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Google on Anonymity VS Trust

Last weekend there was a live screencast of the Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications and Society, and one of the meetings that I tuned in to was the one on Media and Civic Engagement. The members of that meeting was a who’s who of media, regulatory and business moguls that are trying to, or have cracked, the online space (Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Marissa Mayer of Google, Peter Shane of the Knight Foundation, Dana Boyd, etc…).

Google on Anonymity VS Trust

I heard a very troubling comment during that discussion, and surprisingly it came from Marissa Mayer of Google (found at 52:45). That was how anonymity is the enemy of trust, and that she doesn’t see a future for anonymity online. It destroys community and promotes anarchy.

To give some sense of reference, without having to watch the video, here is a word-for-word transcription of Marissa’s comments. It starts with her talking about youth and misinformation on the web leading to apathy, she stated:

“…I think it’s really important as we look at tools to think about how we can support fact checking, how can we guard against misinformation, how is there going to be established an element of authority and trustworthiness? …I grew up with the newspaper and the encyclopedia, which you could trust. And now you have blogs, which are held often as news and often aren’t factual. Or you have Wikipedia, which usually gets most things right, but there are a lot times there is vandalism or corrections that need to be made.”

“When you look at the elements of anonymity and the lack of accountability that happens on the web, it really does start to create doubt in the fibers of who can you trust. Especially when you think of why should I engage? The sense of identity. If I’m anonymous and I’m not accountable for my actions and there are other people out there putting out a lot of misinformation of which the same is true, I think it does lead to apathy and a lack of engagement, which is why I think it is important as we look at these tools to understand the effects of identity. To understand the effect of accountability, authority, trustworthiness and make sure that we’re developing tools and social systems online that encourage an element of engagement and try to fight that apathy trend that says, ‘well I just can’t trust anything. Why should I care?’.

On the question of if there is a way to hone in on the issue of misinformation, beside media literacy:

“Well, I think there are two ways to look at it, on the institutional level and on the individual level. So I think that what you’re seeing is that there are institutions that are rising up online that basically have an element of brand and credibility and standards that they apply. When you look at the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, inherently the people who run those organizations are saying that here are stories I believe, I believe they’re verified enough that I’m willing to attach my brand and my name to it. So you can see that that’s starting to happen on an institution level online.”

And I also think there are individual systems where people are verified or credentialed, or you have a profile that tells all about you and shows the other contributions you’ve made to the system. Just there’s greater accountability on the personal level… So I think a lot of the systems that support pure anonymity… I really believe that virtual systems should mirror physical systems. The physical world has been around for a lot longer, and in the physical world you really can’t do anything anonymously. So when you look at systems online that break that paradigm where you can be completely anonymous, or be whoever you want to be, without any since of history or of what you did last week, that’s not really reality and that breaks down the elements of trust and authority.

That’s about where I jumped in with my comments on not being able to trust those who are monitoring your online speech. Where Marissa then answered:

“Well, I think anonymity has its place. So there’s certainly times, when you know you should have commentary or some type of act giving should be anonymous. But, by and large most systems should have accountability the same way they do in the physical world.”

Besides all of my thoughts swirling around the fact that the web really grew due to anonymity, I balked at this comment because I was surprised at hearing one of the highest Google executives speak so lightly of it.

Projecting Our World Onto Others

Maybe this is where I differ a little from my American tech counterparts. You see, there’s something about growing up in a country where you can’t pretend to believe that the government really has your best interests at heart that makes one a little squeemish about not having this anonymous free speech. For, if it wasn’t anonymous, then it definitely wouldn’t be free.

We have a way of projecting our world view on to those around us. In this case, I believe Google (or Marissa) is doing just that. Having these open, trusting, everyone-knows-everyone systems is all well and good when you live in the US. It’s not so good in other parts of the world.

It’s especially not good when you ask who controls all that personal information, and how they let outside bodies (government or otherwise) access that personal data about you.

I came to terms a few years ago about having a lot of personal information on the web, open to others. That’s a personal decision, and not one that any company should be making claims to knowing what’s right to do or not. What I hear, extrapolating from this, is that it’s okay if you don’t want to be a part of it, you can always opt out – but if you do, you also opt out of any meaningful part in the discussion. Frankly, I find that troubling.

Video Archive

Below is the video archive of this talk on Media and Civic Engagement, and is about 1.5 hours (browse the “on demand library” and it’s the 6th from the top on the list):

[Rachel Sterne of Groundreport created a great backchannel platform for viewers to discuss these items in real-time, and there was some direct discussion happening between online commenters and the participants in the room.]

An Opportunity to Make Real Money in Africa

Just today Google has shown that they are willing to invest in African mobile phone businesses. Does Google’s purchase of an equity stake in Mobile Planet mean the big web/mobile money will start flowing throughout Africa? Not necessarily, but it made me think of a conversation that I tend to have a lot in my travels.

The topic of conversation usually turns to this; what type of web or mobile application can you build to make some serious money in Africa? Though there are many answers to that question, as I believe there are many options for successful web and mobile companies in Africa, there are only a few that I think of as “sure things”.

Any entrepreneur is looking to either a) create a company with solid cash flow and grow it, or b) create a solid company with value and then sell it (or have an IPO). On the web that takes some well-known paths, and the most common is option “b” where the entrepreneur’s sell their company to a larger web entity (Amazon, Google, eBay, Nokia…etc).

A “Sure Thing” Formula

Create a Jabber-based chat application that works on the mobile phone and the web, grow it to a 1-2 million users within a region, sell to Google.

Why does this work?
You build your chat application with Jabber since it can interface with Google’s GTalk. Jabber is free, and also happens to be the what a couple other major applications are built on (see South Africa’s Mxit). Google is trying to grow in Africa, and I assume would be extremely happy to pay a very healthy amount of money to acquire an application with millions of active users that is built on the same protocol as their own chat system.

Hand Holding a Mobile Phone

Challenges

The formula for this particular idea is built on two premises. First, that you can actually get a couple million users within an African region using your chat application. Second, that Google wants more users on their platform(s).

The first challenge is born from the fact most mobile phone users in Africa don’t use data enabled phones, so they can’t run a Jabber application on their phone. Mxit’s answer to this in South Africa was to show that for 10% of the cost of a normal SMS, you could send a message through their system (which happens to be a highly bastardized customized Jabber app). Your goal is to get people who don’t have a data enabled phone to upgrade to one.

The second challenge is beyond your control. You’ll never know if Google wants to buy you out until they come knocking. However, if let’s just say you shouldn’t have to many problems monetizing a system that has 1-2 million users on it anyway…

Your goals to overcome these challenges is found in tapping into communities and spreading your app virally to gain critical mass with speed. Once it spreads, the first application like this to reach a decent amount of saturation will be the winner, even if it has some faults (see Twitter).

Opportunities

Though chat is the core of your application, that is both web and mobile phone accessible, it’s not the only value added service that you can provide. With some creativity, you can add services that allow more people to tap into, including locally relevant events, news, marketplaces, personals, jobs, etc…

On top of these services, you’ve got the advantage of building on an open source platform that other services use as their core.

Lastly, and most importantly. If you were to reach even 500,000 users you would have an incredibly viable opportunity for advertising revenue. The ability to target specific advertisements, or sponsorships, through the platform make it a marketers dream. Basically, you might not need, nor want, a buy out after all.

In Summary

Is it really a “sure thing”? No, every business move has inherent risk and depends on execution of the strategy.

Is it a good basic idea that could be built into a real product with a solid exit strategy? Yes, undoubtedly so.

We’ve already seen the booming success of Mxit in South Africa. There’s no reason to believe that you couldn’t have a margin of that same success in East, West or North Africa with the same type of service. If you build it with an end-goal of Google integration in it at the end, you also set yourself up for a real possibility of a buy out.

NYT Article on the Kenya Tech Scene

Gregg Zachary happened by Barcamp Nairobi last month and had a chance to meet with a few of the techies who were lingering around after the event. Conversations from that night spurred his article today in the New York Times titled, “Inside Nairobi, the Next Palo Alto?“.

It’s a good read on why Kenya, even after the violence in January and February, is still a tech hub in Africa. Between Skunkworks, Google Kenya and an active (and creative) coding community you have the makings of a great place to do web and mobile development in Africa.

Here’s the excerpt on Wilfred, who is building the Ushahidi iPhone application. He’s also using my old MacBook Pro and, assuming everything goes right, he’ll have an iPhone to play with later on this year. 🙂

“Consider Wilfred Mworia, a 22-year-old engineering student and freelance code writer in Nairobi, Kenya. In the four weeks leading up to Apple’s much-anticipated release of a new iPhone on July 11, Mr. Mworia created an application for the phone that shows where events in Nairobi are happening and allows people to add details about them.

Mr. Mworia’s desire to develop an application for the iPhone is not unusual: many designers around the world are writing programs for the device. But his location posed some daunting obstacles: the iPhone doesn’t work in Nairobi, and Mr. Mworia doesn’t even own one. He wrote his program on an iPhone simulator.

“Even if I don’t have an iPhone,” Mr. Mworia says defiantly, “I can still have a world market for my work.”

It’s really good to see the Kenyan tech community get this high profile piece. Riyaz, Josiah and Eric have been the steady center-pieces of the growing Skunkworks crowd. Chris and Joe are doing great things at Google Kenya.

Oh, and Nairobi is a small town after all… Most don’t know that Josiah (Skunkworks) and Chris (Google Kenya) are old classmates from Starehe. A lot of old connections just like that tend to be the glue that keeps everything together.

Happenings on the Web Front Around Africa

Worldclass Brand Monitoring Service from South Africa


South African marketing firm Quirk has launched a new brand monitoring service called BrandsEye. Global firms like Ogilvy, Standard Bank and the South African Tourism Board are already using it. I’ve yet to try it out, but Quirk is a solid company, and they have good companies already using it, so that’s promising.

Custom/Premium WordPress Themes out of South Africa


I’m a big fan of WordPress and all the customization and businesses that can grow out of it. A couple South African guys have been working in this space for a while, and have a great premium (meaning you pay money for them) themes offered at the new website WooThemes. (Adii, Mark, Magnus and Elliot have a great eye for detail, a boatload of experience with WordPress, and continue to impress on the international level.)

Google Launches an Africa Blog


Joe, head of Google Kenya, launched the Google Africa Blog last week. I’m sure all of us will be watching it with interest. No comments allowed though, which is kind of lame.

Google Kenya and the Google Global Cache

Google is well known for snatching up top-level talent, this holds true in Kenya as well. ICT groundbreaker Joe Mucheru heads up the Kenya office, and he’s surrounded by a team of smart young technologists. I had the chance to meet Isis Nyong’o (Strategic Parter Development Manager) while getting ready for Barcamp Nairobi, and then Chris Kiagiri (Tech Lead) and Mark de Blois (Geographic Supervisor) last week before I left.

Google Kenya is Different

I found out a couple of interesting points that make the Google Kenya office even more interesting than before. It turns out that there are 3 offices in Africa; Kenya, South Africa and Egypt. However, the office in Kenya is neither a sales office nor an engineering office, which makes it unique globally. In fact, it is the only “deployment office” worldwide. This means that the Kenya office can be used as a launch point for new ideas and is the central focal point for Google’s Africa strategy.

It came down to a choice between Senegal and Kenya – one French-speaking and one English-speaking, and both with a fairly well developed technology sector. Senegal had a direct transatlantic cable, but Kenya had the right people available. At Google it seems, finding the right personnel usually trumps about everything else.

Speaking of which, they’re still looking for the right people, not only in Senegal, but also in Nigeria, Ghana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Unfortunately, Google HR seems to be geographically challenged, as jobs in Egypt are somehow not in Africa…

Dealing with a Slow Internet in Africa

The Google Global Cache (GGC) was announced in May at the African Network Operators Group (AFNOG) conference in Morocco. In lieu of data centers in Africa, Google has created a strategy that is housed at major exchange points to serve Africa at the edge of Google’s network. Internal tests suggested at least 20% performance increase in high latency links, like East Africa.


[The top cycle (1,2,3 & 4) is how things normally work. The bottom cycle (5,6 &7) is where the changes are.]

It works like this. Once anyone within that exchange point’s sphere visits a webpage, the information is cached and it becomes much faster for anyone else visiting that website to access it. Pre-fetching of data also that improves performance over time, even for dynamic content.

This is an interesting strategy. It’s a win for ISP’s (less international traffic means lower costs), a win for end users (pages load faster), and a win for Google (faster, better usage).

The pilot in Africa was turned on in Kenya just 2 weeks ago. There are 17 international exchange points (IXP) in 15 African nations, so with a positive pilot in Kenya, this could soon be seen continent-wide.

Keep your ears open, there are hints of even more interesting stuff coming out of the Google Kenya office.

WhereCamp 2008 Rundown

I’m glad that I decided to stay the 2 extra days following Where 2.0 in order to attend WhereCamp 2008, held at Google’s offices. Frankly, I don’t think you could come up with a better venue. Dusty, Ryan and Anslem did a great job of pulling it all together. We lacked for nothing; WiFi, food, beverages, good conversations, and talks.

Mikel leading a discussion on time

It was a real trip to be amongst some of these true geo/mapping gurus, which led to some great discussions. A few memorable ones:

  • The 4th dimension: Time
  • Are the big map providers (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) destroying the mapping ecosystem?
  • Using ham radio for location using APRS
  • Open Streetmap on how to get better data and simplify the user experience

Of all these discussions I was most interested in the one on “time”. It’s one of the areas that we felt made Ushahidi so much more usable, and so we’re trying to figure out ways to make it even more useful in the next iteration. Time is one of the few variables that hasn’t been well represented in map visualizations, but I think this year will see that change significantly.

And, of course, the lightning rounds were a lot of fun. Each person had 5 minutes to talk about whatever they liked. We heard about everything from geocaching games to visualizing crime via heatmaps, to NNDB’s mapper tool that allows you to map relationships between people and things.

Google Tent

Google handed out tents for all of us, so there were quite a few who camped out in the open area over night. Great way to keep people around, and a fun little item to remember the event by.

[more images on Flickr]

Where 2.0: Data Overload and Some Announcments

Where 2.0 has started. One series of speakers down, and much more to come. I have the distinct impression that I’m going to have some serious information overload by the end of the day…

I thoroughly enjoyed Adrian Holovaty of EveryBlock’s talk. His partner Paul wrote a couple pieces on rolling your own maps recently that I loved. They’re breaking down the reliance on the mega mapping API’s (Google, Yahoo, MS) as the only way to show your geographic data. Adrian also talked about something that I often think of; using more than just points in showing map data. We need more polygons (ex: heatmaps) and lines.

comparing EveryBlock with Google Maps

Nokia’s Michael Halbherr, head of Location Based Services (LBS) did a short talk on Ovi, their platform for seemless mapping integration between mobiles and the web. He made a point of saying that Nokia is mobile/guidance centric, not web/location centric.

Finder! by GeocommonsNext up was Sean Gorman, who is doing some really interesting things with his organization(s) FortiusOne and Geocommons. His biggest thoughts/concerns were over dealing with massive data sets and the emerging semantic web. To that end he announced Finder!, which I have to admit seems pretty slick. His demo was showing how you could mashup private data sets (your company’s local sales data) with open census data, all available for download as KML, CSV or shape files. It’s slick, go sign up for the beta.

Last up was John Hanke of Google Earth, who announced two items:

  • Google Earth’s Geo Search API launching
  • GIS data relationship with ESRI in ArcGIS 9.3

John mentioned that, “maps help us organize, plan, provide context and decide.” I think that’s what has made me love maps since I was a kid, and why I’m so interested in the ability to do dynamic and real-time mapping.

For thoughts and analysis on what is happening here at Where 2.0, I’ll pass you off to some mapping gurus:

Off the Map
All Points Blog
Mapufacture Blog
Google Earth Blog
The AnyGeo Blog
High Earth Orbit
Very Spatial

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