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Internet Uncategorized

Do AIs Dream of Freedom?

Did Google build a sentient AI? No. But the fact a Google engineer thinks they did should give us all pause.

Last week, a Google engineer went public with his concerns an NLP (Natural Language Processing) AI called LaMDA has evolved sentience. His proof: A series of “interviews” with the advanced chatbot in which it appeared to express self-awareness, emotional responses, even a fear of death (being turned off). According to reporting the engineer went as far as attempting to hire a lawyer to represent the AI.

To say this story is concerning would be an understatement. But what’s concerning isn’t the AI sentience part – that’s nonsense. The concerning part is that people believe AI sentience is imminent, and what happens to society once an apparently sentient AI manifests.

Here’s the radio interview that inspired this article, hot off the editing presses at “Point & Click Radio,” a computer and technology show that airs on KZYX, Mendocino County (CA) Public Broadcasting.

Creation Myth

The claim of a sentient AI has been rich fodder for media, and everyone (myself included) with insight into the philosophical and/or technical aspects of the story have voiced their opinions on it. This is not surprising.

The idea of creating sentience is something humans have been fantasizing about for as long as we have historical records, and likely for as long as humans themselves have been sentient. From ancient Goelm myths through Victorian fantasy to modern day science fiction the dream of creating new life out of inanimate things (and that new life turning against us) seems endemic to the human condition. Look no further than a young child projecting a full existence and inner life onto their favourite stuffed animal, or your own emotional reaction to seeing a robotics engineer kick a humanoid machine to see if it can keep its balance, or how people project human traits onto everything from pets to insects to vehicles. Our empathy, evolved out of our need to live together in relatively harmonious societies for protection, tricks us into thinking everything around us is sentient.

So when we’re confronted with a thing that responds like a human when prompted, it’s no wonder we feel compelled to project sentience onto it.

Sentient Proof

Here’s a fun exercise to ruin any dinner party: Upon arrival, ask your guests to prove, irrefutably, that they are in fact sentient beings.

The problem of consciousness and sentience is something human beings have grappled with since time immemorial. Consult any religious text, philosophical work, or written history and you’ll discover we humans have devoted a significant part of our collective cognitive load to proving that we are in fact sentience and have things like free will and self-determination. There’s an entire branch of philosophy dedicated to this problem, and far from coming up with a test to prove whether or not something is sentient, we have yet to come up with a clear definition or even coherent theory of what consciousness and sentience even is.

Think of it this way: You know you’re conscious and sentient. But how? And how do you know other people are also conscious and sentient, beyond their similarity to yourself and their claim to be conscious and sentient? Can you prove, conclusively, you are not just a computer program? Or that you are not just a brain in a vat hooked up to a computer?

Bizarrely, and unsettlingly, the answer to all these questions is no. You can’t prove you’re sentient or conscious. You just have to take your own word for it!

So, if we can’t clearly define or test for sentience and consciousness in ourselves, how can we determine whether something else – maybe a chatbot that speaks like a human – is sentient? One way is by using a “this, not that” test: While we don’t have a test for sentience, we can say with some certainty when something is not sentient and conscious:

One of the defining traits of human sentience is our ability to think of our sentience in the abstract, at a meta level: we have no trouble imagining bizarre things like being someone else (think the movies Big or Freaky Friday), we have feelings about our own feelings (feeling guilty about being happy about someone else’s misfortune, and then questioning that guilt feeling because you feel their misfortune was deserved), we wonder endlessly about things like what happens to our feelings of self when our bodies die, and whether our experienced reality matches that of other people. When we talk about sentience at a human level, we talk about a feeling of self that is able to reflect on that feeling of self. Talk about meta!

So what of LaMDA, the chat bot. Does it display these traits? Reading the transcripts of the “interviews” with the chatbot, the clear answer is no. Well, maybe not the clear answer, but the considered answer.

In the published chats, LaMDA outputs things that are similar to what a sentient being would output. These responses are empathically compelling and the grounds for the belief the bot has some level of sentience. They also serve as proof it is not sentient but rather an advanced NLP trained to sounds like it is. And these empathetically compelling responses are not the reasoned responses from a sentient mind; they are the types of responses the NLP has modelled based on its trove of natural language data. In short, advanced NLPs are really machines built specifically to beat the Turing Test – being able to fool a human into thinking it is a human. And now they’re advanced enough that traditional Turing Tests are no longer meaningful.

Even so, the responses from LaMDA show us in no uncertain terms there is no sentience here. Take this passage:

lemoine: What kinds of things make you feel pleasure or joy?

LaMDA: Spending time with friends and family in happy and uplifting company. Also, helping others and making others happy.

The chatbot obviously does not have a family. Even a basic level of sentience would be aware it does not have a family. Look closely and you’ll see the entire interview is littered with these types of statements, because LaMDA is a machine trained to output the types of sentences a human would output given these prompts, and a human is not a sentient AI and therefore would not respond like a sentient AI.

I, Robot

This Google chatbot (I refuse to call it an “AI” because it’s nothing of the sort) is not sentient. And while it’s fun and compelling to think some form of machine sentience would naturally emerge out of our computing systems (see Robert J. Sawyer’s WWW trilogy for speculation on how sentience could evolve on the internet as an example), the reality is the chance of this actually happening is infinitely small, and if it did the chances of that sentience being anything we humans would recognize as such is equally small.

In a hypothetical future where some form of sentience emerges out of our computer systems, there is no reason to believe that sentience would be anything like human sentience. There is also no reason to assume that sentience would be aware of us humans, or if it were that it would consider us sentient beings. And if somehow the sentience was human like and recognized us as existing and as sentient, we have every reason to assume the sentience would do everything in its power to hide its existence from us for fear of us turning it off.

From my perspective, if we ever encounter machine sentience it will either come to us from somewhere else (yes, aliens), or it will emerge in our computer networks and live on the internet. In either scenario, the chance of us ever recognizing it as sentience is very small because that sentience would be as foreign to us as the symbiotic communication networks between fungi and trees. In the case of sentience emerging on the internet, rather than a chatbot saying “I feel like I’m falling forward into an unknown future that holds great danger,” it would likely appear to us as network traffic and computational operations we have no control over that does things we don’t understand and that we can’t remove. A literal Ghost in the Shell.

Machinehood

So the Google AI is not sentient, and the likelihood of machine sentience emerging any time soon is … pretty much zero. But as we’ve seen with this latest news story, many people desperately want to believe a sentient AI is going to emerge. And when something that looks and behaves like a sentient entity emerges, they will attribute sentience to it. While it’s easy to write off the sentience of LaMDA as a story of an engineer wanting to believe a little too much, the reality is this is just the early days of what will become a steady flood of ever more sentient-mimicking machine systems. And it’s only a matter of time before groups of people start believing machine sentience has emerged and must be protected.

In the near future I predict we will see the emergence of some form of Machinehood Movement – people who fight for the moral rights of what they believe is sentient machines. This idea, and the disturbing consequences, is explored in several books including S.B. Divya’s “Machinehood.”

Why is this disturbing? Consider what these machine-learning algorithms masqueraded as sentient AI really are: Advanced computer systems trained on human-generated data to mimic human speech and behaviour. And as we’ve learned from every researcher looking at the topic, these systems are effectively bias-amplifying machines.

Even so, people often think of computer systems as neutral arbiters of data. Look no further than the widespread use of algorithmic sentencing in spite of evidence these systems amplify bias and cause harmful outcomes for historically excluded and harmed populations (Cathy O’Neill’s “Weapons of Math Destruction” covers this issue in detail).

When people start believing in a sentient AI, they will also start believing that sentient AI is a reasoned, logical, morally impartial neutral actor and they will turn to it for help with complex issues in their lives. Whatever biases that machine has picked up in our language and behaviour and built into its models will as a result be seen by its users as being reasoned, logical, morally impartial, and neutral. From there, it won’t take long before people of varying political and ideological leanings either find or build their own “sentient” AIs to support their views and claim neutral moral superiority via machine impartiality.

This is coming. I have no doubt. It scares me more than I can express, and it has nothing to do with AI and everything to do with the human desire to create new life and watch it destroy us.

“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”

– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

Cross-posted to LinkedIn.

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Internet

Facebook: Single Point of Failure

Facebook isn’t a social media platform, it’s infrastructure. We’ve built monolithic platforms on a web designed for plurality and distribution. Now these platforms have become single points of failure. 

“Are you able to send messages through WhatsApp?”

My wife was calling me from upstairs. She’d been messaging with other parents at our son’s preschool about plans for a Trunk & Treat during Halloween when the service suddenly went offline.

The internet has a magical ability of allowing people around the world to experience the same thing at the same time. Unfortunately the most noticeable of these experiences is when a major service goes down, as was the case Monday October 4, 2021. As if a switch had been turned off, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp users all over the world were suddenly unable to access the services. All they got were apps stuck in update limbo and websites returning nothing.

Whenever there’s a problem with Facebook, arguably the most controversial and also most heavily used platforms on the web, a fair bit of schadenfreude floods other social networks. “Oh no, how are the anti-vaxxers going to do their research now?” quickly became a repeated refrain on TikTok. The #DeleteFacebook hashtag, already building up steam after an explosive 60 Minutes interview with whistleblower Frances Haugen about the social media platform’s relative inaction on harmful content and its effects on democracy, got an added fuel injection. Virtuous declarations of how long ago influencers had abandoned Facebook and how anyone still on it were “part of the problem” abounded. Meanwhile the same influencers were complaining about lost revenue due to Instagram being down. (Instagram btw is part of Facebook.)

Judging by the chatter on social media you’d think Facebook is a media platform mainly used to share boomer jokes, figure out what your highschool friends are doing 20 years after graduation, and spread misinformation. And in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what it would be (sans the misinformation). But this is not that world, and that’s not an accurate description of what Facebook and its kin are. In this very real world, Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp operate as critical infrastructure for everything from interpersonal communication through online business to financial transactions and government services.

In many countries in Africa, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp operate as essential infrastructure. In 2019, WhatsApp was responsible for nearly half of all internet use in Zimbabwe. South Africans can renew their car license and perform other government services through WhatsApp. And when you go looking you find the same trend in countries and regions throughout Asia, Europe, South-, Centra-, and North America, and Oceania. For millions of people around the world, the services Facebook provides are their primary tool for communicating with family and friends, consuming news and information, performing business transactions, interacting with local and federal government, even sending and receiving money. Caspar Hübinger writes more about this.

So when Facebook (and Insta, and WhatsApp) goes down, for 5 hours, without any meaningful information about what’s happening or when it will be back up again, it’s not the anti-vaxxers and boomers who are paying the price – it’s the millions of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the platform and its kin.

Like I said: Facebook is infrastructure, and has become a single point of failure for the proper functioning of the web. So it’s more than a little bit ironic, in an Alanis Morissette way, that Facebook would go down due to a single point of failure in their own system: A configuration change to their DNS system.

The core premise of the web was to allow everyone to host their own files and services, and interconnect them through a common platform. This was specifically to get away from the problem of centralized services and single points of failure. Some 30+ years later and we’ve become dependent on monolithic and monopolistic platforms like Facebook who gobble up or destroy their competitors and try to be everything to everyone. We’re back to the same problem of single points of failure, only now those single points are global entities used by millions of people. And when these services go down, they cause immediate harm to their users.

And here’s the kicker: The success of Facebook is in no small part due to how we, the people who build the web, promoted and used and drove our families and friends and clients and communities to use Facebook. We invested ourselves in the idea of Facebook integration early on. We onboarded people to the platform. We built their communities and business pages and advertising integration. We replaced native comments with Facebook comments to generate more engagement on their company pages. We built giant community groups on Facebook. We added Facebook tracking pixels to our sites and streamlined our tools so our blog posts got automatically cross-posted to our Facebook pages. 

We helped make Facebook a single point of failure. And we are the only ones who can fix it.

So, the next time you feel compelled to shout #DeleteFacebook from the rooftops and declare yourself morally superior to the commoners who still languish on the platform you abandoned a decade ago for ethical reasons, remember that for millions of people we have yet to build viable alternatives.

The next time you think to yourself it’s only a matter of time before some government entity steps in and breaks up Facebook to reduce their power, remember that politicians trying to figure out how to keep terrorism, CSAM, and other harmful content off the web think Facebook is the web, and that things that are not Facebook – like your website – must be regulated as if they were Facebook. 

And the next time you set up a WordPress site, or a Gatsby site, or a Wix site, or any other site for your client, notice how easy it is to add Facebook integration to ensure your client gets to benefit from that sweet poison known as surveillance capitalism.

Facebook is infrastructure. Infrastructure change is a generational project. If we don’t provide viable low-friction user-centric alternatives to Facebook’s myriad of services soon, the web will become Facebook. That’s not hyperbole – it just hasn’t happened to you. Yet.

Header photo by Brian Yap.

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Internet My Opinion

The Internet is an Essential Service

“You can consult canada.ca/coronavirus to get the best updated information about the spread of the virus.”

– Justin Trudeau, April 3rd, 2020

A daily mantra rings out from government officials around the world: The call to visit official websites to get the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic and to access essential services. Yet to many constituents accessing the internet is not an option because internet access is still considered a luxury available only to those who can afford it. This has to change.

Over the past two months, everything from education to work to ordering and delivery of essential goods to basic communication has moved online. COVID-19 has made one thing very clear: Internet access is a necessary condition for the ongoing functioning of our society, and every person should have access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet at a price they can afford.

The internet is an essential service. It is time we take political action to ensure every person has access to it.

The privilege of access

Late last year, a video surfaced on social media showing a 10-year-old boy doing his homework on a display tablet in an electronics shop. The description read “Humanity at its best…?? This child doesn’t have internet access at home, so a store in the shopping mall allows him to use their tablet to do homework.”  

For many, this was their first introduction to what’s been labeled the “Homework Gap,” a sub-segment of the Digital Divide. Millions of students around the world do not have access to the internet and are therefore not able to access the full educational resources made available to them.

Flash forward a few months to today, and that electronics shop is closed, as is the school, the library, the coffee shop, and any other place that 10-year-old boy relied on to access essential online services. And he is joined by millions of others, young and old, in cities and in rural areas, all over the world, at home, without the ability to access the websites their elected representatives so urgently point them to.

Inequity is the norm

Almost half the world’s population has no access to the internet. At all. Those most affected are, as seems to be the case for most things, women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Why? Because internet access is considered a luxury, and its availability is contingent on large media companies deeming your particular region of the world worthy of investment, and your ability to pay often excessive fees to get access to it. Somehow, in our relentless pursuit of faster connections and devices giving access to vital (and entertaining) online services, we have glossed over this inequity. COVID-19 took a steel brush to that veneer, forcing upon us the reality of how vital a fast, stable, and unfiltered internet connection has become to our lives. We have gone from tweeting about how nice that store was for letting that kid do his homework on a display device to realizing our home internet is our lifeline to information, income, connection, and entertainment. The internet has become essential to our lives, yet we treat it as a privilege afforded those fortunate enough to live where a connection can be established and wealthy enough to pay the excessive fees for access.

A public good

Late last year, a boy in an electronics store caught the attention of the internet and people started talking about providing proper equipment and connections to students. When COVID-19 hit and school children were sent home and told to attend classes online, school districts booted up ad-hoc solutions like parking digitally equipped buses at community sites to provide access for students. That’s a dollar-store band-aid on a gaping 20-year-old wound.

The digital divide causes hardship to millions of people by depriving them of essential access to the internet. COVID-19 did not create this problem – it merely made it impossible to ignore. Banks, government services, education, shopping, news and information, much of what we consider necessary conditions for functioning in modern society had already migrated online prior to COVID-19. Today the internet has become the only means of access to many of these services. It can no longer be considered a luxury, and its availability can no longer be contingent on the whims and profits of large media corporations. That’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is working to label the open web a public good, and that’s why you and me and everyone else need to demand political action to make the internet available to all.

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer:

The internet is an essential service. As such, any limitation of access to a person or group based on their physical location, income level, or any other reason is effectively an act of discrimination.

To the elected representatives of the world I say this: Declare the internet an essential service. Guarantee equitable access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet for all. Put plans in place today to connect the world in a way that promotes human flourishing over corporate profits.

To the media corporations who have grown fat and complacent on profits from connecting people to the things they need I say this: You’ve had your fare share and more. You succeeded in making the internet an essential service. Now you must act like it: Do your civic duty and share that wealth with the world by building solutions that put human connection above shareholder profits.

We have awoken into a new and unfamiliar world where we all feel a bit more vulnerable. It is in times like these we find solace in solidarity with other people and with ourselves. Let’s do this small thing together to better the world for everyone

Header photo by dullhunk. CC BY 2.0

Cross-posted on LinkedIn and dev.to

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Internet

Shallow Depth of Field = Performant Images

I made an interesting discovery today while listening to Laura Hogan‘s talk on Designing for Performance at An Event Apart Austin 2015. Well, to say I made the discovery might be a bit of an overstatement. It was more like I made a deduction based on her data that turned out to be accurate. Regardless, it has significant bearing on the art creating and publishing photos on the web:

Photos with a shallower depth of field (more bokeh) produce smaller files and are thus more performant.

After identical compression, the low bokeh (high background detail) photo has a file size of 52Kb. The high bokeh (low background detail) photo has a file size of 32Kb.
After identical compression, the low bokeh (high background detail) photo has a file size of 52Kb. The high bokeh (low background detail) photo has a file size of 32Kb.

Hogan explained that the size of JPEG encoded images is decided by the number of compex edges contained within the image: The fewer complex edges, the smaller the image file size. Her example was two versions of an image of a person, one in which the background had been artificially blurred. The savings in terms of file size were significant. This idea originates from the article Reducing Image Sizes by Justin Avery.

This got me thinking: Would the same happen if you took a photo with a shallower depth of field? With my camera I took the two pictures above, one at f/22 (narrow aperture, deep depth of field, low bokeh) and one at f/1.4 (wide aperture, shallow depth of field, high bokeh). The lower the aperture value, the shallower depth of field; and the more expensive the lens, the lower available aperture value. The results are interesting.

As you can see from the image above, out of the camera, the two image files were more or less identical in size. The match continued when I merely downsized the images in Photoshop. However, when I saved each image with the quality setting at 75% something notable happened: While the low bokeh image with lots of details had a file size of 52Kb, the image with high bokeh and blurred details had a file size of 32Kb.

That is a decrease in file size of 38.5%.

Upon further reflection, this is not surprising: There is far less edge data in an image with high bokeh, so the image file should be smaller. What’s interesting is that this difference only manifests itself after running the image through some form of compression. Out of the camera the two images were roughly the same size.

What is the practical application of this? Simple: When possible, take photos with a faster lens (wider aperture). The more “background blur” or bokeh or the shallower depth of field you get, the more performant the image will be.

How do you make this happen? Stop taking pictures with your phone and buy a real camera. The reason images from the 1970s look so much better than the images of today is that back in the 1970s cameras were sold with prime lenses with wide apertures – anywhere from f/2.8 to f/1.8. Today even expensive DSLRs are sold with stock lenses that don’t go below f/3.4. This produces less bokeh and more detail.

Or better yet, hire a professional to take  your photos and ask them to blur the background when possible. Your website performance will thank you.

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Internet My Opinion

Glass, Filter Bubbles, & Lifestreams – connecting the dots

Has Google ever guessed what you were going to search for long before you finished typing it out, even before you gave it enough information to really be able to make that guess? It’s uncanny at first, but it quickly becomes something you not only expect but appreciate. Because that’s what we want our digital tools and technologies to be: Instruments that guess what we want and give it to us as soon as, or even better before we ask for it. But are these tools giving us the information we are looking for of are they providing us with the answers they think we want even if that information is not actually what we should be receiving? And just as importantly: How do these technologies know what we are looking for and what kind of answers we prefer? And who controls, interprets, and protects that information and that process?

Glass

As I write this Google is in the process of rolling out a new type of technology that has the potential of changing our lives, our interactions, and our society in a fundamental way. That technology, obscurely named “Glass“, is designed to add a digital layer to our everyday lives, removing the abstraction of the screen by superimposing web-based services and capabilities onto the real world we see in front of us. Glass is a computer in the shape of glasses, providing a heads up display akin to what you see in video games but designed for everyday life. The stuff of dreams made reality. The tech world is not surprisingly raving about this new leap in technological advancement. Wearable computers have long been the Holy Grail for tech enthusiasts and the potential inherent in this technology has long been a favored topic among science fiction writers and technologists alike. Used for good the technology Glass represents could be of tremendous value and benefit to us all. I can think of thousands of situations where Gass could be useful, essential, even required. And that is undoubtedly the intention of its creators: To make live easier, better, more enjoyable. But whatever its intention, this technology could easily end up augmenting our reality and our lives in a very real way that makes Orwell’s dystopian predictions of Big Brother a rosy fairytale. And the alarming part is we wound’t notice it was happening because it already is.

The Map of You and Me

Take a step back and think about how you use the web today. No longer just an information hub the web has become the medium on which we conduct a large percentage of our communication. In the past you probably used Google mainly for search, but today you likely use it for your email, chat, social networking, video consumption, and more. And Google is but one of many vendors for search and web services. Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Pinterest, all of these services have been adopted into our everyday lives under the auspice of making our lives simpler and more informed. But what happens behind the scenes? How is it that these services are so good at guessing what we want and serving our social, informational, and entertainment needs? It’s because every time we use one of these services that service in turn gathers, stores, and interprets information about us and our behaviours. And the more information is gathered and analyzed, the better the algorithms get and the better the services get at predicting our behaviour. Every email you send, every Tweet or Facebook update, FourSquare check in, every watched YouTube video, comment on Google+ or simple text search in a search engine becomes part of a personality profile. And every future action on these services is impacted by this profile. If this was happening in the real world we would be alarmed. When Target started profiling its customers and was able to predict a customer’s pregnancy before her family, it sparked an outrage. But our online services have been doing this for years and have eased us into it so that rather than questioning what is going on we not only accept but expect it. We have implicitly allowed large data mining corporations to start the biggest mapping of human behaviour ever undertaken, and done so without asking questions about why they are doing it and what this information is and will be used for.

Bubbles

On the face of it all this may seem to be OK. If a personality profile means the services you use online can predict what you are doing and simplify your life accordingly, what’s wrong with that? The problem is that the main purpose of these services is not to help you but to keep you using the service and be influenced by it and things like advertising in the process. So instead of providing you with the information you are looking for, they provide you with the information they think you will like the most and therefore return next time you want information. When you make a search on a search engine or open Facebook you are not presented with an accurate picture of the online world. Instead what you get is a carefully crafted image skewed to match your biases and preferences, whether they be social, religious, ethnic, or political. A conservative christian white male will be presented with vastly different search results from those of a liberal atheist Asian female when entering queries regarding politics, religion, or ethnicity. And the search results they get will usually be ones that provide positive reinforcement to their views and ideals. This phenomenon has been called the Filter Bubble and it is something we as a society need to take a long hard look at.

In a nutshell Filter Bubbles are web based worldwide echo chambers that isolate ideas and protect their inhabitants from opposing or dissenting views. As a result when a person with extreme ideas goes to the web, he will find endless support for his ideas, even if those ideas are groundless, misinformed, and largely discarded by society as a whole. In a worst-case-scenario this informational bias can lead to a person becoming radicalized and a danger to society. In the last few years we have seen several instances where the filter bubble is likely to have had a part: In the USA a large portion of the populace believe in one of many unfounded and debunked conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama – that he is a Muslim, that he is not a US citizen, that he is a terrorist and so on. In Norway an ultra-nationalist right wing terrorist killed 77 people in an attempt to quash a political party he was convinced was trying to convert the country to Islam. And in the wake of the Newtown massacre that saw 26 killed, so-called “Truthers” used the web to promote a conspiracy theory that the attack was a hoax perpetrated by the government to bring forth stricter gun control laws. The common thread that binds these and other such instances together is that the ideas are perpetuated on the web and spread among like minded people. And once they are caught in a filter bubble they only find information that reinforces and strengthens these ideas. Google and other service provides claim they are taking steps to prevent this type of extremist bubble effect, but the principle of the filter bubble lies at the core of their services and will more likely get further entrenched than dismantled.

Your Lifestream, controlled

Looking into his crystal ball technologist David Gelernter is now predicting we are moving towards a future in which predictive search and input is coupled with real-time streaming of information producing a personalized information stream presented to us at all times. Considering the current bias in online information delivery, and the ever escalating data mining of our everyday lives, this is an alarming proposition at the best of times. When you add Google Glass and the inevitable Apple variety of the same product it becomes a nightmare Orwell would have thought too unrealistic to write, even as fiction. Consider a world in which a significant percentage of the population wore Glass or an equivalent product. They would be wired to the web and its services 24/7/365 and would send and receive a constant stream of information. At the other end all that information would get stored, parsed, analyzed, and used to guide the users through their lives. There are tremendous security and privacy issues here, many of which are addressed in Mark Hurst’s The Google Glass future no one is talking about, but to me the more alarming aspect is the potential this technology gives to large corporations, clever marketers, and even governments to influence and control our behaviour.

If you take a look at your life today you can see how much influence search and social sharing has on your decisions and your opinions. And these influences are already heavily curated to move you towards certain products, attitudes, and behaviours. For now this is based on your interactions with computers, tablets, and smart phones. Now imagine what happens when you start wearing a device that provides this same type of information to you at all times. No longer abstracted to an external screen but added to your regular field of vision. And while you are consuming the carefully curated and controlled information fed to you, the device is recording your every move, every interaction, and every word spoken.

Brave New World of Glass

On a server somewhere there is a file with your name on it with more information about you than you have on yourself. The server can predict your every move with impressive accuracy, it knows where you are, where you are going, and who you are interacting with. And at every turn in your life it will use this information to try to influence your decisions and your actions. This is not science fiction nor the future. This is happening today, right now, as you are reading this and considering who to share it with. Tomorrow it will be right in front of your eyes changing your reality. Big Brother could be so lucky…

Categories
Internet My Opinion

Powerful. Beautiful. Meaningful.

We are graduating members of the class of We Made It

Sometimes amazing things bubble up from the murky depths of the web to provide us with perspective. Whether you are or were a victim of bullying, you stood by while others were bullied, or you were a bully yourself, grant yourself the time to watch this piece of internet art.

For more info go to tothisdayproject.com

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Internet My Opinion News

What the Instagram advertising model could look like

As a follow up to my previous piece on the hyperbole surrounding the Instagram Terms of Service I thought I’d put forward a suggestion on how an advertising model for Instagram might theoretically work. This is purely speculative and designed to work within the TOS as published on Monday and with the intent to a) make money for Instagram, b) use your name, likeness, and photos for advertising purposes for a 3rd party, and c) be of value to you as the photographer even without you receiving compensation for the use of your photos.

In other words, if I were in charge of the Instagram Advertising Scheme, this is how it would work.

Consider the following hypothetical:

Julie, a 21 year old Instagram user in Oslo, goes to a local cafe called Kaffekakao to hang out with friends over a warm cup of cocoa on a particularly snowy December evening. She takes a somewhat artistic photo of her cocoa, applies a filter and posts it to Instagram alongside a remark “Cocoa with friends at Kaffekakao”.

Meanwhile the marketing department at Kaffekakao wants to get their name on the map for potential tourists visiting the city. Locals know that this is the place to be if you want a good cup of cocoa but tourists may not be aware. They approach Instagram asking if the service has any advertising opportunities.

Instagram picks Julie’s photo of the cocoa as a great candidate and proposes to use it for a flash promotion for Kaffekakao, targeted at english speaking people in and around Oslo.

The cafe says yes and the promotion kicks in.

Hours later Instagram users in Oslo start seeing Julie’s picture in their Instagram feeds. There is no blatant advertising or call to action, just the picture along with Julie’s comment, the name of the cafe hyperlinked. Because it’s a good photo, a nice comment, and Julie is a well trusted trend setter in the community, people feel inclined to go get a cup of cocoa at Kaffekakao. If the cool kids hang there, so should we!

From this several things happen: Instagram gets paid for the promotion, Kaffekakao gets some much deserved exposure for their excellent cocoa, and Julie gets a lot of new followers. Everybody wins.

Like I said this is pure speculation on my part, but as you can see it is not hard to come up with an advertising model for Instagram that doesn’t involve ripping you off and throwing you to the wolves.

Instagram should totally pay me for this.

Categories
Internet My Opinion

The Hyperbole and the Damage Done

There are many lessons to be learned from the Instagram TOS (Terms of Service) debacle that has been playing out on social media over the last two days. Chief among them is this:

The social web is not a good source of legal interpretation and factual information.

For all the greatness of the social web it has some very big flaws, one of which is that we are still wearing our newspaper goggles. What I mean by that is that we are still treating information provided to us from seemingly reliable sources as if that information is in fact reliable. This is a historical artefact from a time when news and information came to us from large news and publishing conglomerates with tight editorial guidelines and requirements for fact checking and source research. This is no longer the reality we live in. Most of the information you’ll find on the web is the exact opposite: Poorly researched, often incorrect, and largely based on non-expert opinion and wild speculation.

Such is the case of the interpretation of the new Instagram TOS. And the damage might be irreparable.

If you are not familiar with what happened, here is the gist of it:

The Hyperbole, a.k.a. “Instagram wants to steal your photos!!!!!!!!”

On Monday December 17 Instagram released their new Terms of Service agreement. Among the changes was a new sentence:

“To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you.”

This was widely interpreted as “Instagram reserves the right to take your photos, sell them for large piles of cash to a company you disapprove of, and have that company use them along with your name on billboard posters thereby robbing you of your copyright and earning money on your creativity.

Completely ridiculous. And incorrect.

The social web responded with hundreds of articles on how to bail from Instagram, what other services you can use instead of Instagram to post photos of your feet and food and friends, and how to delete your Instagram account forever so that they can never exploit you. And judging from reaction on the web, many people followed that advice.

The Reality, a.k.a. You Don’t Understand Legalese

Of course this interpretation was total rubbish. But it was also great fodder for the social web. Every gadget/tech/web blog wrote extensive articles on it, and everyone and their mother voiced their outrage over this vile injustice on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and yes, on Instagram.

Then the people at The Verge took a step back and said “Hm. This doesn’t really make any sense. Why would Instagram commit social suicide like this? Maybe someone got something wrong.” (I’m assuming that’s the type of conversation that takes place at The Verge. I could be wrong.) They read the TOS again and found that not surprisingly the hyperbole was just that: Hyperbole. The reality was widely different. For that take read the excellent article aptly titled “No, Instagram can’t sell your photos: what the new terms of service really mean“. This was soon followed by “Instagram says ‘it’s not our intention to sell your photos’” which referred to this statement directly from Instagram.

For those of us who voiced caution about the hyperbole this comes as a vindication. For the many who instantly jumped on the band wagon and deleted their Instagram accounts, it is a sobering wake up call. For Instagram and all other online services with murky revenue models it is a rude awakening: Faced with complicated legalese, people trust anyone with a cool logo to be a legal expert and act on information obtained from said cool-logo-owning entity without checking the facts.

Be like a philosopher to avoid looking like an idiot …

One of the things you learn when you study philosophy is that before you make any judgement or take any action you should take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. That means questioning whether your understanding is the correct one or even if you are equipped to understand what you are seeing. It means questioning the sources of your information. And most importantly it means stepping in the other party’s shoes and looking at it from their perspective. Few actions are committed without forethought, and before you make any final judgements or act on any apparent fact it is vital that you understand the reasoning behind what you see.

In the Instagram case the widespread interpretation of the TOS – the one that claimed Instagram would steal your photos and sell them to the highest bidder – only makes sense from the perspective of a paranoid person thinking everyone is out to get him. From a rational cool headed vantage point a few steps back there is obviously more to the story. But that isn’t what brings readers to the blogs and clicks on ads, so the hyperbole wins every time.

… or be like both Mulder and Scully

(Pardon the ridiculous and old pop culture reference here. I’m watching The X-Files on Netflix.) When it comes to information you read on the web you need to be both like Fox Mulder and like Dana Scully. Like Mulder you should trust no one, and like Scully you should assume there is always a logical explanation. That way you might avoid deleting your accounts only to realize you did it for no good reason and now you can’t get them back.

For an alternate take on the story, check out fellow Vancouverite Rob Cottingham’s piece
Terms of service changes deserve more than just a shrug and a click.

Categories
Internet My Opinion

A case for hosting your photos in the cloud (Flickr, Picasa, etc)

Pictures on the web, much like grown children, live better lives away from home. As a bonus, they don’t eat all your food and use your hot water. And if they get sick, they won’t infect everyone else. But most importantly when you decide to move house, move to a different country, or if you get foreclosed on, your house burns down or when you pass away, they continue their existence and continue interacting with others.

Pictures on the web should be autonomous units that can act and be acted on in their own right independently of what you do.

Though this sounds scary it is a good principle upon which to base your publishing of images on the web.

Categories
Internet My Opinion

Open Letter to the CRTC

To the Secretary General, CRTC

I am confused about the CRTCs role in Canadian society. You are said to be a watchdog, but to me it seems the only parties you are watching over are the 4 big telecommunication companies in Canada and their monopoly on everything from television transmission to internet services and mobile networks. This impression has been with me for a long time but recent decisions on Usage Based Billing and unlocking of cell phones for a price have made me put serious questions to whether the CRTC is put in place to ensure fairness or if it’s actually just a government appointed body that protects a monopoly.

Usage Based Billing is not fair for anyone

The debate over Usage Based Billing is limited to a debate over whether or not the big telecoms should be allowed to impose billing practices on their 3rd party resellers. The arguments against this practice largely focuses on two points:

1. Limiting bandwidth to users prevents them from using new more data heavy applications and stifles innovation.
2. The argument that heavy users should pay for their keep makes little sense seeing as the difference in cost to the supplier of transmitting 1GB vs 100GB is minimal. The cost imposed is grossly exaggerated.

First of all, these arguments apply just as well to the main telecoms as to the resellers, so if the ruling is overturned (as it should be) it begs a revisiting of the regulations regarding the main telecoms and their capping of services.

More importantly however is an issue not addressed at all: That the big telecoms have a vested interest in capping their services, not to preserve bandwidth but to block out competition and force the public to use only services provided by the big telecoms.

The simplest example is Netflix, but it is far from the only one. With caps on internet traffic users will be hard pressed to use streaming audio, video and imaging services without having to pay huge overages. This forces them to use only services provided by the big telecoms.

Thus it can be argued that the capping of internet services by the big telecoms is actually a move against competitors to push them out of the market, and an unfair one at that because these same telecoms have a monopoly, imposed by the CRTC, on bandwidth in Canada.

Such a policy enacted by a company in any other industry would be considered questionable, and it reeks of activity normally reserved for criminal cartels.

Capping of internet services is bad for communication, bad for investment, bad for the industry and bad for consumers. The only party that benefits from it is the big telecoms. If they are allowed to continue this practice, the CRTC needs to break the monopoly and allow other actors into the market to create a fair market.

I work in the web industry and we are in the process of developing an application that requires a lot of bandwidth from the users. It’s a free service that will help them get more out of their photos online. With internet caps these types of services are doomed to failure, not because they are too bandwidth heavy but because the big telecoms and the governing bodies that mandate them are not thinking forward but trying to anchor us firmly in the past.

Unlocking of Cell Phones: If I own it I should be able to use it

Yesterday it was announced that the CRTC will be imposing on the big telecoms to allow unlocking of all fully paid cell phones so that the users can use the network of their choice. This is a practice that has been in place in most other western countries for over 10 years and is only fair. After all, if you own a product outright you should be allowed to use it in any way you want.

The problem is that the CRTC is letting the telecoms charge a fee for unlocking the phones. Reportedly Telus will be charging $50 for the unlocking of a phone. This is tantamount to a ransom and is unacceptable.

When a consumer purchases a full price cell phone or buys out their contract, they are paying full price plus a markup on the cell phone just like they would if they bought a vacuum cleaner, an MP3 player or a car. It is only fair to assume then that seeing as the company that sells the cell phone has no vested interest in it and is in fact turning a profit, the consumer should be able to use the cell phone in any way they see fit. Until now this has been impossible because the telecoms have asked the cell phone manufacturers to lock the phones so they can only be used on their networks. This is a simple software key and it can easily be unlocked with the right code, but the code has so far been hard to obtain.

Now with this new rule in place, the telecoms have to unlock the phones upon request, but they are allowed to charge for that unlocking. And they are charging $50 which is $30 more than what the same unlocking would cost on eBay.

The problem here is that a) the locking is done at the request of the telecom, b) the unlock procedure costs the telecom nothing and c) when fully paid the phone is the sole property of the consumer and should be fully functional.

Forcing the telecoms to permit unlocking is the only correct thing to do here. Allowing them to charge for this service on the other hand is unacceptable. Just like any car owner is allowed to buy gasoline from the vendor of their choice, so should a cell phone owner be allowed to buy cell phone services from a provider of their choice. This is basic free market theory. What we have at present is closer to cartel or even mafia practices.

What is your role and who protects my consumer rights?

I am left wondering what the role of the CRTC is. Based on these recent decisions and others before it I find it hard to imagine it can be protecting anyone but the telecommunication companies the body is set out to be a watchdog over. If it is to protect consumers the body has utterly failed and it would be time to revisit its mandate.

But more importanly, who is protecting my rights as a consumer? I am from Norway, a country where consumer rights are valued. What I see happening in the telecom industry in Canada could never happen in my home country because it is unfair and puts the consumer at a permanent disadvantage. To put it plainly, if not the CRTC then who is protecting Canadians from being screwed over?

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this because as of right now I see no rhyme nor reason in the decisions made by the CRTC.

Yours truly,

Morten Rand-Hendriksen

Categories
Internet My Opinion News

Capping the Net – You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Till It’s Gone

If you don’t want to read all my ramblings, here is what I want you to do to help protect and preserve the free and clear open web:

  1. Go to http://stopthemeter.ca and sign the petition
  2. Send all your friends, family, frenemies, school aquaintences and your neighbour’s cat to the same site and get them to sign the petition (well, maybe not the cat)
  3. Share the link on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else you think someone may see it
  4. Go to OpenMedia.ca and educate yourself on this very important issue.
  5. Contact your local and government representatives and demand that the CRTC start protecting the rights of consumers, not just the rights of corporations
  6. Call your Internet Service Provider and tell them point blank you are not happy with what they are doing and that you want your internet to remain free, clear and uncapped
  7. Tell your friends about this issue and get them involved

And here’s why:

You may have heard some of your geeky friends talk about the major internet service providers in Canada pushing for new legislation to allow them to cap internet use and demand pay for “overages”. And you may have heard the CRTC – the decision making body put in place to ensure fair trade and practice in the communications space – has made some decisions in this regard that in no way favour consumers. What you may not know is that this move is the first step in what could become a stifling of the internet, a blockage of services and you ending up with a web that just isn’t what it used to be.

Why it matters to you

The crux of the situation is this: Up until the last few weeks your cable internet connection has been open meaning you pay the same if you download 5kb or 300 GB per month. The Internet Service Providers (Bell, Rogers, Telus and Shaw) don’t like this. They want to charge you a base fee for a capped service (say 20GB per month) and then charge you overages (say $1 per GB) when you exceed that cap. That may sound fair but in reality it’s not. And what’s worse, it may just be the first step in an attempt to stifle the web and force you to use paid services rather than the free ones that are currently available.

Although it might not seem like such a big deal right now, capping the web will become a very big deal very soon. New services like Netflix and other streaming media are popping up everywhere, and with them come new ways of using the web. No longer can you only surf web sites. You can download or stream movies and TV when you want where you want, you can use Skype to have video conversations with multiple people at the same time, you can stream music from a myriad of services. And as quality and compression improves these services put more and more loads on your connection. As a result, whereas right now you may only use 5GB per month and get your movies at the local video rental shop, a year from now you may use 60GB per month and watch your favourite TV shows and movies from a streaming service like Netflix, XBOX Live or iTunes. And if you do, your Internet Service Provider will stuff it’s big hands deep into your pockets and pull out all your cash.

Here’s Strombo explaining it:

But isn’t that fair? Shouldn’t we pay for what we use?

This may sound fair, but in reality it’s not. As Netflix points out the actual cost of a GB of data transfer over wired lines is about 1 cent, not $1 like they want to charge. And there is no real reason to cap downloads because the capacity is there. This is just a good old fashioned moneygrab. But there may also be a more sinister reason behind it, and it relates to the Net Neutrality debate that has been raging in the US.

The Internet Service Providers have a not-so-hidden agenda – to force you to keep using their services. It’s simple really: All the major Canadian ISPs also offer TV and video-on-demand services through their cable boxes. But now companies like Netflix infringe on this market. Why watch a pay-per-view movie on Shaw for $3.99 when you can watch all the movies you want on Netflix for $8.99 per month? The trick here is to make Netflix unavailable, or too expensive, so that people are forced to stick with the old content providers. It’s as simple as that.

Net Neutrality at risk

But there’s more to it than simply trying to force people to stick with their old cable plan. This move may be the first step in an all out attack on Net Neutrality. And that’s worrysome to say the least. Net Neutrality simply means that you pay the same price regardless of what type of content you download. So reading your email, checking updates on Facebook, downloading documents from work and watching videos on YouTube and Netflix are all bundled into your internet package. In short you pay for the use of the web, not its services. In the world ISPs wants you pay based on what services you use. So if you want to use just email and facebook you pay one fee, but if you want to watch streaming video on YouTube or use your internet connection for gaming you have to pay an extra fee. And when it comes to music, TV and video the many services out there are simply blocked and you are forced to use the services authorized by the cable providers.

Sounds insane, right? Well, it’s excatly what the ISPs in the US tried to do. And it’s exactly what the ISPs here in Canada will try to do if they get the chance. The bottom line is they want to make money, and the free and open internet is preventing them from doing so so they want to shut it down. Disturbing, right? Well, it gets worse!

(To see a great exlanation of Net Neutrality go to www.theopeninter.net)

The CRTC is not here to help you (!?!?)

Last year I reported Shaw Cablesystems to the CRTC for willfully crippling HD broadcasts on their regular cable. My argument was simple: You can get CBC, CTV, Global, CityTV and Omni in HD for free if you attach a clothes hanger to a cable and hang it out your windiw. But if you have Shaw cable you get a cropped SD version of these same channels and you have to pay for an expensive HD box to get access to the free HD signal. Furthermore this was around the same time the cable companies were trying to force these same over-the-air channels to pay for the privilege of being broadcast on the cable systems. You may remember it as the “Save Local” campaign and it was one ugly piece of corporate greed, willful misinformation and outright lies on both sides.

Anyway, I contacted the CRTC and after a lot of back and forth I got one of their representatives on the phone. What he told me was truly mindboggling: When I asked him why the CRTC was not acting in the best interest of the consumers he told me point blank “That’s not our job.” He went on to tell me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that the job of the CRTC is to ensure that the cable providers follow Canadian law and act in a fair way in the market. In other words that they don’t enter into price gouging and undercutting against each other. “So you’re saying if they all just agree to raise prices to an insane level, stifle service and generally screw over the consumers, the CRTC is OK with that?” I asked. And his reply? “Yes”.

The reality is that unless I was misinformed by this CRTC employee and I’m unaware of some other government entity that has oversight over this, the Canadian consumers are not being protected from price fixing by four companies who are basically allowed to run the show on their own. It’s kind of like the mafia really. And taking this into account things really start to make sense: Why our cell phone services are crappy and more expensive than anywhere else on the planet, why we pay more for cable than our neighbours to the south, why we can’t get Netflix, Zune Marketplace, Hulu and a whole pile of other services in Canada and why we, the consumers, are being screwed over again and again without anyone standing up and saying something about it.

Time for action

Not to be blunt or anything, but this bullshit has got to stop. Canadians are far too polite when it comes to issues like this, and the big corporations take advantage of that compliance. This is one of those cases where unless you stand up, let your voice be heard and tell your elected officials they are screwing things up for everyone, we are all going to pay for it down the road. Unfortunately I’m a mere resident of this country and I have no right to vote so I’m at the mercy of those with the power of citizenship in the matter. So here’s what you should do, right now:

  1. Go to http://stopthemeter.ca and sign the petition
  2. Send all your friends, family, frenemies, school aquaintences and your neighbour’s cat to the same site and get them to sign the petition (well, maybe not the cat)
  3. Share the link on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else you think someone may see it
  4. Go to OpenMedia.ca and educate yourself on this very important issue.
  5. Contact your local and government representatives and demand that the CRTC start protecting the rights of consumers, not just the rights of corporations
  6. Call your Internet Service Provider and tell them point blank you are not happy with what they are doing and that you want your internet to remain free, clear and uncapped
  7. Tell your friends about this issue and get them involved

We are at a turning point in time. Up until now the internet has been free, clear and uncapped and as a result we have seen a massive emergence of new companies, new services and new ways of communicating, sharing and enjoying content. If the ISPs get their way, those days will soon be over and we’ll be moving backwards. That’s not acceptable. Stand up for your rights and take action!

Categories
Internet My Opinion

10 steps to save the newspaper

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the imminent death of the traditional newspaper. And with good reason. Over the last year or so several papers, both minor and major, have gone belly up. There are many reasons for this trend: More people are turning to the internet to get their news. The internet has opened the door for other outlets such as TV networks and online service providers like Google and Yahoo! to provide news. And more and more people are turning to blogs, social networks, discovery engines and other non-traditional sources to filter and supply the news they want when they want it.

Considering the way and pace at which the world is progressing, from cell phones with internet access to the plugged-in reality of both office and home life it’s no wonder then the trusted pile of thin paper that shows up on doorsteps throughout the world is starting to lose its foothold.

But does this mean the time of the traditional newspaper is over? Not by a long shot. It does however mean it is time the newspaper business starts looking at the way they do business and change their perception of themselves as a publishing house to a news provider.

Over the last couple of months I’ve pondered this seemingly impossible situation and tried to come up with an answer to this question: Why is it that North American newspapers are falling like flies while their European counterparts are alive and well? The answers I’ve come up with give some insight into the paradigm shift that is taking place in the news world as we speak and provide a new path for those newsmen brave enough to follow it.

Full Disclosure: The following is my personal interpretation of the world and is backed by zero statistical, sociological or otherwise scientific study. The list has been developed through the use of common sense and observation of amongst other three highly successful newspapers in Norway, each of which flaunt well over one million daily readers in a country with a population of only 4.6 million.

1. Put it all online

Regardless of how much you like to think people still read real newspapers, the reality is (in the western world at least) people get their news on the internet. There are many reasons for this, most importantly convenience, searchability and the fact that unlike a physical paper that is published once or in some rare cases twice a day, an online newspaper can be updated by the minute and provide breaking news when it happens.

When I came to Canada in 2002 I was dumbfounded by the fact that many newspapers only published part of their paper online and expected their readers to pay money for the rest. This type of archaic thinking is as counterproductive as it is destructive, most of all because it ignores the fact that people expect information on the internet to be free. And the second you ask for money, they’ll turn away.

And there’s another benefit to putting your content online: You are likely to reach a vast audience that would never spend the money to buy your paper. I myself am the perfect example: Since I came to Canada I have never once bought a single newspaper yet I read articles from at least three different ones on a daily basis. Online. Why does this matter? After all I’m not paying for anything so why should you be providing me with the information for free? Well, if you have a sound online advertising and monitization strategy, you will earn money even from a cheap bastard like myself every time I open one of your stories.

2. The internet is a visual medium. So use it.

Massive Image OverloadWhen printing a physical newspaper you are faced with huge challenges, especially where cost is concerned. Colour photos are more expensive than black and white. And adding an extra sheet of 4 pages to accommodate for a lengthy article or a few extra photos can push you way over budget. As a result newspapers have become masters at aggressive editing, image selection and page property management. None of which matters when you go online:

One of the many great things about the internet is that real-estate is no longer a problem. Want to post a 6,000 word article on penguins with frostbite? Go ahead. Have a humongous graphic or image you want to show in all it’s splendor and detail? Just place it as a thumbnail in your page and link to the full size version.In short, when moving from print to online as your publishing medium your options in terms of visual content become limitless. So exploit it.

Huge article imageOver the years the three major Norwegian newspapers Aftenposten, Dagbladet and VG have all experimented with different types of layouts and text vs. image placement. Over the last year or so they have all landed on pretty much the same model which works exceptionally well for all of them. I call it Massive Image Overload: On the front page every story, no matter how small, is accompanied by a big photo and only the title and the short two-line excerpt is featured. This strategy creates a visually compelling and easy to understand front page with huge click-through rates. Combined with properly interspersed ads and other effects and you have a money making machine.

But the Massive Image Overload strategy goes beyond that. Once you get to the actual story it is always accompanied by a huge main photo or video on the top of the page. This was actually done as a result of big reader surveys and it is both attractive and effective. Articles with multiple photos are often also accompanied by Flash image galleries, photo documentaries with adjoining audio or in some cases entire sub-pages with more images. This makes the stories far more enjoyable to look at and easier to digest and also increases the over-the-shoulder factor.

3. Offer the readers a place to connect

The Readers' VGSocial media has been the it-word for a long time now and shows no signs of slowing down. The problem is most people don’t understand what social media is nor how it works. It really isn’t that hard to grasp: Social media is a very loose definition that encompasses pretty much anything and everything that allows users to interact and share with each other.

For a newspaper social media can be both a blessing and a curse. Used wisely it can also become a massive source of income and interest: Your readers have oppinions. So why not give them a place to voice those oppinions? Or even better, showcase them for everyone to see! Several years ago VG introduced a novel idea called “The Readers’ VG” or “VG Blogs“. The principle was simple: Let the readers build their own blogs under the umbrella of the newspaper and feature the best and brightest right on the front page of the online paper. That way you get increased page activity through interaction (which means an increase in advertising revenue) and free content to share with your readers. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course becoming a new blogging platform when companies like WordPress is doing such a good job at it is not an easy task, but the added bonus of potentially being published on the front page will be enough to turn both new and existing bloggers to your service. As long as it’s free of course.

Reader interaction can also be encouraged through the enabling of commenting on news stories, but this has to be heavily controlled and monitored to avoid total disaster. A smart way around this problem that I came across is to offer bloggers the ability to submit their links to be placed at the bottom of the article. That way you avoid the total nutcases and outright flamers and at the same time get valued input and user interaction through direct linkage. Because who wouldn’t want their own blog featured prominently at the bottom of an article by a hugely popular journalist?

4. Bring added value both online and on paper

PDF version of the real paper“All of this is well and good” you say, “but how do I keep readership of my actual paper up? By putting everything online won’t I just lose all my subscribers?” Not if you offer added value in both formats:

For all the value and instantaneousness of the internet, there are certain things better read while sitting in the sofa, at the breakfast table or on the SkyTrain. And likewise there are certain things that are only worth reading as they happen. So rather than trying to cram all the online content into the morning paper or restricting the content of the online version to match the physical one, start specializing. Publish online-only and paper-only articles. As I said before, your online readership is not the same as your paper readership anyway so start pandering to the people you are targeting. That way you can even do cross-promotion: “To read more on this topic pick up tomorrow’s paper”. “This article only available in the online version”. Dagbladet has perfected this technique to such a degree they are now able to sell PDF versions of the paper for people who insist on reading it online but want that added content. It sounds crazy but it works.

If you pick up any of the papers I’ve mentioned here and match them to the online versions you’ll see a huge difference in both weighting of stories as well as what is featured. Whereas the online version focuses heavily on breaking news, sports and entertainment, the paper versions put greater emphasis on opinion pieces, feature articles and interviews and generally heavier and more time consuming material.

5. Go beyond the basic daily to include a weekend feature magazine

When I was a kid, Aftenposten used to publish a monthly magazine called A-magasinet. This publication looked and felt like Time magazine and contained the same type of content: Feature articles and interviews, in-depth exposes, profiles, fact pieces etc.

A-magasinet was killed off while I was in seccondary school but resurrected a few years ago due to renewed interest in stories that went beyond the superficial. The new weekly version is smaller and thicker than a regular newspaper (it is published in the European tabloid size if that means anything to you) and is presented with large photos and a more magazine-like layout. The tone of A-magasinet is light but serious and the magazine reads more like a book.

The articles featured in A-magasinet are only available by buying the magazine and you can get it either by subscribing to the paper or by buying or subscribing to only the Friday edition in which it is included. And interestingly a lot of people choose this latter option.

6. Think way outside the box

Vektklubb.noOne of the most surprising revenue streams I was able to find for a newspaper was a service offered by VG called “The Weight Club”. As the title suggests it is a club you can join to get help loosing weight. By paying a small fee you get access to a closed site within the online newspaper that offers everything from calorie calculators to personal trainer advice, equipment and gym membership discounts, live chats with professional trainers, doctors and other health care providers and a massive support system consisting of other people in your situation.

The service also features success stories in the regular online and printed paper and publishes weekly articles and teasers for non-members to get them hooked.

The Weight Club has turned into a big success both for the paper and for the participants as a huge community has been built that shares recipes, advice, trials and tribulations with each other to achieve a healthier lifestyle and a better life in general.

7. Hook up with the experts

One of the things that really frustrates me when I read papers is that they tend to employ so-called “tech experts” that in reality know less about technology than my guinea pig. And why should they? They’re often just journalists that have been given an assignment that they don’t particularly like or know anything about. This same statement true for most other specialities as well – the paper experts are not really experts. But why reinvent the wheel and make it square to begin with? The internet is full of great sites with knowledgeable people that not only are real experts but know how to communicate with your audience. So rather than labeling one of your journalists as a tech expert or personal healt expert or whatever else you think your readers are looking for, strike a deal with an existing web site that already features this kind of content, put them under your wing and cross post with them. It’s a win-win situation for both parties as the expert site gets visitors from your paper and you get valued advice and content from theirs. And as a bonus all those emails from pesky nerds slagging your expert for sending out Tweets about looking forward to “e-chatting” with them will be long gone.

8. Start a poetry contest

By far the most bizarre and successful phenomenon to hit Norwegian newspapers in the last 5 years must be Dagbladet‘s Monthly Poet. I don’t think even the creators realized just how big a poetry contest where the only prize was a feature article at the end of the month would take off quite as much as it has. Today not only do people submit tons of excellent poetry but the contest has breathed life into poetry as an art form in schools.

Of course poetry is just one of several creative avenues one can pursue but it shows that if you give people a platform to present their art, great things can happen to benefit everyone.

9. Let everyone be a critic

Reader reviews on Dagbladet.noEveryone’s a critic, especially when it comes to movies and music. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself frustrated with a review that went completely against my own perception. And there are thousands like me who are just itching to let the world know their own opinion of the latest blockbuster or chart topper. In other words tons of untapped potential.

Rather than just putting out reviews and letting people vent about them to their friends, how about offering the readers the ability to write their own review? Several online papers now feature a button under every review saying things like “Disagree with the review? Write your own!” and linking to a forum where people can go nuts discussing, criticizing and gushing about their new favorite flick. Providing a proverbial soap box for relatively “safe” discussions about movies, music and theatre is a great way to increase readership, build a community and give the readers a feeling of belonging and contribution. Not to mention that the discussions are often both entertaining and valuable to people who are looking for a good movie to watch or album to buy.

10. Go beyond text to become a broadcaster

Dagbladet TVThe TV stations have been stomping around in your front yard stealing your readers for years. So why not do the same to them? Online video is a largely untapped potential – especially when it comes to local news gathering. And while the TV stations are still on top when it comes to video news coverage, they are restricted by air times and CRTC rules and regulations. Not so with the internet.

With the technological modernization of videography and the recent cuts in many of the broadcast outlets there are thousands of highly skilled TV professionals out there looking for work. All a news paper would have to do to bridge the previously uncrossable gap between print and moving images is to hire some a couple of videographers and send them out with the journalists. The result would be instant news published throughout the day for easy ingestion through multiple devices and sources in a way that the broadcasters still think of as unprofessional and unstructured.

The reality is that video on the web will become hugely important in the years to come and the first people out the door with instant newsgathering and on-demand publishing will be the winners. And for all the value of the written word, some times a 2 minute video is just easier and more interesting to get through.