anything you post to the web will propagate pretty much forever. Hot news if this was 2006.

The really interesting part comes on the second page:

Nick Abrahams, a partner at the Sydney office of law firm Deacons who specialises in technology and media law, said the case reminded him about a famous New Yorker magazine cartoon which shows a dog at a computer accompanied by the words "on the internet, nobody knows you're a dog".

"... this anonymity just doesn't apply anymore. Everyone is accountable for their actions online now," he said. "The internet has come of age and the anonymity has gone."

Note that last bit.

The cartoon and its equally famous quote date from July 5, 1993, when the most sensational part of the nascent Internet was its ability to hide behind screen names. At worst, you can create a wholly alternate identity for malicious purposes, at best you simply tailor your online presence to showcase only your positive attributes. (On sites like Facebook, every bit of personal information has been put there voluntarily and is usually chosen with the intent to make the user "look good" or at least neutrally inoffensive.)

But even in the last few years there has been a speedy convergence of "the Internet" and "the real world" (particularly in today's children and teenagers who have grown up with the web and therefore don't distinguish the two as completely separate realms--more on this in a future post).

This is a result of media like Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, YouTube, email, and personal websites becoming increasingly linked, and indeed as Abrahams said, the comfortable anonymity of yesteryear has crumbled away with this increased connectivity.

It's always been the case that anything you post online can be traced back to you, but these days it's easier than ever--and to a large degree people have done it willingly. Increased transparency isn't necessarily bad, but as Mr. Ettienne found out, it certainly has its downsides.

Creative writing is not Mad Libs

I was reading through some archived posts on Orson Scott Card's website (Hugo and Nebula award-winning author) and came across this one on Themes and an even older one on Plagiarism, Borrowing, Resemblance, and Influence.

From the first one:

If the writer has a preconceived conscious plan for how to present a particular philosophical point, he will start to ignore his own unconscious ideas and will force the characters to act out his little allegory.* The result is: Bad fiction, and therefore an ineffective presentation of the theme. But if the writer shunts aside those preconceived plans, or subverts them deliberately (i.e., make THOSE ideas belong to a character that the audience is supposed to despise), that very humility leads the writer free to tap into his unconscious feelings and ideas about how the world works and what is worth telling tales about.

The reader who gets the story that truthfully and powerfully connects with the real world by way of the writer's unconscious understanding of it WILL find "themes" in the story. But they won't necessarily be themes that the writer was aware of, and will almost never be themes that the writer "put" into the tale.

*(Tolkien also disliked allegory, for the same reason--its artificiality.)

It's definitely worth clicking on through to the full columns. OSC also has some words about "literary writers who try to write about themes":

In a way, this is identical to "hack" work - trying to insert elements that will please a particular kind of audience. Most of the time, when these stories work at all, they do so, not because of the "plan" of the work but in spite of it, because of unconscious concerns that bubble up into the story and give it life despite the deadly story-killing "theme" elements that the writer consciously manipulates.

He explicitly says that the writer can't force themes into his work but has to trust that his unconscious will make the connections as he composes.

This is very similar to what he says about influences, in the other column. The first two-thirds is pretty standard stuff about plagiarism, working with sources, and so on. But when he gets to "derivative" creation and "the anxiety of influence," it really gets interesting:

The problem is that real influence is (or should be) unconscious. That is, because you have read certain writers whose stories have been thoroughly absorbed into your memory, you will unconsciously borrow motifs and ideas from those pivotal works without even realizing you're doing it.


Some novice writers, having absorbed utterly wrong lessons about what makes good writing, try to be "influenced" by writers they admire. This is not influence, however - it is borrowing. And it's legitimate, though it is customary to acknowledge your conscious borrowings.

If you want to follow in someone's creative footsteps, you can't just deconstruct their work to a list of representative attributes and try to string them together, or you won't get a coherent product. You'll get either something mechanically derivative or a Frankenstein mess.

OSC also notes:

Many writers, however, far from borrowing or seeking to be "influenced," are desperately afraid of inadvertent influence to the point of paranoia. Since every good idea has already been used, getting too anxious about such chance resemblances is a waste of time. Here's my rule: Any idea you really like that absolutely works for your story is your idea, no matter who else might have used it before.

Similarly, in the acknowledgements to Star Wars: Allegiance, Timothy Zahn noted:

Often a writer's mind functions like a giant food processor, taking in thoughts and ideas from everywhere and then mixing and matching the pieces until something new (or at least unrecognizable) emerges. On the rare occasions when we're actually able to trace something directly to its source, it's only right we acknowledge it.

Creative writing is not plug-and-play, it's not Mad Libs, but it is on the subconscious level an exercise in mix-and-match. Not to downplay the obvious importance of conscious composition, but on a subconscious level the creative person's brain combines fragments you've read or seen into a new configuration, and half the time you don't recognize the original ingredients until much later.

Finally, 18th-century author Samuel Johnson said the following:

When a man writes from his own mind, he writes very rapidly. The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.

Looking back at my own ratio of books written (zero) to libraries overturned, I can say he was definitely on the right track.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The future is just like old age...'s always a few years ahead of wherever you are.

io9's Alyssa Johnson takes a look at sci-fi movies, TV, and books set in 2009 and how they stack up to where we are now.

To be sure, these retrospectives come out every year and are a dime a dozen, but the story caught my eye and it seemed a good enough way to start off the blog.

And come on, any list that includes Family Matters with Freejack and The Postman has got to be good. Right??

The Future Now: Science Fiction Set In 2009

It may be March, but that still counts as the start of the year, right? Let's take a look at what movies, television, and books have predicted for us in the days to come...