Spam your friends to win

Any software application which encourages or requires you to pass on messages to your friends is a bad thing.  Facebook is a culprit because it promotes applications which do this.

Applications that do this are a bad thing because while the person using the application is not inconvenienced very much, it will annoy all that person’s friends.  They, unfortunately, had no say in whether they got this piece of advertising sent to them.  Because it came to them via a friend – someone they know – they feel they can’t complain.

It’s something that is pissing me off about Facebook at the moment, but before I go to that I wanted to talk about about viral marketing.

Although based on a pre-existing concept, the buzzword viral marketing comes from pre-2.0 web days, and refers to any marketing which is done by encouraging people to pass a marketing message on to their friends, voluntarily.

The idea that this is voluntary is key here.  Sure, perhaps none of the ‘friends’ solicited this advertising, but the idea is that the person passing on the message truly wants to spread the good word about a product or service.  Let’s say I eat a delicious meal of fish and chips.  If I recommend it to a couple of my friends, I am participating in viral marketing.  In order to put this into motion, the fish and chip shop had to create a product that was so compelling, its customers could not help but to spread the good word to their friends.

The problem worsens slightly when the passing on of such marketing messages is not entirely voluntary: it is influenced in some way. For example, a web application will suggest that the user forward something to their friends, making it easy to do so by providing a special form just for this purpose. This makes the passing on of the message less of a natural, evolutionary process where the best products will generate the most interest, and transforms it into a process where companies offer various gimmicks to encourage people to ‘forward’ messages to their friends.  The messages just start to get annoying.

I’m annoyed when I see that I have a message (email, SMS or some other online message) from a friend, only to open it and find out it is, well, spam.  I’m even more annoyed to suspect I’m not the only one who received the message: that my friend probably spammed a whole bunch of people, and I am only one of many.  It’s a small slap in the face to find that a message from a friend is not a personal message at all but was forwarded.  It’s a much larger slap in the face when it’s an obvious commercial or hoax message with little to no hint of personalisation from the friend – no ‘hey M. I thought you’d be interested in this cos you like horror movies’, just the impersonal forwarded message.

This is what the term viral marketing came to mean on the web.  Claiming on the surface to be a natural, non-intrusive process in which people only pass on messages to friends who they believe will genuinely and personally benefit, it’s grown into a group of industries that seek to exploit people by preying on their gullibility and the carelessness with which they will send on messages to their friends for a trivial reward.

Marketing is not the only motivation behind getting people to forward messages on to their friends.  Some people or companies do it just to get a kick out of seeing how far their message spreads.  This is the case with hoaxes and chain letters, both of which deceive people in order to get them to forward the message on to their friends.  The latter lie about various benefits the user will receive if they forward the message.  These can prey on the superstitious (‘forward this to 20 people or your hair will fall out’), the greedy (‘send a $1 to this person and before long you’ll receive over $300’) or otherwise gullible (‘forward this message to all your friends so that Microsoft don’t shut down your account’).

Email itself can be a problem.  The relative ease with which somebody could forward a received message to their entire address book used to land countless chain letters in my inbox, though people seem to be a lot more educated about the problems of spam these days that it isn’t so much a problem – besides, there are far greater problems with email spam.

Facebook is a bad thing because it allows for applications to be built which require or encourage you to pass on messages to your friends. It is too easy for applications to exploit users into passing messages around the network, because every Facebook user is inherently connected with a network of friends, including friends who share trust, and are interested in communicating with each other.  Facebook users install applications which are written by third parties, with varying motivations for creating them. In many cases it appears that the application developer simply wanted to get a kick out of seeing how quickly their application would travel around the network.  Applications also derive income from advertising, which ties the developer’s bottom line to the number of people using the application.

Some of the fastest spreading Facebook applications are the most annoying. For example, the applications ‘Super Wall’, ‘Fun Wall’, any application which appears to be some sort of IQ or personality test (with the exception of the one actually called ‘IQ Test’), ‘Top Friends’ and more have spread quickly through the network due in part to the fact that in order to participate in them, your friends have to be involved too.  However, these applications exploit people as described below.

‘Super Wall’ and ‘Fun Wall’ lead users to believe that only by installing this application will they be able to send and receive wall posts containing videos, pictures or gifts, but these are all available in the regular built-in wall.  The only unique feature of these applications is the existence of a ‘Forward’ button below every post, which makes it easy for users to forward a message to not just one, but many of their friends at once.  The messages sent through these applications are therefore much less likely to be personal, as they are used to send messages at large to many people.  This has given birth to the phrase ‘click forward see what happens’, a gullibility test in itself which has failed enough people that hoax messages like these litter the entire network, proving to be an annoyance to everyone, not only those that fell for the lie.

A number of times have I installed an application that seems like a relatively fun and silly test – of my personality, for example – and have filled out the entire questionnaire only to find that in order to see any results I have to forward an advertisement to at least 20 of my friends. Presumably, the fact that I invested so much time filling out what I thought was just an amusing little test will outweigh the guilt of annoying a bunch of my friends with a promotional message encouraging them to install a certain application, and I’ll go ahead and spam them in order to get my results.  Not me though.  I will simply get angry and give up on seeing the results, concluding that I have just had ten or twenty minutes of my free time wasted in the name of trying to get me to spam my friends.

Perhaps if Facebook were not such a ubiquitous and otherwise useful medium I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.  I have received invitations to do various things in other social networking software and have just turned it down, because it didn’t seem worth using them anyway.  But nearly everyone I know my age has a Facebook account – I can only think of two friends my age who don’t. It’s becoming such a normal way to communicate with people.  Some friends even send out invitations to social events through it.

I guess that Facebook could remove the ability for applications to forward messages to many people at once.  But the entire network stands to benefit so much from the rapid take-up of its applications that I presume they’d be resistant to taking steps to limit this spread.

I maintain, however, that applications, such as Facebook applications, which encourage or require users to pass on messages to friends are a bad thing and should somehow be restricted.  There is no need to remove the ability for someone to tell a friend about an application altogether.  But it shouldn’t be allowed to be forced or encouraged, for if this is done it ceases to promote adoption of applications based on their true merit and becomes a competition in which application developers try to deceive or exploit people.

Further reading

Firefox 3 approaches

Pre-release versions of Firefox 3 are now available, and they are looking pretty interesting. Here are a few warnings though if you are tempted to try upgrading now:

  • Existing add-ons in the form of extensions or themes will probably not work anymore if you upgrade.
  • It doesn’t yet ‘look’ polished. Firefox 3 will have a new visual appearance, which the pre-release versions don’t have yet.
  • There are some annoying bugs, but aren’t there always. For instance you can’t yet drag and drop a bookmark into a bookmark menu.
  • If you don’t like it and decide to downgrade to Firefox 2 again, you’ll lose access to bookmarks you created while you were using Firefox 3 (there is a way around it though).

With those warnings aside, here are some of the neat things I found.

  • Rendering pages is faster due to the new rendering engine. If you have a decent enough internet connection you’ll probably notice the benefit.
  • The address bar lets you search your browsing history, and shows titles and URLs of results. You can also bookmark things in one click using the ‘star’ in the address bar.
  • You can resize the search box (ie the Google search box) so it’s bigger.
  • There is a list of automatic bookmarks which contains your frequently visited pages.

There are lots of changes to the way bookmarks and history are handled, and thankfully lots of these changes are not noticeable at all. There are also changes to the way secure connections are described, to avoid the implication that a site can be trusted if it is using a secure connection. There are also thousands of other bug fixes.

I really like following Firefox’s development because anyone can see how bugs are fixed and how patches to the code are accepted, and it somehow works – it creates a good product.

3D web browser shows the future of the web

Tired of viewing boring flat web pages on a boring flat screen? Well, the future looks pretty sweet. Now you’ll be able to zoom around your web pages in pseudo 3d space as if you are superman flying around in a world of flat plastic billboards, stopping to peruse them from a funny angle.

This futuristic vision comes from an article about the SpaceTime browser, which even has screenshots of what the 3D plastic web pages look like.

It isn’t the first of April and this is a real, downloadable product, so maybe I’ll have to actually address some of the things wrong with this glowing newsvertisement and prediction of the future of the web.

It looks like there’s a lot of screen space dedicated to displaying empty space, a faded grey-black gradient in front of which the web pages you’re viewing ‘float’. Web designers are forever trying to fit more onto their pages, for better or for worse, and as monitor resolutions increase, web pages will try to fill them as much as possible. Browser designers think (and argue) long and hard about how they can improve screen space by removing unnecessary elements. That’s why the web page in Firefox goes all the way to the edge of the screen, the tab bar and scroll bar is hidden when not needed, and Internet Exploder 7 does away with the menu bar.

When I am browsing with multiple tabs, the tabs are lined up from left to right in a linear fashion along a bar. I don’t have to remember the vertical and horizontal position, depth and angle of each tab. In 3D if I move my viewing position, particularly angle, in the 3D space then I’ll be completely lost. This happens whenever I click on a different tab. More wasted space, too: each tab has its own fat title bar and close button.

Each floating ‘tab’, which is the wrong word to use in this 3D environment, is fairly small. A ‘zoom’ function enables you to make it bigger, but this just zooms into the same small window onto a web page; it doesn’t show more of a web page.

Am I expected to read any text on one of those ‘other’ tabs (or search results) which is floating away in the ‘distance’? It looks like they’re there just to remind you that you have other stuff open, which can be done a lot better if it is done sparingly and isn’t constantly distracting me from what I am doing on my chosen tab and taking away valuable screen space.

Thankfully, I can ‘maximise’ a tab, and it will fill the screen like a normal web browser. For a little while. As soon as I go and open something in a new tab, or switch tabs, or go ‘back’, everything goes back into 3D view and my pages get really small and text becomes fuzzy and most of the screen is filled with blank space.

What is the point of using a 3D interface to display things which are inherently two-dimensional? It adds complexity to the simplicity and lets you get lost in a whole new dimension.

Why should a web browser include a ‘gravity’ toggle and buttons like ‘straighten up’, ‘fly’ and ‘reset scene’. Isn’t that just kind of insanely ridiculous? And what is the point of being able to ‘walk’ or ‘fly’ behind a web page? The back and sides of a web page are grey, by the way.  Maybe HTML will evolve so that someday we can put stuff on the back of a web page.  Not.

History is always repeating and people are always going to claim something is new when it isn’t. For decades people have envisioned future user interfaces as being inherently three-dimensional, but shown on two-dimensional media such as computer screens or big glass displays. It’s reflected in futuristic movies and TV shows too. It’s become such a trite view of the future that I have seen it used to comic effect, and to pretend that this prediction of future web browsing interfaces is in any way new and innovative is laughable.

It isn’t a 3D web browser. A 3D web browser would browse a 3D web, but the web is only 2D. It’s browsing a 2D web and hanging the two-dimensional web pages in a 3D space. At best that’s 2.5D. VRML was a 3D web and an alternative to the text and 2D graphics based HTML, but it is all but unused now. It didn’t turn out to be a handy way of representing things on the web. Now some people are claiming that Second Life is the future of the web, but it isn’t really going to take over from the web and isn’t intended to. It is an interesting virtual world to walk around in and interact with people, but what if you just want to look something up? I use the web so I don’t have to walk around looking for stuff in buildings or worry about the clothes I’m wearing.

More on what’s good about HD

Wired has a blog post called DVD Doomed? The question mark at the end of the title signals the author’s skepticism.

The key sentence, in my opinion, is:

Unlike going from videotape to disc or vinyl to CD, the DVD to hi-def migration isn’t compelling enough to get consumers to re-buy movies they already own.

I have blogged the same thing before. Going from 576 lines of resolution to 1080 lines of resolution is not going to let me see much more acne on an acter’s face in the middle of a gunfight, and the sound on a DVD was already capable of reproducing what was played in the cinema.

The biggest benefit to Blu-ray and HD-DVD, more so with Blu-ray than HD-DVD, is the increase in storage capacity for those using the things to backup software and share video. You can do so much more with 25GB per layer than 4.7. And I think that players are going to be used increasingly for burning and reading burned media, while playing store-bought videos will decrease as a percentage of use.

The format wars are less of a big deal with hybrid drives. With DVD+R and DVD-R (the previous format war), people don’t even have to care which type they buy anymore because any player can burn or read both. With Blu-ray and HD-DVD the technical details are a little different, but nonetheless hybrid drives are coming out which could make the choice of which format to buy more flexible.

I am skeptical about the extent to which this war will be fought over releases from movie studios – I think the burn-your-own market is going to prove more important in the future.

I also don’t think that any slowing in sales of store-bought DVD videos can be attributed to the ‘success’ of Blu-ray or HD-DVD. If anything, it is partly due to confusion over formats. People don’t want to commit to any technology until they know they have backed the right horse. And it is probably partially just an overall decline in people buying videos, as more and more people watch or purchase videos online or share them on burned discs.

Addictive personality

I’ve noticed two separate meanings for the term addictive personality.

  1. A person with such a great personality you could become addicted to spending time with them
  2. A person who is susceptible to developing addictions

The second one doesn’t seem right.  The words (adjective-noun) indicate to me that the personality is addictive, not that the personality is attracted to other things that are addictive.

My guess is that the first meaning is the original and the second is a misunderstanding of the first one which seems to have become common, sort of like how people say ‘chomping at the bit’ or ‘could care less’ (‘champing’ and ‘couldn’t’).