Weekly Blog # 5: Should We Fear Google?

Is Google doing evil unlike its corporate motto “Don’t be Evil!” ?And should we be afraid of it? It depends on the perspective. Google has become almost a vital part of our lives. Hundreds of billions of searches are performed per day. According to statistics from comScore, released in June 2009, Google has hit and exceeded the massive number of 300 billion searches per day.  It is criticized by many, be it conservatives for the unlimited uncensored information, small businesses for  loosing prime positions in its rankings due to its updated algorithms, but most of all by individuals concerned, and with a reason, about their privacy. Fraud clicks, copyright issues with the launch of its library project, privacy concerns, you name it.. How much does Google give and how much does it take? Let’s take a closer look.

How much power is there behind one of the simplest-looking websites: white background, little search box, and a few colorful letters? It’s certainly more than I imagined before reading “The Search” by Jon Battelle. And this power comes from a phenomenon called “Database of Intentions”. As defined by Battle it is “The aggregate results of every search taken, every result list ever, and every path taken as a result”. What this means is that our search behavior is observed and recorded at all times. Our interests, desires, needs are revealed and exploited and used for prediction. The bright side is that by aggregating and summarizing this information we are provided with the most relevant results and our lives become easier when we search.  But let’s admit it, after all Google exists to make money and all those who believe that it is there “to change the world” should think twice. That same information that helps find things more easily, “helps us find” things that we are not really looking for. Our search behavior that by large defines us as individuals and is reported to companies for advertising purposes. Our private space is invaded on a daily basis by information that we never requested or wished to see.

But like with many social-networking sites, there is always a bargain. We agree to their rules before we join them. Likewise, by using Google, we give up personal information in order to receive information. Google gives, Google takes.  But, imagine a day without being able to “google” something. I just realize how this “term” has unnoticeably made its way in our vocabulary, and basically means I will “look it up”. We don’t say, I will “bing” or “yahoo” this. That should tell us that when it comes to search, Google is it… It helps hundreds of billions of people to find what they are looking for by providing them with the most relevant information. Our lives have become heavily dependent on Google. I use it to find data, friends, deals, and usually I am satisfied with what I find. Sure, I’ll take the deal…

Yes, my personal information might be out there but it does not raise fear in me. As John Battelle suggests in his book, we don’t ever “google” our neighbors to find out who they are. If I was a small business though relying on organic search results for visibility, I would be concerned. As we have read in “The Search” Google’s changed algorithms can turn someone’s business and life upside down.

Undoubtedly, this is a company with immense power and unlimited possibilities. As Google’s co-founder Larry Page has said back in 2002 during a talk at Stanford University, Google is trying to make the technology behind its search into a true intelligence that will be able to answer any question. I will not be surprised if that happens as Google continues to amaze us with more and more technology innovations. We’ll see how far it goes…

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Weekly Blog#4:Photography and Social Networking

A field that I am very interested in but haven’t quite fully explored is photography. I got into it a couple of years ago and I started building a collection of hard cover photography compilations such as the National Geographic’s and LIFE Magazine’s series, as well all sorts of photography guides for digital, black and white photography, portrait photography, etc. Last summer, right before my trip to Europe, I bought a new digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera. I was thrilled and already thinking about all the cool shots I was going to take. The challenging part was learning to use the camera properly and that wasn’t a one day process, but rather a serious time commitment and a lot, a lot of practice and experimentation. Digital cameras are sophisticated bits of technology. I read the manual on the plane but ended up using the AUTO feature in most cases..

 Recently, I decided to take a step further and explore some social networking sites with a focus on photography. I wanted to find out what kind of information they can give to their members in terms of advice, experience, and guidance. Flickr is the most popular photo-sharing social network after Facebook and was the first one I started exploring.  It  is an amazing social platform allowing collaboration between professional photographers, amateurs, and people who are just willing to share moments with the people who matter for them. 

 Until recently, I have only used Flickr as an observer, periodically performing searches and checking out good shots. This time I decided to join a couple of Flickr groups. It was hard to choose from all the 14 000 groups that came out as a result when I typed the words “Nikon Digital” in the search box.  I narrowed down my search by typing the camera’s model – more than 9000 groups came up. My final attempt to narrow down the results was to type my location –  I still had a choice from over a thousand groups. I was really impressed by number and diversity of all these groups. You could chose from more general categories such as black & white photography and portrait photography, to very specific ones, such as photos taken at live concerts, or photos of street clocks. I already spoke about the Long Tail in a previous post and think that this is yet another perfect example of such…The niche groups that serve very specific interests, and therefore have less members, comprise the biggest percentage of all existing groups. And vice-versa, the more general categories such as landscapes, for example, have much more members but at the same time make up a small percentage of all existing groups.

 Finally, I chose a group: “Nikon Shooters for All Levels”. 

     

I was impressed by the level of collaboration by its members. The vision of the group’s creator was that we can all learn from each other no matter our level of proficiency. This is exactly where I wanted to belong – a small group (300 members), but closely tied together.  I already learned how certain photos were taken and how certain effects were achieved. And as a matter of fact, I just heard back from another group whose work I really enjoyed looking at, and who ironically, as myself, has also mastered in public relations.  I am going to share some of his photos  here. The following photos are taken by Etaway  (Flickr username):

      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       National Geographic’s My Shot is another leading photo-sharing social platform. In a way it is quite similar to Flickr, but in addition to the features they have in common, My Shot has ready to download wallpapers, puzzles, and games.  National Geographic has found creative way to engage with its audiences and by that demonstrates that it understands and implies the first thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto, aka “Markets are Conversations”.  

 None of these conversations and collaboration would exist in a pre-web era. I wouldn’t know things that I know now and keep learning by being a member of these communities. We would all still wait to get  printed copies of the photos taken at the party, and in fact we wouldn’t see them ever.

Personal Blog Post #3: New Frontiers in Strategic Communications

New Frontiers in Strategic Communications

Strategy is an imperative part of every public relations and communications initiative.

 Last Thursday, March 11, 2010 the International Association for Business Communicators (IABC) presented New Frontiers in Strategic Communications during its monthly chapter meeting at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda.  The presenters were Christine Nyirjesi, Managing Director at Weber Merritt Public Affairs, and Jeffrey Brooke,  Director of Employee Communication for the US Government Printing Office (GPO).

Christine Nyirgesy implied some of the best practices for implementing a successful communications strategy during the first half of the presentation. The information was a great refresher for public relations practitioners and a fundamental guide for new communicators.

The presentation began with the following definition of strategy, quoting David Moorcroft, SVP Corporate Communications of ABC Financial Group:

“A roadmap that aligns corporate communications in support of the company’s vision, goals, values, and priorities, thereby enhancing the corporate performance and reputation in a measurable way.”

Some of the keys points of the presentation were that professional communicators need to understand that they are performing a business function, as well as be able to explain their superiors in a coherent way how a communications strategy can be beneficial for the company’s success.

The 3 integral stages of building a communications plan as outlined in the presentation are:

–      Master Strategic Plan – high-level (mission, vision, values of a company or organization);

–      Operating Plan – mid-level (identifies issues, ways to address them, budget, timelines);

–      Project Plan: ground-level (specific for a project, similar to the operating plan).

Here are 10 easy steps for demonstrating your strategy:

  1. Identify the opportunity or need
  2. Research trends that can impact your strategy
  3. Understand the audience
  4. Establish goals
  5. Establish objectives
  6. Craft your message
  7. Define a real timeline
  8. Choose a delivery method
  9. Evaluate against the objective

10.  Make adjustments and repeat

Another essential point brought up at the presentation was that communication professionals of all levels need to be able to differentiate between goals and objectives.

Goals are where you are trying to be: boost visibility, enhance reputation, for example.

Objectives are much more specific: earned media, Facebook fans, sales, etc.

The presentation also touched on the importance of knowing your audience: who are they, what they want from you, what you want from them, how they communicate with you, and how you communicate with them.

Media Relations was not left out of the discussion being a core pr function.  Our story needs to be interesting and accessible to media and tied to a current trend. We also need to do a significant amount of research, find success or failure stories and validate our message. Measuring media is a step not be skipped either. Some of the most important criteria include the number of clips, the tone of coverage, the geographic reach, and whether the message was properly grasped and transmitted.

Last but not least, we need to measure our success. The objective and the evaluation process need to be aligned. Did our efforts bring us closer to achieving our objective and by how much?

During the second half of the meeting Jeffrey Brooke shared an interesting example of how he, in his position of Director of the United States Government Printing Office, played a key role in improving employee communication and engagement by using electronic billboards. The problem was that employees reported dissatisfaction with the agency-wide communications and employee recognition. An employee engagement survey revealed that employees felt unrecognized for their efforts. What the communication audit found was that communication channels individually scored great, however, the message penetration was not strong (employees not reading). Communication needed to deliver super-short, unavoidable messages, messages showcasing award recipients. So, a software package internally branded as link was introduced. It allowed content to be shown on PC monitors and wall-mounted monitors. The overall approach consisted of keeping employees’ attention with graphics, keeping messages short and simple, providing fresh content, driving them to more details in other publications. As a result, employee satisfaction increased with 19%.

It was a meeting definitely worth attending, not to mention the great networking opportunities.

Personal Blog #2 Social Marketing, Social Media and Social Change

Social marketing is an area I became interested in during the course of my master’s program, and more so after completing a class with a concentration on the effective use of communications for development. A significant part of it was dedicated to analyzing and creating cogent strategies for behavior change, capacity building, and raising awareness regarding social, economic, and political issues. Although social marketing, communications for development, and advocacy communications differ from each other, but at the same time often hard for many to tell apart, they are united by a common objective, that is social change.

In this regard, my interest expands to using social media for social impact. Social media is a powerful, what Chris Anderson refers to, “democratization” of tools which encouraged the use of more sophisticated and participatory approaches by businesses, non-profits, commercial and social marketers. It has  given the crowd precious platforms to exercise its power: in this context, everyone working towards the goal of making the world a better place.

Collective action has formulations and theories in many areas of the social sciences. In this note I must say that, I really enjoyed reading the book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” by Clay Shirky which is a deep and engaging insight of how technology bolsters collaboration and crowd-souring.
The two examples that stood out the most for me are: the Belorussian protesters using LiveJournal to organize flash mobs to boycott Lukashenko’s government, and Wikipedia which Chris Anderson compares to a “live organism having the ability to heal itself”, thus referring to the collaborator’s immediate actions towards any form of vandalism. Besides these examples, I wanted to give a couple more on how technology has allowed other great projects to become reality due to a group’s collective activism.

One definitely worth mentioning is TED and its ambitious initiative to translate TEDTalks into different languages. TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading ideas globally, its logo – “Ideas Worth Spreading”. From its beginning as a conference in 1984 it invites the world’s most influential thinkers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes). Later TED made all these talks available on Ted.com, making it a powerful platform for collaboration and sharing ideas to a global audience. They cover multiple topics from science technology, food, poetry to origami. TED’s Open-Translation Project launched with 300 translations in 40 languages and 200 volunteer translators. In the beginning, talks were translated professionally into 20 languages, but going on and up to this date, the project is completely reliant on volunteers who were able to do it themselves using the open-source platform they were provided. At the moment the talks are available on 70 Languages, with 2050 translators involved, and 4994 translations. Through the lens of the Long Tail one can argue that TED has one, too. The top left part being the hit talks (Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Steve Jobs, etc.), and on the bottom right – niche interests such as bacteria, submarines, and apes.

Another great example of civil action is Earthtour.org which using social media encouraged close to 5000 cities in 88 countries in 2009 to participate in the Earth Hour which is ten times more the number of participants in 2008. Earthhour started in 2007 in Sydney, Australia when 2.2 million homes and businesses turned their lights off for one hour to make their stand against climate change.

For more examples, you can check out the Blueprints report available on thinksocial.org which highlights the most innovative and effective use of social media and the public interest.

Weekly Blog Post # 3 Do we need a Bill of Rights for the social web?

Privacy is a fundamental human right recognized in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in many other international and regional treaties. It is a complex and widely discussed topic of the modern age, both offline and online. As we have observed, especially during the past few years, the capacity and capability of the Internet is constantly changing and developing new ways of using it as a communication medium. The abundance of platforms for social networking raises the question of privacy: How much should we expose and is our information protected? Up until 2007 there have not been written rules and there is still no consensus on what online privacy means, who should define it, and what is the golden medium between the consumer and company’s interests.

In September 2007 Joseph Smarr, Marc Canter, Robert Scoble, and Michael Arrington created the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web which focuses on privacy, and more precisely – on ownership, control & freedom of personal information. Up to this date it has been a continuous debate, but a question that we as users should think twice about. The social media’s Bill of Rights’s core arguments are that online users should have:
Ownership of their own personal information, including:
o their own profile data
o the list of people they are connected to
o the activity stream of content they create;
Control of whether and how such personal information is shared with others; and
Freedom to grant persistent access to their personal information to trusted external sites.

To me the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web seems fair but quite idealistic. All of the above statements seem to be valid points, having in mind that many platforms do not support true deletion; even deleted or edited information remains on the company’s servers forever. Despite this fact, I personally, still  publish pictures on my Facebook account which is my own decision. We have control of our online behavior and we are responsible for the information we put out there. In addition, we are provided tools to control who is to view our personal information. At the same time, it makes me wonder why I can not share things that I want to share without giving up the ownership of these items. And it makes me wonder why are there 6 different versions of any one of my pictures stored on the site’s servers. Here is an insightful interview with a Facebook employee revealing a few behind the scenes practices and facts which concern the users’ ownership of information. On the other hand, what would happen if social networking sites would give up and deliver the entire content rights to the users by simply providing the service.  Would this freedom then be misused?  I am in a dilemma myself.

Overall, I think it is naive to think that the Bill of Right for users of the social media can be implemented universally, having in mind the number of existing social platforms. Maybe some day the Bill can serve as an ethical guide for the next generation of online social tools. I am convinced that we, and nobody else,  should own our personal information, but unless this changes in terms of  its legality,  if  at all possible, it is up to us to find this perfect balance between living socially and  being private.

Personal Blog # 1: How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird

There are certain  pieces that I immensely enjoy rereading, especially in a snowy and raging weather like the past couple of days in Washington DC. Somehow, the almost scary lifelessness of the landscape outside make me sweep the dust off long forgotten books that otherwise my hectic routine would not allow me to do on a regular day. Maybe I’m not the only one finding inspiration in this weather, but I will tell you about the words that  affect me personally. I will mention some titles and quotes and I hope that I will make you discover the moving work of a great poet.

Jaques Prevert, and in particular, his “How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird” book which I was holding again today. No, no. .., it’s not a how-to book which has ironically caused disappointment for some who thought they would learn how to sketch feathers. It’s emotional and deep, but at the same time very simply and ingenuously written poetry.

First, a little about Jaques Prevert. Born on February. 4, 1900 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France and died April 11, 1977 Omonville-la-Petite, he was a poet and screenwriter, wrote lyrics for many classic songs, including Autumn Leaves. He actively participated in the surrealist movement.

The book “How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird” borrows its name from the first poem in it.  The poem does in fact address a young artist and instructs him how to draw a bird, but at a second glance it reminds me of a life journey and it teaches us to be patient if we don’t  get what we want right away.

Sometimes the bird comes quickly

but he can just as well spend long years

before deciding

Don’t get discouraged

wait

wait years if necessary

the swiftness or slowness of the coming

of the bird having no rapport

with the success of the picture”

What strikes me the most as I flip the pages is his simple, but powerful way of speaking about life and love which are the essence of this wonderful compilation. Here is one of my favorite “Paris at Night” which says a lot by not saying much.

Three matches one by one struck in the night
The first to see your face in its entirety
The second to see your eyes
The last to see your mouth
And the darkness all around to remind me of all these.

In brief, this is Jacques Prevert; writes as he speaks, no fancy words or complicated thoughts. Clarity, clean lines and the ability to make us (at least me) appreciate more the simple things in our lives.  I can talk more about him and his work but I’ll let you start with these poems first. Don’t forget to add Debussy’s Claire de Lune .

Weekely Post # 2 Is there a first blogger?

Is there a first blogger?

How did blogging begin?  And who should be awarded the title “first blogger”? Is there a set definition for the word “blog” which is still auto-corrected as I type this post on my Word document? These are all questions raising curiosity among many, prompting some blog pioneers to pretend for the title, and media to make misinterpretations and mark “blogging anniversaries”.

The book Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg, which I recently read, took me through the rise and evolution of blogging and how it  has been impacting different aspects of our daily lives. It  also helped me find answers to the questions raised above. Say Everything is the first book I read about blogging, and up to that moment  I had a very little understanding about its purpose. In all honesty, I did not care much, if at all, about when, where, and why it started. However,  I was almost immediately intrigued by the personal stories of the people who were putting the foundations of what is now called ” blog” and it felt like I was reading a novel.

In order to understand who started or invented something, we first need to have a clear idea what is it exactly that they invented, in our case, what is the essence of the blog. And I don’t believe that there is a clear definition of a blog at this point. After reading the book, I believe that is more than just the common perception of a personal web page with frequent updates sorted in reverse chronological order. I believe that it is the motif behind starting a blog that matters which, throughout the reading process I concluded, is the need for interaction, sharing and promoting ideas, or simply said – the expression of self.

Justin Hall had a desire to expose intimate details about himself on the available then means for online communication which was his personal website. David Winer’s first serious engagement with the Web was prompted by his disagreement with the controlled traditional media, and he first promoted his ideas by mailing lists until the moment he introduced Scripting News. Meg Horighan’s and Ev Williams’s fascination with the Web and the “web people”, whom Meg herself describes as wanting to create “things worth reading, worth covering, worth envying, worth loving”, and their self identification as such people,  found expression in the Pyra App, the Evhead blog, and later in the introduction of Blogger.  Josh Micah Marshall put the start of the political blogging with Talking Points Memo.

These are just to name a few. The point is that they all started by using simple technological tools, which later evolved to what we now know as a “web log” with all its complexities, and they were all encouraged by the desire to create, share and absorb information. In the face of the Web they all found a world of freedom and honesty without boundaries, except the ones they set themselves.

So, knowing all these people’s individual stories, I consider the start of blogging not when the term was officially introduced but when the idea of it hit all these people. It is hard to determine when this happened, this is why there is no such person as a first blogger. It seems to me that blogging developed simultaneously among a few people who discovered the Web as a an uncontrolled means to share ideas and create powerful movements; it did not have a single starting point, and it is what it is now due to multiple contributions and motives. It just kept taking different forms with the technology advancement during the years. And many of these people, the first bloggers, did contribute to the progress of internet technology themselves.

Besides reading the book, you can read what Scott Rosenberg has written about who the first blogger is which he has expressed in his blog Scott Rosenberg’s Wordyard.