14 March 2008

AOL shows its worldwide and social networking ambitions by acquiring Bebo.

Social networking is a bit of a strange Internet scene. MySpace and Facebook, rather than some site backed by a major Internet company, became the giants of this space, the darlings of Web 2.0. MySpace was ultimately acquired by News Corp (they are approaching "giant" status I think) while Facebook has thus far maintained its independence. The giants have all dipped their toes into the social networking pool, but MySpace and Facebook have comfortably remained on top of this increasing crowded web sector. The latter social networks have the advantage of having a huge audience already, but I think the giants have made a few mistakes that have limited the popularity of their social networks. In particular, I think Yahoo! and Microsoft have been hurt by their insistence on combining blogging and social networking together. Personally, I like Google's approach best of all because it has both a blogging platform (Blogger) and a social network (Orkut). Although blogging is a common feature of social networks, blogging and social networking don't always go together. In my experience, most people who use social networks don't blog, and a big chunk of those who do blog don't post more than a few times a year (sounds a little like this blog, huh?). Of course there must be some social networkers who do take blogging as seriously as their contacts, but they are definitely part of a minority. On the other side of things, regular standalone blogs often have few social networking functions at all -- even comments can be disabled at a blogger's discretion (at the other extreme, there are also blogs which people read just for the comments!). Google allows bloggers to socially network if they want to (by filling out their profiles and checking other people's profiles out) on Blogger, and perhaps eventually Orkuters will be able to have their own Orkut blogs if they want to; bloggers, at least, can have their cake and eat it, too. On the other hand, Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces and Yahoo! 360 are examples of the other approach of strongly combining social networking with blogging. AOL arguably has been involved in social networking far longer than any of the other giants, and social products remain a core focus of its business. Still, AOL has opted to acquire Bebo, a social network similar to MySpace and Facebook that is quite popular in the UK and Ireland. In my opinion, this is a good acquisition for at least a couple of reasons.

First of all, Bebo is a bonafide social network. AOL is definitely in MySpace/Facebook territory now, rather than the nebulous space occupied by Microsoft and Yahoo! with their social networking/blogging hybrids. With this acquisition, AOL has gained not only another web site, but also a large audience located in countries that perhaps are not as exposed to the AOL brand on the Web as they could be. That "exposure factor" is as I see it the second major benefit that AOL is accruing thanks to this purchase. AOL doesn't quite have the international brand recognition that Google and Yahoo! have right now -- the Bebo acquisition could be the start of a much more worldwide approach from AOL.

With that said, it's going to be tough for anyone to actually challenge MySpace and Facebook. AOL certainly has the resources to market Bebo in countries where other social networks are currently more popular, but convincing people to join yet another social network is not an easy task anymore. It's more important for now that AOL just be involved in this space -- the Bebo acquisition alone has in my opinion allowed AOL to leapfrog over Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Google as far as social networking is concerned, and that's nothing to sneeze at. It'll be interesting to see if the other giants start to develop their own in-house social networking offerings more aggressively and if they too decide to make an acquisition or two in response to this big move by AOL.

13 March 2008

Google Docs helped me graduate from college!

Have you ever wondered just who out there is using Google Docs and what they are using it for? Personally, I rarely run into links to Google Docs documents, spreadsheets, and presentations on the open Web, but there's no question that it has become a very popular service. I strongly suspect that an awful lot of people who use Google Docs use it to store information relevant to them, but end up never sharing it with others even though the ability to share is supposedly Google Docs' killer feature. For a long time, I myself was one of those non-sharing types; in fact, I still use Google Docs for such things as archiving my blog posts and storing weapon/armor stats from a MUD that I play. I don't bother to share stuff like that, even though the information isn't particularly private or dangerous to share. Similarly, I think a lot of Docs' early adopters use the service to calculate their car's gas mileage, write to-do lists, and other similar small tasks.

However, I'm happy to say that I have also used Google Docs on an important collaborative project. As a science major at a small university, I generally submitted my experimental data to my professors in paper form, though I did email out a fair number of Excel spreadsheets during my academic career. This worked fine because, although I often worked with other people in the lab to collect data, the data analysis process was something I did independently of others. As a graduating senior, I was given a slightly different task than what I was used to. Another senior and myself were asked to collaborate on a project not only by working together in the lab but also by analyzing and writing about the data we collected. It didn't take me long to realize that Google Docs could help my team out a lot. As it turned out, my partner had never used Google Docs before, but he was willing to give it a shot. An adventure began!

We actually ended up using Google Docs at every stage of our collaboration. While we were still working in the lab, we used spreadsheets to organize our data. After our time in the lab was over, we used Google Docs primarily to write collaboratively. In fact, the last bit of classwork we did in that last semester involved editing a Google document! It ended up working out great -- far better than I really expected considering that my partner was a Google Docs neophyte. If I ever go to graduate school, I'm definitely intending to make extensive use of online sharing and collaborative tools.

This experience really brought home for me just how powerful a thing Google has developed here. While Google Docs may not be a particularly feature-rich online office suite, its simplicity is a strength if all one needs to do are simple things. The simplicity of Google Docs made it easy for my partner to get started collaborating and sharing with me -- there was no significant learning curve that we had to cross because using Google Docs is pretty intuitive for people who have used office software before. Simply put, Google Docs just worked for us. We were able to get down to business right away and get our project finished. I'm not much of a collaborationist in my heart of hearts -- I tend to think groups are by their very nature inefficient and have endured working in them only because I rationalized them as a necessary evil. Google Docs and its competitors have, in my opinion, the capability and the promise to remove some of the evil of working in groups -- they can make a process that naturally tends towards inefficiency much more efficient. Thanks, Google -- you got me through college!

06 March 2008

Blogger is quietly archiving an important part of the Web.

I've felt for a long time that Blogger is a pretty underrated service. It may not have the plugins and third-party support that Wordpress has, but it has a set of features that meets most bloggers' needs and it is quite customizable for those who want to make their blogs unique. The point of this post isn't to praise Blogger as a quality piece of software, however; instead, I decided to write this post because I'm so impressed with Blogger as a web host. Google's big pocketbook has freed its web services from worrying overly much about the costs of bandwidth and storage space. Gmail's continually increasing storage capacity is an excellent example of this, but so is Blogger, as any blogger whose blog has survived a Digg or Stumbleupon traffic avalanche unscathed can attest to.

With web space no consideration, Blogger also has the freedom to never have to delete inactive accounts or blogs. What goes on Blogger stays on Blogger...forever! While some confessional sorts might prefer that their too-personal blogs descend into obscurity (they can always delete their blogs themselves if they really want to), keeping old blogs alive is a worthy endeavor that is tremendously useful to us Internet people. Personally, my biggest beef with Wordpress blogs has nothing to do with the software -- I just hate that so many people get inspired to start up Wordpress blogs with their own domain only to lose interest after a few months to such an extent that they're quite willing to let their blog die as soon as their hosting package expires. Unless some other service (like the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine) has archived these blogs, they will only live on in the hearts and minds of their readers and in the form of pesky dead links scattered about the Internet. Perhaps not every blog deserves to live forever, but I don't think anyone wins when a domain squatter takes over a blogger's former domain just because that blogger lost interest in maintaining his blog, died, or experienced some serious financial hardship. Archives at least give us, the Internet public, an opportunity to sift and search through a great deal of content and discover the really good stuff buried amidst the mundane. Blogger is a bit better than a typical archive because it also allows a returning blogger to bring an old blog back to life at any moment, whereas the Wordpress domainers who abandoned their blogs may have to renew their domains, repurchase hosting, and upload their content all over again.

This isn't to say that just because Blogger is great at archiving the blogosphere that everyone should use it. As I said previously, I do think Wordpress is great software and I wouldn't want my favorite Wordpress blogs to suddenly shift over to Blogger. Serious bloggers aren't going to be the people who let their blogs die, and many of them have quite significant financial incentives to keep their domains renewed and their hosting fees paid. I do sometimes wonder what will happen to the blogs I read after their creators die, but in many cases I think a friend or family member of the deceased blogger will take over and at least keep those archives up. Still, Blogger's commitment to archiving is in my opinion one of its best features, and those who want their content to be accessible on the Web for the foreseeable future would be well-served to at least consider starting a Blogger blog.

01 March 2008

A Microsoft victory could be a big loss for the Internet.

I'm not the biggest Yahoo! fan in the world at the moment, but I can't imagine the World Wide Web without its first giant. When I started to use Yahoo!, it was a very good web directory and nothing else. There were a few directory categories -- tennis was one -- that I monitored fairly religiously, visiting each new web site as it popped up. The Web was a lot smaller back then, but it was quickly becoming something great. Yahoo! let me feel like I was on top of something exciting, watching it evolve. As the years went along, I moved on to other search engines and used Yahoo! more for its other services. Still, I've never forgotten that I used Yahoo! long before Google existed, before Amazon had sold its first book online, and before Microsoft had any right to claim to be anything other than a software company.

Times have certainly changed. Yahoo! remains one of the most popular web sites in the world, but it has seemingly time and time again shot itself in the foot, mainly due to a lack of commitment to its own projects. I can't even say that Yahoo! has treated its enormous user base well; the same lack of commitment that has prevented the Yahoo! Publisher Network from becoming a real AdSense competitor is also going to deprive Yahoo! 360 users of the blogging platform they have grown accustomed to using. Meanwhile, Microsoft has successfully become something more than a software company; it has genuine ambitions of becoming the premier web company. Its offer to buy Yahoo! could lead a radically different Web. Google, at last, could face a strong competitor...but unfortunately it is the everyday user that will feel the changes most strongly.

A combination of Microsoft and Yahoo! would bring a lot of similar services under one umbrella. Some streamlining will be inevitable, and that means users will be forced to change services and jobs will be lost. Probably some huge services, like Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, will coexist, but lesser used and suddenly redundant side projects would be suddenly in jeopardy, and I expect in most cases the more popular project will win out and either Yahoo! or Microsoft users will have to migrate. It is even possible that Windows Live and Yahoo! will begin to use a common database and algorithm for search. I really don't see much at all to get excited about here. While Google might have to deal with a more powerful competitor, the level of competition will actually decrease due to the loss of a big player. Innovation could very well decrease because there will be one fewer giant competing for an audience; the quality of existing services, such as search, could also go down for the same reason. Huge numbers of users will be forced to give up services they enjoy using. Of course, it still remains to be seen whether Yahoo! will be acquired by Microsoft or find some way to save itself; it'll be really interesting to see what happens, for sure, but I can't forget that this acquisition has far-reaching effects beyond the business world. Internet users are the people who will be impacted the most and have to deal with the New Web Order as they are seeking information and entertainment, doing business, and communicating with others on a daily basis online. They'll certainly lose out, at least in the short run, in the event of any acquisition.

Why I decided not to become a paid poster.

Although I've never been a huge fan of paid posts and understand why Google has decided to crackdown on bloggers that accept money for posts, I nonetheless seriously considered starting a blog which would feature the occasional paid post for several months. This might make me sound like a hypocrite, but I honestly thought I could do the paid post thing right. My idea was to start a reviews blog so that the paid posts would be essentially reviews of my sponsors' web sites and the paid content would fit in with the rest of the content more or less seamlessly. It would be no different than a sponsored TV show, I thought, and I promised myself that I would make sure the paid posts were as entertaining to read as any other posts. Google might not like my blog, but I thought other people just might.

Then one day I had an epiphany that changed my mind completely. I was reviewing Matt Cutts' series of posts on paid links; as usual, I agreed with a lot of Matt's points, but still had reservations about some of them. At some point -- I'm not sure if something Matt said really got to me or not -- I heard a little voice inside me whisper, "I don't want to be a spammer." Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: even if I managed to seamlessly combine paid posts with my regular posts and made them all interesting I'd still be contributing to the proliferation of overly commercialized content on the Internet. There's a definite place for commercial interests on the Web, but the more I think about it the more I feel that it is important to differentiate between the content and the advertising on a web site. Site visitors should know if they're seeing something just because a webmaster was getting paid to post it. If we look at my reviews blog example, the paid posts are posts that almost certainly would never have been written if I wasn't getting paid to write them -- instead of reviewing some deserving but obscure web site, I'd probably be writing about some get rich quick scheme or a company with plenty of money to burn. Companies with plenty of money to burn are very welcome to advertise on my web sites, but I've decided to keep my content my own. Of course, this decision makes my reviews blog seem a lot less likely to become lucrative so I may never actually create it...but at least I won't be churning out uninspired content for the highest bidder.

In truth, the paid links debate is something that will continue forever in all likelihood. The line between content and advertising is really blurry at times, and with ad blockers becoming more popular webmasters will be increasingly motivated to try to make money with their content in any way possible. One could use some of the same arguments that are used against paid links and apply them to affiliate links -- it's interesting that I have absolutely no qualms about throwing affiliate links all over my content if I happen to mention a book or CD or electronic gadget somewhere in that content. Such links are definitely incentivized, but the key point for me is that the links are just supplemental to the content of the site, not the cause or the bulk of the content. I would be mentioning the book or the CD or the gadget even if I had no affiliate links, so it's not a case of me junking the Web just to make a buck. It's a tough debate, and one in which I think a lot of reasonable people will disagree. As for me and my sites, though, we shall not disseminate paid content!