Recalling RFID: Full Report
Recalling RFID was held on Friday the 19th and Saturday the 20th of October at de Balie. This unique event included presentations on RFID, debates and digital connectivity scenarios by industry representatives, academics, artists, privacy advocates, programmers and consultants. Recalling the current state of affairs and looking to the future, it turned out to be a very interesting, high quality conference.
Speakers included Katherine Albrecht (CASPIAN – Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering, USA), Bart Schermer (privacy lawyer and coordinator of RFID Platform Netherlands), Rafi Haladjian (founder of Violet company – known from the Nabaztag Rabbit, tech entrepreneur), Melanie Rieback (Ubisec researcher who invented the first RFID virus, VU University Amsterdam), Stephan Engberg (Priway/Copenhagen Business School), Christian van ‘t Hof (researcher, Rathenau Instituut), Willem Velthoven (designer and director of Mediamatic), interaction designer Timo Arnall, and many others.
This summary and review assumes that readers have at least a vague notion of what Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is. But just to recall:
RFID makes it possible to identify and track just about any physical object you can think off – books, car tires, shoes, medicine bottles, clothing, pets, and even human beings.
The “RF” part of RFID stands for “radio frequency” and explains how RFID does its tracking: It uses electromagnetic energy in the form of radio waves to communicate information at a distance.
— Katherine Albrecht, Spychips, 2005
RFID and Police Investigation
Christian van ‘t Hof gave the first presentation on ‘RFID and police investigation’. He began by asking how many people had RFID on them at the moment, and the vast majority of the audience raised their hand immediately. He used this to assess the level of knowledge in the audience: most people in the Netherlands do not realize that, on average, they carry around three RFID tags everyday. Christian works for the Rathenau institute, a think tank that investigates new technologies and advises the Dutch parliament. His presentation thus concerned the public support of RFID and the related political debates and legal questions.
So what is the use of RFID for government? With RFID becoming a part of everyday life, it is digitalizing public space. Knowing the ID of an RFID means knowing a time, a place, and an action. In the Netherlands this is most clearly seen in public transport (a system now being implemented uses RFID for ticketing), and in new passports (where not only RFID is integrated but also some biometric data). RFID used in this way means that you leave digital traces in public space. So how, for instance, might RFID be used for police investigation? Van’t Hof takes us through a scenario involving the new transportation system.
When you have a personal travel card for public transport, the identity of the chip is connected to your personal data (and it is worth noting that such subscriptions are cheaper than anonymous tickets). Because the system knows who was where at what time, this data can be used for criminal investigation. Van’t Hof says this is a clear-cut benefit in some cases: say, when a murder that takes place in the subway, it will give police easy access to witnesses and possible suspects. But things get trickier when it goes a step further. For instance, through profiling it may also be possible to find out who is evading taxes. The person who collects unemployment benefits but is always in transit during rush hours may be flagged as a possible offender. Such profiling could also be used to find potential terrorists, but here one already runs into the problem of effectiveness versus potential misuse.
In every new Dutch passport there is some biometric data (your passport photo and, by 2009, your fingerprints). The picture on this passport needs to be taken in a specific manner: your face must match ‘the matrix’ (seriously, this is the technical term). Currently, the ORRA system (Online Raadpleegbare Reisdocumenten Administratie) is being proposed for storing personal and biometric data in a central database, with the justification that it will prevent passport fraud. But this database also provides a valuable resource for authorities as it can be used to profile, investigate and research.
Van’t Hof also discussed research into the public perception of RFID. When doing focus group research, the Rathenau institute expected to find that people would not know a lot about RFID and would be offended by the possibilities of its misuse. As much of the available information on RFID relates to technical issues, it was no surprise that their first intuition was correct. Less expected, however, was what focus groups said about RFID after hearing details on what it is:
- Many in the focus groups said it was only ‘natural’ for such information to be collected in a central database used by the government.
- When asked if travel data should be linked to a specific person, 72% said this was okay for finding suspects of a crime, 61% went a step further and agreed that witnesses of a crime should be found, and a startling 60% said that public transport should be fully personalized – meaning that the transport companies and the government would always know who was where doing what.
- When asked about using biometric data from passports, 55% said the photos could be used for investigations, 65% said the fingerprints could be used for investigation, 52% said it could be used for international data exchange, and 62% said it could be used to identify a person via security camera.
Christian van ‘t Hof did note that “public opinion can be slippery” and that perhaps the public first needs to fully understand what RFID is and how it can be used. Furthermore, the context of the questions – criminal investigation – might as well have influenced the results. Further research with questions related to RFID in different contexts is therefore needed to get more solid results regarding public perception of RFID. The public opinion reflected in these results did however lead him to prediction that we will go to fully personalized transport (as we have with airplanes) and that it will be used to track and investigate. What he did not touch on, however, is that there is a great difference between airlines and subways – public transport is something one has a right to, so the analogy with air transport is questionable.
Rathenau takes the RFID debate beyond privacy issues by taking into consideration the costs involved in getting this system to work effectively for criminal investigation. For the system to work, all parties involved should store personal data in a standardized way limiting errors and incomplete databases. Telephone and Internet providers already store and make available telecommunication data for a period of six moths for police investigation under Centraal Informatiepunt Onderzoek Telecommunicatie (CIOT). This law implemented by government brought with it enormous costs and efforts for providers. Implementing similar laws for the public transport system will also increase costs which will eventually be payed by the public.Researching public perception of RFID in the context of costs involved will probably lead to different results than in the criminal investigation context. Christian tells us that the RFID issue is currently only considered by the ministry for economic affairs, and that this is one of the major obstacles in taking up RFID in a responsible way. His message to the parliament is fivefold:
- have a clear position on centralizing biometric data,
- have a clear position on using travel data,
- do more research on effectiveness,
- question if there should be data retention laws for RFID or not,
- explain your vision on RFID, privacy, innovation, and investigation.
The question of effectiveness would be posed a couple of times today. The most famous example is that although the police knew, or at least had information on, the Hofstad network and their planned attacks, they were unable to act on it. Will more surveillance data lead to a safer society?
For more information on ORRA and the statistics mentioned, see this Dutch paper of the Rhatenau institute.
VU researcher Melanie Rieback is known worldwide for her expertise on RFID and privacy, but especially for her implementation of the first RFID virus. Melanie started off with some history about RFID. As far back as World War II RFID was used in planes to identify themselves as being ‘friend or foe’ or, more accurately, ‘identify or die’. The system was ad hoc, as pilots would adjust their altitude or trajectory in a way that radar operators would understand. As such, the system suffered from ‘Denial Of Service’ attacks and a lot of ‘friends’ ended up being shot as well. From the start, then, Rieback argues that trust in a system is crucial. Later on RFID was used as a binary system against theft in clothing stores (remember the big white buttons). Such systems were easily fooled by using, for example, a bag with an inner-casing made of aluminum so that the chip could not be read. Over the last few years RFID has further been developed to contain 96 bits (enough to uniquely number every item produced on earth for the next thousand years). It is now mainly deployed under the banner of improved logistics.
Melanie is concerned with the fact that most tags do not use any privacy or security protection measures. Most RFID tags happily yell their ID to every reader in the neighborhood. In this way the tags ‘leak’ a lot of information, which is something RFID readers are guilty of too.
To improve RFID, Rieback says, we need to start thinking of it as computing. Tags are low-end computers, yes, but computers all the same. After the mainframe, minicomputers, PCs and embedded computers, there is RFID: the smallest computing unit today. If you want to build the so-called “Internet of Things”, all of the problems with the internet now will also affect the new technology. Melanie’s point is that right now users of RFID have no control whatsoever about who or what reads which tags when. Therefore she is currently developing the RFID guardian.
The RFID guardian is focused on putting security and privacy into RFID. The three main goals are to investigate the security and privacy threats faced by RFID systems, to design and implement real solutions against these threats, and to investigate the associated technological and legal issues. The RFID guardian would act as a kind of radio-frequency firewall, one that could be housed in mobile phones. The main characteristics of the device should be that it is portable, battery powered as well as provide and secure two-way RFID communication. It must act like an RFID reader, but also as an RFID tagger. It will have to imitate, spoof and simulate multiple RFID tags.
Touching on why such security is so important, Melanie points out that the new chip system for public transport was easily hacked. A group of UvA Master students hacked one of the cards within a week. Knowing how expensive this system was, this is worrying: perhaps companies behind RFID do not know where to go with their security questions?
After her presentation, Rieback was asked about the legitimacy of such a project: couldn’t it be used to attack systems? Her response was that it could of course be used maliciously as well but that turning your back on the current threats was not the solution either.
Melanie Rieback showing the RFID guardian:
The RFID guardian will be relaunched on the first of November with a completely refashioned website, wiki, forum, blog and open-source schematics. Be sure to check rfidguardian.org!
Timo Arnall talked about RFID in Interaction Design. We have currently entered a phase of social and tangible computing where the focus is much more on human capabilities. The current discourse about RFID is clouded by metaphors because it does not have a single shape. Arnall calls for increased visibility of RFID in design, so as to show the different shapes and forms that RFID comes in. Every medium has its own voice, and with the right designs different RFID readers and cards would become different expressions. Such a visual language is formed culturally – in Japan for example, RFID has a very friendly face:
RFID is in need of some demystification, as it is notoriously ‘invisible’. Designers must be creative and find ways to manage RFID’s visibility. While the technique is usually hidden, the experience of it does not have to be. How can we visualize what goes on behind the tag, in the network? What are the actions that are being triggered in the network when you swipe an RFID tag? How can we visualize different uses and actions of RFID?
With his presentation, Arnall showed us that RFID is not only a security risk but also a space opening up for internal action, one that designers can and will visualize, design and potentially manage.
The Library and Social Networks
Willem Velthoven heads Mediamatic, and began by presenting some RFID projects the company and foundation has been involved in. The first of these was the symbolic table. This ‘interface free” table allowed users to simply tag objects and to play with (Web) content in a tactile way. Other projects were those displayed at the PICNIC conference, such as the ‘friend finder’. This application allows conference visitors to meet up in real space and become friends on an online social network at the same time. Using RFID tokens they print out business-cards with their profiles on them. As an added incentive, they can get a free beer. So, in essence, the installation uses and manipulates digital data through physical interaction.
Another PICNIC project was iTea, which was also a conversation starter. By placing one’s tag in the teacup, visitors would receive personalized data taken from both their personal profiles as well as from a Google query of their name. This gave the users an impression of the possibilities of data mining, profiling and RFID. The Photo Booth was also very popular at PICNIC, and allowed people to get their picture taken with friends and interact with one another using RFID.
The latest Mediamatic project involves the new public library of Amsterdam. Where libraries increasingly face the challenge of ‘upgrading’ to current information and searching demands, there is also a possibility for innovation.
Velthoven was asked to reflect on the whole process of lending- and returning books, in this case by use of RFID and/or ‘traditional’ bar-codes. Although the project and implementation is just beginning, some critical questions and remarks were already clear. For instance, he noted a security concern, since it easy to gain access to others’ data. But this data could also be used differently: if a digital system for accessing lending data is already in place, why not make it possible to share that data?
The main question for the project concerns the (changing) role of a library today. Velthoven suggested that, through new technologies and social networking sites like the ones used at PICNIC, the library could become a social meeting place, where instead of reading in silence, one could meet up with fellow-readers, have book discussions, share interests etc. What Velthoven did not address is whether this should be the primary aim of a library, or whether or not there are already non-technical ways of achieving the same goals (e.g. book clubs).
Velthoven concluded with a simple message, ‘Make it fun again!’ Using online social networks in combination with new technologies like RFID, he sees a different path for classic institutions like the library.
RFID in japan – Ubiquitous Network Society
Wouter Schilpzand is a researcher at the Technical University of Eindhoven. He conducted a couple of months of field-research into location-based services in Japan. With an overload of examples, from the Oyster-card and a number of mobile-phone applications for (among other things) public transport payments, the message was that the integration of technology in Japan is way ahead of Europe. The question why, however, was not really addressed, though, which is a pity. By only looking at the results of this techno-saturation, Schilpzand’s presentation missed an opportunity.
That Japanese culture is a mix of tradition and technology is well known, so the story about how gadget-friendly the early adopters are could be expected. One outcome of ‘successful’ dissemination is that the average Japanese consumer is less critical and more open to new applications and new technologies. Where the European market is interested in established products and known for watchdog-like skepticism, the Japanese prosumer is more willing to give feedback and thus contribute to the research and development of new commercial technologies.
The conclusion of his talk was that we should look more at the rapid development of Japanese RFID and mobile technology. What he did not point out is that this cannot be reproduced directly elsewhere, since there are cultural differences and problems of scale and infrastructure (Japan is a relatively secluded area and the population is concentrated in big cities with a strong, cohesive culture).
Perhaps the rise of what Bruce Sterling calls the Spime or technology Wrangler will teach us to be less afraid of upcoming technologies, and possibly without losing skepticism. That Schilpzand’s presentation was so different to the rest serves as a reminder that Anglo-American fears of big brother-scenarios still rule discussions of RFID technology. Highlighting the divide, he argued that the dangers of RFID mentioned by Rieback and others, while very interesting, are a repetition of warnings, rather than proposals for solutions.
Rafi Haladijan is one of the founders of a Paris-based company called Violet, which recently gained international fame with its product, the Nabaztag. This is (in our view) the first real consumer product that deals with widely discussed phrases like Ambient Intelligence and the internet of things. Before going into more detail on the product, Haladijan gave the audience some background information.
Violet was founded in 2003, when the internet was viewed somewhat differently; with unstable connections, low connectivity and slower modems, the goal of ‘developing infrastructure and services to link all types of objects’ was far-fetched. Nonetheless, Violet looked to move in this direction by focusing on the meaning of phrases like calm technology and ubiquitous computing.
The first instance of inspiration he mentioned is the talking teddy bear. Mixing views on Moore’s law and evolution, Haladjian explains that the teddy bear carries the statement that everything will indeed be hooked up to some kind of network via some sort of electronics. Not because of a technological drive being imposed on society, but simply an inevitable evolutionary step.
According to Haladijan, the reason why big players like Philips and Sony have not entered the market of home-entertainment / ambient intelligence yet is due to their approach. These companies focus on creating a ‘smart-home’, but do so with a naive vision on user-technology interaction. The smart home is one very expensive product with no real killer application, and thus exactly misses the point. In a time where we are halfway between the Flinstones and the Jetsons, the question is how to shape the road we are on now. We all have to do this, he says, and not leave it to bulky tech-companies. This is why Violet aims to create affordable products (20 to 200 euro) within the realm of Ambient Intelligence, with a focus on poetic and fun applications. Haladijan reasons that, by creating affordable products, people will understand the new technologies better and be able to create their own needs and values on that basis. By empowering people to do certain things with their products, a more diverse and more interesting adoption of technology will emerge naturally. What he proposes, then, is a bottom-up approach to consumer adoption of RFID.
Within a standard Western home, a person owns approximately 6000 to 8000 objects, of which maybe five of them are linked to a network (radio, phone, television, computer). The aim is to link all 8000 objects to a network, talking to each other – exchanging information, ultimately linking everything in the world together!
For the Violet company the first step was a networked lamp, a strange precursor given that their prize product now is the NaBaztag, the world’s first smart rabbit. Using an anthropomorphic shape as an interface, the NaBaztag is a more attractive way to interact with a network. In other words, it creates a portal to an internet or network without a screen, but a connection that it is more intuitive than scree-based interfaces.
Next up is the Nazbaztag/tag, which is equipped with an RFID reader. The reason behind this is that it will integrate with Ztamps, tags which you can stick on almost anything. When the Ztamps comes near the rabbit (or the other way around), content can be triggered, anything from sound, lights, website to mail. The nice thing about this very simple but effective application is that one can contextualize and confine digital content to physical objects. Again here the philosophy is to not project a function onto the user, but to give user-generated content a chance with this technology in the belief that cool things will emerge through use. As a concluding statement, Haladjian reminds us that this all really comes down to storytelling and creating new and exciting ways to facilitate it (especially where interaction is the story!).
In the short q&a, which was more of a summary, the overall message was that we have to move interactions away from the screen and shift towards a new interaction paradigm. RFID should not be used as ‘another way to load stuff on your screen’, as Timo Arnall put it.
The great advantage to moving away from the screen is that we can move away from the world of metaphors (like the desktop metaphor on screen) to direct couplings of meaning and action. According to Haladjian, ‘We have to make a bridge from screen to the real world again, where the challenge is the spreading and representation of data.’
For a couple of years now, Katherine Albrecht has been on a crusade against RFID. She is well known for her book and website Spychips, and the revised version of that book written especially for Christians (where she recognized that RFID could be thought of as the biblical ‘mark of the beast’). Although some of us expected an extreme activist with little ‘content’, only the former was true. Albrecht was eloquent, and showed that she is very knowledgeable about RFID and its applications and uses.
She began by noting that the RFID industry always draws an analogy with the barcode or UPC, saying RFID just makes things easier. However, she explains, there are three major differences that must be considered when an ID is connected with a database and remotely readable:
- Unique Codes – think about the same UPC on each bottle of coke versus a unique code on each bottle which allows cross-referencing (and again, creating knowledge of a time, a place, and an action),
- Involuntary – RFID is readable without you knowing it versus handing over an item to be scanned,
- Fields – RFID works with an electromagnetic field
These points were elaborated upon in the rest of Albrecht’s talk. First of all she described the history of tracking items: from barcodes (for products) to loyalty cards (personal identifiers) to RFID (which allows for information on when, where and why consumers use products).
Albrecht told a couple of stories of the industry deploying RFID without letting the consumers know that they were being ‘spied’ upon. As an example you might want to look at the case of Gilette, the company that secretly took pictures of customers taking razor blades from the shelves. Apparently the industry does not want the public to know that they are using RFID and what it is used for, as Albrecht has been to various meetings where the industry was talking about strategies against consumer backlash.
Albrecht also explained the difference between a chip and a tag. A chip is a tag plus an antenna. Inkode now has a chipless tag, making RFID possible through the physical property of the tag itself – no electronics involved. With the advent of conductive ink, the packaging of an item can now become an antenna. This means that RFID can be truly invisible. And yet, no laws are in place to make sure consumers know when something is tagged with RFID. When products are tagged with RFID at the source (by the supplier), tags can be embedded deep into the object with little or no chance for removal.
Wall-Mart for example, now only works with suppliers who have RFID in their products. The company has also started item level tagging, despite the Code of Conduct they signed in accordance with CASPIAN and the privacy rights clearing house.
One result of this is that, in the near future, your trash will tell all kinds of secrets. Items will be tagged with RFID and a city may routinely scan your garbage, learning about the products you have bought and where you got them, or where you have been (you bought it in one place but threw it away somewhere else), and in that way be able to make specific profiles about you. This way your trash will be worth a lot of money! Even short-range RFID, then, can be very invasive.
Quoting from the report of Twan Eikelenboom at Viruteel Platform to give you the rest of Albrecht’s talk:
Implementation of the tag is all about hiding it: ‘You can sandwich RFID tags in shoes. And once this is done you can be identified everywhere: when you pass doorways, ceilings and floors you can be identified’. But what about RFID tags molded into tires? Or RFID tagged swipeless credit cards? The effects of implementation are still every unclear, as this article mentioned by Albrecht shows: Chip Implants Linked to Animal Tumors.
After implementation in everyday life, applications can be deployed. Some applications are already in use, for example in amusement parcs such as Alton Towers and LEGOland. You could say that this is merely in an amusement parc setting. IBM however has patented the Person Tracking Unit. This specific patent places RFID readers in the environment and as people walk around it tracks their movement and records products they carry with them. This could mean that “they” could look inside a woman’s bag to see, for example, if she carries babyfood and in turn use that for marketing purposes. Besides IBM, Bellsouth/Cingular has patented perhaps the most privacy invading example, which is about ‘post consumption information’ or simply put: garbage scanning.
The answer according to Albrecht lies in action. As an example she mentions the hidden RFID chips found at the Future Store in Germany. Metro Group had hidden RFID chips in loyalty cards and through protest, the company had to comply with privacy laws. More action is needed according to Albrecht to stop projects such as the forced chipping of Alzheimer patients.
At the recalling RFID event Albrecht premiered her final research on microchip induced tumors. Apparently RFID chips in bodies caused cancers to form around them, the technical term being foreign body tumor genesis. More information about this can be found spychips.com and antichip.com.
Video screening The Catalogue (UK 2005 | 5’30):
The final speaker was Bart Schermer, secretary of the RFID platform, privacy specialist at ECP, and a privacy researcher at the University of Leiden. He immediately stated that he was a ‘techno optimist’ and a big fan of RFID. He tried to defuse the spychips threat as sketched by Katherine Albrecht, while saying he agreed with her on many points. He did this by asking us to go back in time and ask us if we would have stopped the internet’s development had we knew beforehand that it would also be used in morally reprehensible ways, for instance to spread child pornography. He said that no technology is inherently malevolent but that its uses may be. Although RFID is not inherently bad, he did see some possible threats: invisible data-collection, the possibilities for profiling, classifying, and tracking consumers, as well as ‘Minority Report’-style advertising. He said that none of this was likely to happen,
because the primary goal of a company is to make money; not to blackmail customers nor follow them everywhere. RFID will be used to seduce its consumers and maximize their value. Companies are bound by law and it takes two to tango. Companies are not forcing you to use it.
To further the defuse the dangers of RFID he explained that some important Dutch laws are already in place:
- Surreptitious gathering of personal data is a violation of the data protection directive.
- The same applies to using personal data for other purposes than for which they have been gathered.
- Surreptiously monitoring and following people is a criminal offense.
- Targeted advertising without prior permission from consumers is a violation of the (European) data protection directive.
Bart Schemer then quoted Francis Bacon: ‘Human knowledge and human power meet in one, for where the cause is not known, the effect cannot be produced’, meaning ‘information is power’.
If information is power, then (personal) data will be used to profile and classify consumers. According to Bart Schermer, privacy is thus a means to maintain ‘economic equality’ between companies and consumers. Consumers (should) have a say in the processing of their personal data. He dared to add “It is you who is in control of your personal data”.
However, Dutch citizens value security higher than privacy. Over 70% of the Dutch citizens is in favor of using RFID-data for law enforcement purposes, and consumers seem to value convenience, price, and speed over privacy (even if they say differently sometimes). Therefore, the single biggest threat to privacy is YOU.
Bart sums up how he would like to change consumers:
- consumers should be (made) aware of the importance of privacy
- consumers must therefore be informed when, how and where RFID is used
- consumers must have the option to deactivate RFID at the point of sale (opt out)
- consumer organisations must inform their constituency about RFID on the basis of facts not on the basis of fear
The way forward for companies should be the following:
- use RFID in a responsible manner (privacy is good business sense)
- provide benefits not only to themselves, but also to consumers
- provide openness and transparency about the use of RFID
- provide a truly free choice for consumers
And for governments:
- create tools for the protection of privacy (PETs, RFID guardians, logo system)
- place the consumer in control
- monitor personal shifts in the balance of power, and correct where necessary (refrain from creating more investigative powers and coercive measures)
Finally, consumers should:
- take their responsibility in safeguarding their privacy and individual liberty
- be wary of buying into doomsday scenarios
- actively resist applications that violate consumer rights
To reiterate, Bart stated that no technology is inherently malevolent. It is easy to create a dystopian scenario (and way more fun) than creating a realistic one. However, we should not judge a technology solely on the basis of possible misuse or abuse.
Katherine Albrecht responded to Bart Schermer by saying that the privacy directive is limited to Europe. And even when such a legal system is in place it is difficult to find violations. It is than even more difficult to find out what has been done with the data. How can you prove something when the data is privately owned and can be deleted with a simple click? She stated that Schermer has put too much trust in the law.
Schermer responded by saying that database law is from the 1970’s, and that so far it has little to say about whether a tag in your jacket should be considered personal data. The only solution is a critical consumer that can create a backlash against companies. Information, he says, is the most important currency in information society.
Asked whether technologies can be inherently good or bad, Albrecht stated that something like RFID can invite malevolence. When looking to history, we can see for example that Hitler could coordinate the execution of so many people precisely because demographics were recorded through IBM’s Hollerith punch card technology – this made it easy to quickly identify and localize Jewish communities and others.
Albrecht says that history tells us what we don’t want to know, which is that governments with too much power kill people. She argues that in the past century, national governments have produced more casualties than any other cause. Bart Schermer responds that there is difference between a technical system in place on the one hand and the rise of a dictator on the other. If the source of the problem is evil governments then we should look to prevent them from coming to power. Katherine states that the risks of RFID outweigh the benefits, and reminds us that Hitler was democratically chosen as well.
Summing up, the moderator makes a call for value sensitive design systems. Engberg adds to this, saying that so far, those paying the bills are choosing the wrong infrastructures for using RFID. Creating data does not ensure the creation of data regulation – that needs extra work. Albrecht notes that it only takes the stroke of a pen to change policy, and a button to avoid it. She says no privacy law will be enough, and instead pushes for a guerrilla attitude. Ultimately, she say, she is against the deployment of RFID. Period. At this point she makes an emotional appeal, saying that we are in a battle for our lives and those of future generations.
The discussion shifted to the terms of debate about privacy. At present there is a false dichotomy: privacy versus security. The real debate however, accoriding to Katherine, should be about freedom versus control. In the current debate, policy-makers can point out that privacy is for those who have something to hide. When she points out that privacy is not an end but a means to achieve freedom of speech, economic equality and other democratic goals, the other participants cannot help but agree.
The videos of all presentations will be available here soon.
On Saturday two workshops on RFID were held. One was on the social uses of RFID and the other about the ‘future histories of RFID’. In the former, led by Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, a group of people went into town to take pictures of everyday objects which could be socially enhanced by RFID. They came up with an augmented chess board, with which chess pieces could be tagged and games could be played with the help of friends located elsewhere. Another project talked about tags in stickers, through which friends and strangers could leave behind (URLs for) movies for one another. Yet another project was about leaving secret messages on bench, and this kept up a common theme of ‘dislocating’ and ‘relocating’ social interaction in different places at different times.
The second workshop, led by Richard Rogers and the Digital Methods Initiative, investigated information politics on RFID. The full report can be found at the Digital Method Initiative’s project page on Future Histories of RFID and in Timo Arnall’s excellent blog post. The research includes The Substantive Composition of RFID According to Folksonomy and the Web, Wikipedia Anonymous Authorship Cartogram: The RFID Entry, Drama in Search Space: RFID and Arphid Queries Over Time, RFID Imagery: ‘Wet’ and ‘Dry’ Associations Compared, and Issue Packaging on the Web: Style Sheets for RFID Sites by Site Type. Timo Arnall wrote a blogpost about the Future Histories of RFID workshop.
All pictures were made by Anne Helmond.
For another conference summary, see Twan Eikelenboom’s great post at Virtueel Platform.
To our surprise the term shocklog, a wellknown term in the Netherlands, was nowhere to be found on the rest of the World Wide Web. We wanted that to change, so we -The Masters of Media- coined the term on a new English Wikipedia entry. So what are those infamous shocklogs about?
A shocklog is a weblog that usually contains controversial, critical, surprising and/or appalling content. Below is our initial entry, but of course the discussion rages on at Wikipedia.
Shocklogs are weblogs that use shock and slander to sling mud at current affairs, public individuals, institutions and so on. Authors of shocklogs usually comment on an item in a very provoking and insulting way, often resulting in even more seriously offensive comments, such as threats of rape and murder.
One of my favourite philosophical themes is the the notion of nation, and how nations are created. Some argue they have been around forever, but currently the academic consensus rests on the idea that the concept of nation, or nationhood, was created during the Industrial Revolution partly as a kind of parasitical response to the faltering position of religion.
Benedict Anderson (right) is a guy who wrote a fairly optimistic and fascinating book on this subject called “Imagined Communities”.
In the rest of the post I will attempt to describe the position of weblogs within Mr. Anderson’s discourse.
<update> See bottom of the post and the comments </ update>
About a week ago there was a small-scale furor on this blog and a Nettime-NL thread surrounding the spinplant. Laura (one of the very creative members of this blog) wrote a Wikipedia entry on the fictional plant, complete with a taxonomic category and a high-resolution photo. The article was deleted within the hour.
While this was basically a good thing for Wikipedia – a kind of anti-Siegenthaler moment – the reason given for the deletion was not. It turns out that the Wikipedian responsible simply queried ‘spinplant’, found no corresponding hits in Google, and that was that. Soon critics brought up the question: what happens when an encyclopedia relies so heavily on a commercial search engine, especially one with worrying censorship ‘issues’? When it comes to Wikipedia, or even Web knowledge more generally, does Google deal in capital-T truth?
In short, my answer is no. Firstly, it is unfair to tag the Wikipolice as lazy or uninformed. Anyone who spends their free time reverting bad edits on Wikipedia cannot but hold ‘exhaustiveness’ as a virtue.
Second, and more importantly, Google does not deal in truth at all. Like the cognitivists, the search engine giant has taken the pragmatic view that truth is immaterial – relevance is where it’s at.
It features Deleuze, Foucault, even Henry Jenkins. He caught wind of the site and commented on it in his blog:
And to my astonishment, yours truly has become a favorite target in this new academic pass-time. My students have long considered my face an icon upon which they can test their emerging mash-up and remixing skills so I am delighted to see these practices extended into the culture at large. Anything which will further the cause of participatory culture.
Click (more…) for some of my favourites
In this review, Howard Rheingold’s vision on the future of communication and interaction is explained, as layed out in his book ‘Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution’, 2002.
Rheingold noted that SMS has been used for dating in teenage culture but also for the mobilization of big groups; for example in the overthrowing of the Filipinian government in 2001 or the goal orientedness of the protests in Seattle. Instead of just seeing SMS as a technology in his book, Rheingold takes you on a journey to discover the broader system that enables such a seemingly simple medium to have such a profound impact on society.
Three observations are at the basis of Rheingold’s book:
- There are ever smaller, more powerful, and cheaper computational devices,
- There is more and more ‘always on’ wireless communication to, and connectivity between, these devices,
- The people using them constitute and live in social networks which can be easily accessed anytime at any place, through these devices.
Rheingold’s central thesis is that the combination of these three offers people a new way to combine their knowledge and energy. This then gives rise to Smart Mobs: ad-hoc self organizing networks of people in the technosphere, capable of collective action. In his book he looks at how people interact with, and through, close-by and invisible ubiquitous technologies like the Internet, mobile phones, wireless and the web. He extrapolates from his observations and goes on a quest to get wiser. He foresees that the possibility to add wireless communication in every device will be another shift in the way people will interact with each other.
Since the launch of Second Life (SL) by Linden Lab in 2003 it has attracted the attention of many Chinese users. Despite the popularity of SL in China and partly because SL has never been officially launched in China, their have been several efforts by Chinese companies to launch a similar (or another Web 2.0 copy?) concept for a primarily Chinese audience. In this brief analysis I will try to create an overview of the current situation of Chinese virtual worlds and initiatives. I will do this by describing two of the most relevant virtual worlds that currently exist in Beta: Hipihi (hi-pee-hi) and Novoking. Both parties are in Beta stage and have announced their virtual world’s big bang (commercial release) to take place next year.
The analysis of the two virtual worlds will contain the following aspects:
1. History and background information
2. Descriptions of first impressions and experiences of the virtual world
Finally I will try to make a judgement based on originality, usability and accessibility; what virtual world will become the ‘Tudou‘ of all virtual worlds in China?
I will start of with the current market leader and ‘oldest’ Chinese virtual world: Hipihi
History and background
As mentioned above, Hipihi is the current market leader in China. The company was founded in Beijing October 2005 by Hui Xu. The first Beta version of the virtual world was launched March 2007. Even though Hipihi is still in Beta, it has grown from 10.000 in-world residents in June 2007 to an in-world population of nearly 30.000 in October 2007. Hipihi is expected to go live (public Beta testing) at the end of November 2007. Hui Xu, the founder and CEO of Hipihi is no newbie in the new media business; he is an experienced ‘Chinese Internet Hero’ and has been the chairman of several successful e-commerce and online recruitment websites.
Xu’s e-commerce background has proven to result in some interesting strategic choices. On the 11th of October this year, Hipihi has announced a partnership with Millions of Us, inc., an American company that builds virtual worlds from the ground up and assists in brand-building for real world clients in virtual spaces. The partnership is designed to help global brands reach Chinese customers through the virtual world of Hipihi.
Based on my own and and other peoples experiences a brief description of the actual feel and possibilities of the Hipihi world will be made. Since Linden Labs was the first company to have launched a successful virtual world which received plenty of attention, it seems that it has set the standard for the next virtual worlds. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all virtual worlds following SL are an exact copy, but as I have noticed during my research it turns out that most of the options and usability features Hipihi has to offer, feel suspiciously common.
The beginning of Hipihi is pretty straightforward; you download and install the software package (48.6 MB) you pick an avatar, dress it up, change the looks to your likings and off you go; exploring a completely new world! The first impression of Hipihi is that it feels like more of the same; Hipihi offers most of the orientation functionality’s that are available in SL: walking, running, flying, driving all sorts of vehicles etc. Also the graphics are quite similar to those in SL. Furthermore users are able to chat, perform a whole range of funny actions and, naturally, are able to create all their own objects. Something that Novoking nor SL offers: every new inhabitant receives a piece of land covering 100x100m for free! This might attract new users but there is also a group of people that share the opinion that people often don’t value free stuff.
An element in which Hipihi is truly differentiating from SL is its effort for an increased accessibility: by offering plenty of pre-fabricated objects it will be easier for in-experienced users to live in the virtual world. The more sophisticated users can use advanced setting and tools to build more complicated and customized objects.
The biggest problem I (and other Beta users) have encountered during my stroll through the new world is that there are not enough people ‘living’ in the virtual world yet; it feels empty and deserted, especially compared with hectic cities like Shanghai and Beijing! Combined with a search system that still contains bugs and is not thoroughly worked out yet, this resulted in a rather disappointing experience.
Also when first entering Hipihi I expected to bump into a virtual world that was heavily influenced by Chinese or at least Asian culture, but this did not seem the case. Most of the public buildings, houses, vehicles and even avatars look surprisingly western and familiar. I think there are 2 reasons for this.
First of all when looking at the strategic positioning of Hipihi as a platform it is not particularly aimed at a Chinese or Asian audience; it is supposed to be a global platform. As stated on their website the target group is: ‘residents with different colours and of different races from different parts of the real world.’
The second possible reason for the western Look and feel has to do with the whole change China is going through. As I have experienced myself travelling through and living in China for almost 8 months, residents want to look like, act like and live like western (wealthy) people. All that youngsters want to wear, use, eat and so on are western products. The new generation of Chinese is dreaming of a wealthy, western lifestyle which is very well illustrated by the way Hipihi advertises the possibilities of its virtual world where everything is possible: ‘imagine when Coca-Cola is placed in the hands of each resident’. Paradoxically this makes the virtual world very Chinese indeed. So at first glance the new virtual world does not seem Chinese at all, but what is concidered typical Chinese? When taking a closer look at Hipihi the following aspects that are very relevant and Chinese in the modern Chinese society caught my attention:
1. Transportation of all kinds are very prominent. Transportation stands for freedom but also, more important for the Chinese society, it stands for economic development.
2. In an advertisement for Hipihi I came across the following line: ‘when schools are handling all kinds of procedures’. The makers of Hipihi are subtlely pointing at the future possibilities of a virtual educational system. This is closely related to the current educational situation and class struggle in China where it is still a privilige to get a proper education. In developing countries education is often people their only chance of escaping poverty.
3. Hipihi mentions information about virtual economies and even touches political matters: ‘even a business model which can not be achieved in the real world will be born right here.’ To me this clearly points to the shortcomings of the current Chinese society and goverment. Also the words glamour and profit are used extensively to point out the endless possibilities of the new world. Glamour and profit are words that are not very common in a communistic society and if they are used it has a negative connotation. The choice for these specific words are an indication for the transformation and struggle China is going through; socialsm vs kapitalism.
4. A final element that does make the Hipihi world Chinese is the fact that the Beijing 2008 olympic games are very visible and present in the virtual world.
So Hipihi has turned out to be very Chinese after all, even though this was not intended when you look at at the strategy! For the near future it will be interesting to see how the Chinese governemt will react on the virtual world especialy concerning the profit making and political matters. When taking in account the past restrictions and censureship I think political interference will be inevitable.
The second virtual world that I will review is Novoking, which has launched its private beta test in the beginning of October this year. Even though there is no English version available yet, Novoking has translated parts of its website in (poor) English.
History and background
Novoking was founded in October 2005 bij Patrick Zha. Through the years Patrick (CEO of Novoking Technology Ltd. Co) has gained extensive experience in business and sales, particularly in the software branch. The mission Patrick has, is to build the largest 3D Chinese virtual world that allows users to create, build, communicate and live their dream through the bytes.
In the beginning of October 2007 Novoking started testing it’s Beta version of the virtual world by admitting 500 people into the new world. The Novoking team of 50 developers that have been working on the ‘game’ since 2005 have announced they will soon roll out 1.000 more Beta accounts, but as mentioned above, unfortunately there is no English version available yet.
By far the biggest problem that I and most of the other foreign users have encountered is, logically, the language barrier, but random clicking has proven to be effective for most of the pop-up screens and forms. Even though there have been plenty of non-Mandarin speakers before me that did get the program running through extensive teamwork and browsing in plenty related forums, unfortunately I was not able to get it started. Because I really wanted to have a look in Novoking I contacted a certain ‘Jolly’ that works for ideashape.cn. Ideashape.cn is a self preclaimed third party of Novoking and acts as a support site for English speaking users. Jolly lives in China, he has been active in Novoking for a while now and he was kind enough to answer all my questions about novoking through MSN!
After chatting with Jolly for a while it became clear to me that unlike Hipihi, where users are expected to create their own world from scratch, the people at Novoking have prepared a world before users were able to show up. Before the first beta tester was able to set foot in the brand new virtual world, a trading centre, a park, plenty of clothing shops, a shopping mall, entertainment facilities, several restaurants and so on were waiting to be ‘used’ for the first time.
It seems to me that compared to SL and Hipihi, Novoking’s emphasise is not primarely on a user generated world and strategy but more on, among others, the slightly higher quality of the graphics, usability and overall accessibility. The screenshots that I have seen indicate that Novoking has put a little more emphasise on the graphics compared to Hipihi and that it has tried to create a pre-fabricated atmosphere and feel in its world.
So where Hipihi is trying to make its virtual world more accessible by offering pre-fabricated objects, Novoking takes it one step further. It is hoping to attract an even less experienced crowd compared to Hipihi by providing users not only with all sorts of pre-fabricated objects but also with a completely pre-designed world. The Novoking developers have expressed that they aim for training and educating users along the way of exploration. The downside of this approach is the size of the initial download that is required: 334 MB (almost 10 times bigger than SL and over 6 times that of Hipihi’s required download).
A new feature that truly differentiates Novoking from SL and Hipihi is that it allows users to upload their own content created in Photoshop, 3DMax and Maya. So besides aiming for just the ‘newbies’ the developers at Novoking have left plenty of room for the more experienced content creators too.
Another aspect in which Novoking differs with Hipihi is that it is not trying to position itself as a platform for an international audience; there is no real global intention (yet). Novoking clearly focusses more on Chinese users instead of a worldwide audience. But since Novoking is a bit younger than Hipihi they might soon roll out their global strategy anyway.
To sum it all up Novoking is trying to wheel in a less experienced and mainly Chinese audience by offering higher accessibility but also by making use of better looking graphics and a pre-manufactured world.
After these reviews it becomes clear that even though in first sight Hipihi and Novoking look quite similar (ordinary copies of SL?), they differ in a lot of ways. They differ not only from SL but they also differ from each other.
In general when discussing the accessibility of the two worlds Novoking can be considered the most simple and accessible for in-experienced newbie avatars. Not only does Novoking offer a pre-fabricated world, it has also less features and offers pre-fabricated objects. In close second though, comes Hipihi which has also learned from SL its faults (buggy engine, steep learning curve, high technical barrier etc.) and has tried to attract users by offering plenty of pre-fabricated objects and less features. So what world will eventually attract the biggest audience?
Both worlds have a different strategy and have different ideas on the creation of a tipping point for user generated content. Hipihi believes in total freedom and is hoping that users will choose for their world because of the endless features combined with a simplified usability compared to SL. Novoking’s strategy is different; they think people will appreciate even less features than Hipihi, combined with a pre-fabricated world. But they also serve the more experienced audience by giving them a chance to integrate popular 3D graphics software like Maya and 3DMax. So Hipihi bets his money on the almost 100% user generated content environment while Novoking uses a ‘gentle push’ tactic to get the people running as quick as possible and hopes to inspire users with a more plug and play world.
Personally I think there is a market for both worlds in China so the question of who will become the SL of China is not so relevant in this case. After this review I think they both serve a different audience and don’t neccisarily have to compete with eachother, at least not in the near future.
I would like to finish with discussing the real world’s political environment that the virtual worlds were born in. Both worlds will face a complicated job considering the current governmental situation. As Xu from Hipihi has already stated: “we can make sure that pornography, gambling, violence or politically sensitive material will be strictly forbidden.” The people at Novoking have expressed something similar: “in accordance with Chinese regulations, our world’s economy will necessarily be a closed one.” Nobody knows exactly how virtual worlds will develop in China, but as a Web 2.0 enthousiast I think it is worth to keep an eye on!
More sources on Hipihi:
More sources on Novoking:
In a couple of the previous posts on MoM we announced that we were adding the term ‘Shocklog’ to the English Wikipedia. Why? Well, the term is used often in the field of Media Studies and genre specific blogs need to have a name. But since last week our entry has been removed (again). Wikipedia doesn’t allow neologisms and because shock + log = neologism, there will be no shocklog entry on Wikipedia. So why did it get deleted?
Hoe makkelijk is het om berichten op de Nederlandse variant van Wikipedia te plaatsen? Wie bekijkt de nieuw aangemaakte pagina’s? Wat is waarheid volgens Wikipedia? Met deze vragen in het achterhoofd heb ik op woensdag 26 september een pagina over de Spinplant of Bossius Rodricus aangemaakt. Voor de aandachtige lezer, nee, deze plantensoort bestaat niet. Het idee hier achter was om uit te vinden hoe lang het duurt voordat een pagina over een niet-bestaand onderwerp wordt ‘gevonden’ en wat hier dan mee wordt gedaan.
Wednesday the 22nd of November is Election Day in The Netherlands. Which party has the most promising program for New Media scientists, New Media creators/designers, and New Media consumers? Which party will invest in New Media developers and theorists, in order to put The Netherlands on top of the technological and innovative map?
While writing a piece about the Ubiscribe event on my own blog I went to Blogger’s website. Blogger automatically localizes me based on my IP-address and welcomes me in my own language. Google does the same thing when I go to Google.com it automatically redirects me to Google.nl. Even though I can see the advantages of this I strongly dislike this automatic localizing because I go to the Google.com domain for a reason! Searching something on the Google.com or Google.nl domain gives you different search results and when I look for something that is not Dutch I rather use the Google.com domain.
There are two ways to reach the google.com domain instead of the google.nl domain:
- After automatic redirection to Google.nl follow the “Google.com in English link” (which is actually pretty funny because apparently you are on Google.com in Dutch instead of Google.nl.
- Run your search on Google.nl and then change http://www.google.nl/search?hl=nl&q=ubiscribe&meta= to http://www.google.nl/search?hl=en&q=ubiscribe&meta= (change nl for en or any other language.) This will give you the same search results as when you are on the Google.com domain.
Here are some screenshots of the different search results Google.com, Google.nl in English and Google.nl produce (the first two produce the same results).
Blogger, that has been bought by Google, also localizes me based on my IP-address but does not automatically redirect me from Blogger.com to Blogger.nl for example. I stay on the Blogger.com domain but I am welcomed in Dutch. I can see the advantage of this but I wonder if I can also “return” to the “original” English version. Blogger offers me a Taal/Language link that allows me to toggle the language of the page. More screenshots of this localizing process:
I can see the advantages of localizing (I want Google to localize me when I visit Google Maps for example. An interesting note is that maps.google.com does not automatically redirect to maps.google.nl.) but sometimes I just want to shout “Please stop localizing me!”
What are your thoughts on this automatic localizing and the localized web?
Update: 911truth.org reappeared in Google’s search returns on October 7. No explanation has been put forward yet, but this second coming has been nicely documented and visualized on the Issue Dramaturg [added 10/10/07 by Michael].
About a year ago Richard Rogers, Marieke van Dijk, and I made the Issue Dramaturg, a tool to display a site’s Google rank per query. Today, whilst preparing for the public form on Quaero I checked our query on 9/11 again. Every day we query Google for 9/11 and see which sites have what rank for that query. Normally 911truth.org has a very high rank in Google for this query. Since the 17th of September 2007 however, their rank has declined very fast. On the 20th of September 911truth.org completely disappeared from Google! 911truth.org is an important source for information about 9/11. According to Wikipedia,
[911truth.org,] The 9/11 Truth Movement is the name adopted by the loosely-connected organizations and individuals that question the mainstream account of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States. […] The common proposition among all of the movement supporters is that what they call “the official account” of the events of 9/11 is not true, and that the truth has been covered up by high-level officials and the official investigators.
Below you can find a screenshot of the Issue Dramaturg documenting the decline in Google rank for 911truth.org:
911truth.org itself says this about it:
It seems absolutely clear Google has purposefully removed 911truth.org from their search engine. Is this the same Google whose mission statement includes the goal “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Uhm, maybe only sort of universally accessible?
… Talking about a well documented case of Google censorship… I am constantly reminded why we started Open Search – a distributed peer to peer search engine which is set up to avoid search engine manipulation, censorship and profiling.
Watching the Mark Foley scandal make its way from a newspaper blog to political blogs to the front pages of major newspapers, I was intrigued with how various actors got involved (and by actors I mean places, things, terms as well as people). I started wondering if there was a way to measure the effect on perceptions of these related issues/persons/etc.
This question is inspired with a discussion I had this afternoon on IRC with my fellow Utopians. I believe there is already some literature out there about the trustworthiness of information on wikipedia. Below I will paste the chat (slightly edited). Since this issue strikes at the heart of what we study, it’d be neat if we could discuss about it in either the comments or in class. We may be able to change some mindsets at the University of Victoria! :)
One of the great things about web 2.0 is making free phone calls to friends all over the world. Just turn on one of the programs that offer this service, make sure your friend is online too, and make the call. And it’s also possible to call for a lot less the amount that you used to, to a regular phone or mobile phone.
According to my own preferences I really like to use Skype. It’s easy, free, and almost all my friends use it too. But after some articles I read about Skype having a backdoor and not being all that safe, I decided to look for an alternative to call and talk with my friends for free. To my surprise there are loads of other programs out there that offer the same service.
And on a rainy afternoon, I decided to just try some of them, to find out what’s the difference, and more important, which one is a good alternative for Skype?
* VoIPbuster: Their slogan sounds promising: If you like Skype, you will love the Voipbuster. As a Mac user I’m redirected to another page to download the program, Windows users are probably their most common users. The website is in Dutch, with some English explainations on it. Looking at the website the Voipbuster all of a sudden doesn’t sound so promising anymore. But don’t judge the book by its cover. After making an account you are redirected to the page to buy ‘credits’. So this isn’t a free service! Or is it? The website is really messy and it is even not clear how to download the program for Mac users. I have an account now but no program. After five minutes of going through the site I decided this isn’t my program for sure.
* Gizmo Project: Getting started is really easy. Just download the program and register. The program itself looks a lot like Skype again. A messenger service with group chat, easy to call people and not really something new. But according to the website there is a lot more to explore with Gizmo that i haven’t seen yet. Call recordings, map of the location of the caller and sound effects. It looks promising but I’m not convinced. It looks like a lot of extras that are unnecessary. Nice but not for me.
* Jajah: When you first enter the site it looks like you only have to fill in two telephone numbers and you can call right away. Maybe that’s the case, but only when you have a landline, which I don’t. So, I have to find another way to use Jajah. After viewing the demo and clicking around I found out this isn’t really such a good service. It’s only free when you use a landline and your friend is a Jajah user too. Otherwise you have to pay. And it’s not cheaper than using your regular phone. When I call with my mobile via Jajah to another mobile number in the Netherlands, it still costs me 29.6 cents. So Jajah,…. Nonoh!
* WengoPhone: Opensource software to make free pc to pc video and voice calls. The software is really easy to download and install afterwards. The interface looks almost exactly like Skype. It also has an option to send sms messages. Unfortunately I couldn’t test the application because there is not an option for a try-out call and I have no contacts yet. So far this seems like a good alternative for Skype.
* SightSpeed: The application took very long to download.
And no, that wasn’t my connection. After the installation you have to change some settings and than the program is ready to use. The program doesn’t look so flashy like Skype. But it works really well. There is even an option to record video mails and messages to put on your blog. When you make a call you can record the call. The only disadvantages are the advertisements during a call and the fact that there isn’t an option to chat. But for making just phone calls this is my favorite! But now I have to convince other people to use the program too.
After trying five I quit. Sightspeed is really nice, but not a lot of people use the program. So either way I have to convince people to start using the program or just stick with the old one. Skype may have a backdoor, it’s still the most userfriendly way to call other people over the internet.
In the Masters of Media class we’ve been trying out Writely.com for a couple of assignments in the past weeks. Not so long ago the online word processor was acquired by Google. The idea is very promising: “Share documents instantly & collaborate in realtime.” So we decided to take it for a test-drive, but so far all attempts have failed to create one united, democratic post. Here is my view on why the Web 2.0 application falls short on the collaborative aspects, and causes more frustration than collaboration.
Update: Writely was just renamed and integrated into Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
The Thomas Jefferson of the wired generation. That’s one of the tittles political activist writer, poet and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow got after he in 1996 forwarded his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” around the world. This text was a reaction to the enactment of the Communications Decency Act in 1996. In this declaration Barlow warned all governments that cyberspace was “naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us….Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter. There is no matter here.” According to Barlow in 1996 cyberspace was a place where there would be no place for politics and rules as implied in ‘the real world’. The internet would be outside existing country boarders and would create it’s own rules and social contracts to determine how it would overcome it’s problems.
John Perry Barlow’s declaration can be seen as a critique towards governmental interference in cyberspace. He sees an utopian Internet in witch users are able to create their own rules and laws without restrictions or political interference. When I read this declaration for the first time I immediately thought of the role that large companies and corporations nowadays take on the internet when it comes to policy and rule making. At video vortex I already saw an interesting presentation on legal protocols on the web by Peter Westenberg.(a stream of the lecture can be seen here) In this lecture Westenberg showed the amount of changes that were made in You Tube’s terms of agreement within the last two years. Westenberg showed that within this period of time You Tube’s terms of agreement where almost completely rewritten. He also pointed out that when signing the terms of agreement we grant you tube the right to rewrite these terms. We agree that the terms of agreement can change all the time and by doing so we agree to agree to these new rewritten automatically (When thinking about these terms rationally you wouldn’t agree, agree?)
Westenberg pointed out that people don’t really care about these terms of agreement because they want to use the service that a certain company (in this case You Tube) provides. Users don’t mind living up to rules and obeying certain terms of agreement as long as they get access to the programs they signed up for. This gives the online companies and corporations a huge power on how people act online. The online environment I want to analyze keeping this in mind is Habbo Hotel. I chose this environment because it has a set of strict rules and regulations and butt still attracts a lot of young children are drawn towards it and accept these terms. On the one hand Habbo looks like a playful online environment butt on the other hand the rules, regulations and terms of agreement or pretty strict.
Habbo Hotels are localized communities where millions of children in the age of 8 to 18 every day meet. Ever since the lounge of the first Habbo hotel in 2000 in Finland the internet PC game has opened the world of e-communication to children. According to Sulake (the online entertainment company that runs Habbo) there are 80.000.000 registered users and the hotel has more than 6.000.000 unique visitors every month that spend an average time of 30 minutes on the site. Habbo at the moment has 31 different local communities. On the site users or able to build their own characters (Habbo’s), chat, make friends, exchange Habbo furniture and buy Habbo credits to be able to buy furniture to decorate their Habbo rooms. Habbo is one of the world’s largest and fastest growing virtual worlds and social networking services for teenagers. According to Wikipedia “the game is also centered around The Habbo Way, which are the standards and rules which all Habbo players are expected to follow, or face a ban from accessing the hotel for a certain amount of time. Players are urged to report any breach of it using a system which notifies the hotel’s moderators (Hobba’s).
When creating your own Habbo there are only pre-selected choices of how it can look. There is a high homogeneity between the different male and female Habbo’s. There are different rooms within the Habbo Hotel. A couple of these rooms are pretty hard to get in unless if you are a Habbo Club Member (a feature you have to pay for). The level of equality between the Habbo’s is based on the amount of money they seem to pay. In the Hotel there are also strict rules about the language that one can use. Swearing words etc. are being replaced by the word Bobba threw ‘the Bobba filter’. (This filter was shut down recently for children older than 13 years because it was starting to become a hype to try to avoid the filter for a big group of children)
While at first glance Sulake seems to create an open online environment in which children have the possibilities to use their creativity to create their own online space and community this doesn’t seem to be the company’s goal. Because, when you look into these created spaces and communities you can see that they are more restricted and bounded to certain rules as it at first glance appears. The user can only choose from a couple of well thought threw options and the amount of creativity that is ‘accepted’ by the Hotel seems to be pretty limited. John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence in 1996 feared for the laws and rules that the different governments would apply on the internet. He declared that: “the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.” In an interview with the same author in 2004 I read the following quote:
“In order to be libertarian, you have to be an optimist. You have to have a benign view of human nature, to believe that human beings left to their own devices are basically good. But I’m not so sure about human institutions, and I think the real point of argument here is whether or not large corporations are human institutions or some other entity we need to be thinking about curtailing. Most libertarians are worried about government but not worried about business. I think we need to be worrying about business in exactly the same way we are worrying about government.”
(the intervieuw can be read here)
The governments in Barlow’s declaration seem to have made place for the big corporations and businesses. The tyrannies threatening our naturally independent social space seem to be rules and regulations designed by the large online corporations. Habbo Hotel seems to not be concerned about creating a independent free social space as long as they keep creating young Habbo consumers. Instead of being part of a global independent social space as desired by Barlow the Habbo way contains a lot of rules and restrictions. Rules and restrictions, according to Westenberg, ‘we don’t mind to agree to’.
A couple of weeks ago I bumped into an interesting short post on the Seeriously blog. It was a post about a new Facebook application by Activeworlds (AW) and yesterday I decided to give it a closer look by stepping into this virtual world in Facebook.
Before reporting my actual experiences of the virtual world ‘deeply integrated in Facebook’, I will give a brief description of Activeworlds, Inc; the company that made the platform and created the Facebook application. Activeworlds, Inc originated as WebWorld in the summer of 1994. After several name, owner and positioning changes it was eventually named Activeworlds, Inc in September 2002.The future vision that AW has for 3D virtual worlds is that they will eventually become web-browser substitutes. So instead of using 2D browsers like Internet Explorer and Firefox, users should be able to walk around in a 3D environment where they can click on web pages and links. As AW CEO, Rick Noll states it: “We are building towards a future where virtual world sites will be mainstream and realistically implemented”.
At first glance the virtual worlds of AW seem to have an education and commerce porpuse since these are subjects with a prominent space on the company’s website. But when taking a closer look at their strategy it becomes clear that because AW hosts over a 1000 different virtual worlds where users can play, shop, make friends, learn, and so on, AW its main strategy is based on diversity. When looking at all the different virtual worlds that are available it becomes clear that AW is trying to cover all possible virtual world niches. A few examples: Russian World, France World, US World, AWschool, AWteen, Virtual mall, Atlantis, Sales World, AWChess, AWadult, and so on.
Entering the world
After the required ticking of the (people at Activeworlds) ‘Know who I am and access my information’ box I (being a Facebook member) was allowed to download the application and I installed the software on my computer. After selecting the newbie recommended ‘All worlds Gate’ I was ready to roll; a chat window opened and a small screen started loading in Facebook.
The first thing that caught my attention were the big ‘register’ buttons and the menu that provides users the opportunity to invite all their Facebook friends by simply clicking on their profile picture. Before the entire world was loaded the next thing that crossed my mind was that the small window in my Facebook page was nothing more than an interactive banner; a banner-extra. But then the world was finally loaded and I could start running around, chatting with people and play; doing research.
I decided to look for someone more experienced in the virtual world and within a couple of seconds I ran into a female avatar called ‘HoneyB1’. After chatting with Honey for a while I asked if she was fine with a short virtual interview and she agreed. The first question I asked was whether she entered the world via Facebook too, but to my surprise she replied that she did not even know Facebook. It turned out that the beautifull looking 32 year old girl from Australia wasn’t even aware of the phenomenon social networks! She had entered the virtual world via an Australian AW enabled website.
When I asked her if she was a frequent user she told me she considers herself a local in several different AW worlds. Her favorite though is the All Worlds Gate (the world we were standing in during the interview) because “it is a good world to meet people since almost everybody is new”. Then I realized that almost all the avatars that walked by looked the same; as a new unregistered user you are only allowed to enter the world with a tourist avatar; big belly, Hawaiian shirt, camera, shorts, ‘Crocodile Dundee tourist hat’, white sox etc.
After finishing the brief interview I decided to extend my virtual research by asking some general questions aimed at all users I bumped into in order to find out what the amount of users was that had entered this world via Facebook. The result: 0 avatars out of the roughly 30 that replied, had joined the world the way I did; through a Facebook application. One of the few persons that were even aware of the social network Facebook told me that she was not a member herself, but she uses it to check the pages of her three sons…..
The next step in my ‘research’ was checking out the graphics and the characteristics of the world. As an unregistered tourist I was only able to walk around, chat and click on almost every billboard or portal. I found this restricted world comforting since I am used to a lot of options in other virtual worlds I have tested. The relatively small All Worlds Gate provides users with a huge ticking clock on the so called ‘information area’. I assume the clock indicates a virtual-AW-wide time since it did not match the (real) time it actually was during my investigation.
When you click on a billboard the future-vision of AW that I described earlier becomes clear; after clicking on the billboard a screen within my screen within my Facebook screen (!) opens and I am able to browse through a website. It turns out to be an AW Gatekeepers website and after heaving read that there is always a gatekeeper running around in the All Worlds Gate (where I am at that moment) I decided to go find one to ask him or her some questions.
After I had expressed through the chat application that I was looking for a gatekeeper, a certain ‘ManxMing o’ with a Mila Jovovich in 5th element look-a-like avatar approached me and proudly told me she was a gatekeeper for Activeworlds. After she introduced herself I asked her what a gatekeeper is: what does it mean to be a gatekeeper? She replied with a rather copy-paste pre-instructed answer:
“All Gate Keepers are volunteers. Our mission is to enhance the experience of citizens and new users, as well as promote the AW community; by providing a welcoming environment, that allows for instruction, assistance and camaraderie.”
After I had expressed my doubts on the volunteer part of her answer she told me that she honestly applied for the gatekeeper’s position herself, she ‘works’ at home and does not get paid. Furthermore she considers herself a helper, a true AW fan from the beginning and she did not know Facebook! After the conversation I think she wanted to impress me even more by blurting out:
“To register, just click on the “register now” button on your screen or go to the active worlds web site at www.activeworlds.com. It only costs $6.95 U.S. to register per month of unlimited usage! Or $69.95 a year.”
She closed of with an impressive:
“,oº°ºo..(¯`’•.¸(¯`’•. Welcome to the Active Worlds Gateway.•’´¯).•’´¯)..oº°ºo,”
Wow, what a highly engaged user did I just bump into, she must be a true fan!
After thanking ManxMing for her friendly collaboration I decided that it was time to say goodbye and go home; back to Facebook.
In this part I would like to express some of my views on AW it’s general strategy in the market of virtual worlds but also it’s approach concerning the luring in of new users.
The first thing I want to mention has to do with accessibility. As I discussed in my earlier post about virtual worlds in Modern China, Novoking is a virtual world created by a company in China that tries to attract the more newbie users by not offering too many functions. The application that enables Facebook users to access the AW virtual world fairly easy and integrates the world in a social network does exactly the same thing. By keeping it plain and simple, users get to know the virtual world very quickly instead of being scared of by too many functions, buttons, and complicated functions. This makes it the easiest accessible virtual world I have encountered so far. So by offering a very simple version of a virtual world, almost like a teaser, the learning curve is even smoother than the one of the Novoking world. The user friendly possibility to click on Facebook users and invite them into this virtual world adds to this.
The second thing that caught my attention while walking around in the virtual world was the phenomenon of the ‘use’ of extremely engaged users. If we assume that Manxming was indeed an unpaid volunteer, the so called gatekeepers can be considered a very effective, innovative and cheap way of engaging other users. Approaching these highly involved users as a company and expressing your respect by providing them with extra information and authoritarian abilities, has several advantages:
– Gatekeepers such as Manxming are the best ambassadors a company could wish for
– Gatekeepers are very cheap; since they are proud to be a part of your company, they just need some instructions and attention and in the case of AW they do not demand any reward for this
– Gatekeepers are a good method for word-of-mouth advertising because they are on the same level as users.
– Gatekeepers are able to answer all the questions new users have in a very personal way.
– Gatekeepers will build en generate content in virtual worlds.
These are only a few of the advantages that highly engaged users could offer. This example does not only apply in this case, it also applies for social networks and countless other Web 2.0 websites, these users should be approached pro-actively and stimulated at all times!
A final thought that I would like to express about AW is about the fact that the company tries to serve the whole virtual world market by offering over a 1000 niche virtual worlds. I think the goal of trying to become the biggest virtual world in all branches is rather arrogant and ignorant. In the near future there will be an endless amount of different virtual worlds, each with very specific characteristics and different users. I would suggest AW to start focusing on a more specific genre such as virtual malls or virtual education through gaming, like for example Seeriously does. I think it will not take too long before the virtual market will be much more competitive. Picking a specific virtual world niche and establishing yourself as the biggest authority in this niche should be the next strategic step for AW.
Sources used and more information
In an ongoing discussion on a forum I got into a scuffle with a formidable opponent about what blogs exactly are. I tried parroting all that I had been taught in various classes during the BA and MA courses in New Media; basically that weblogs are a form (as argued by Albert Benschop in class at one point) and not a function. I agreed with wikipedia’s initial definition that, whatever blogs are, they must have this fundamental characteristic:
“A blog (short for web log) is a website where entries are made and displayed in a reverse chronological order”
In a rebuttal, my adversary made points about the necessity for blogs to be written in an explicitly personal manner, and that the more people collaborate on a blog, the less “bloggy” it becomes and the more it starts to be a part of some generic “online media”. I tried to refute these points by listing blogs that are not overly personal (Engadget), blogs that have a legion of contributers (Huffington Post) and academic blogs (such as ours, or Terra Nova) which can be both.
David Kline and Dan Burstein points out that the blogosphere will transform many areas of politics, business, media and culture. In their book ‘Blog! How the newest media revolution is changing politics, business, and culture’ they have interviewed the world’s most influential bloggers. The book contains three parts: Politics & policy, Business & economics and Media & culture. Dan Burstein have written the introduction. Each part is divided in an essay of David Kline, interviews with the bloggers and commentary. It has a good structure and it is not necessary to read the book chronological. The three parts of the book have their own accent.
Potitics & policy
In Politics & policy part stresses the influence of blogs on politics. Kline points out that blogs have influenced the 2004 presidental election. He links it with the public dissatisfaction with the mainstream media. Blogs have the ability to give the public a voice and give a more diverse view. Maybe the mainstream media will give a ‘false balance of objectivity’, as Geneva Overholser points out:: “It leads to a false balance of ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ opinions stories that make the two ‘hand’ appear equal even when the factual weight lies 98 percent on one side.” (9) Or maybe there are more opinions than two. The blogosphere could give these alternative opinions. But, as Erza Klein points out, blogs “encourage polarization and extremism rather than debate and extremism rather than debate and understanding.”
I think the blogosphere could help politics to know what’s really going on in society. Maybe anyone can be a watchdog. Especially for local problems or problems the mainstream media ignores. An example is the Webantenne for the Dutch government. The Dutch government want to listen what citizens needs in society. In stead of deciding what they think best for the country or only going in conversation with the mainstream media, now they want also go in conversation with citizens.
Business & economics
A returning point in the book is that authority is going to change. The one-way politics, business and media are coming to an end. Blogs give people the ability to talk back. In business, the producer/customer boundaries fades. (more…)
In addition to the article of Laura, I’d like to add another Skype alternative: Fring.
Fring is a free mobile VoIP application which allows you to talk and chat via an internet connection with pc-based services such as Skype, MSN, ICQ, Google Talk, SIP and Twitter.
My experience with Fring is based on a windows pc and a Nokia phone. The installation of the software is quick and easy. Don’t forget to have all of your usernames and passwords by hand. The interface is very user friendly and easy to use.
When you start the application it connects with the internet, trough wifi, 3G or GPRS. Then it combines all your contacts of all the applications mentioned above into one list. Now you are able to call or chat with your contacts without making extra costs on, for example, SMS.
Most of such applications work through networks, Fring doesn’t, it works via the servers of the other applications. When you select a person, it gives you a choice to call via gsm or via Fring. If you’re calling a contact which is on your SIM card, you will pay for that call in the same way as Skype Out calls. On YouTube you can find several videos on how to use Fring in different forms.
I’ve been using Fring for a couple of weeks now and what I’ve noticed is that when I’m calling somebody who is also using Fring, the connection has got a delay in it. So when you talk to each other you’ll be forced to leave silences in between your sentences or dialogs in order not to talk at the same time the other person does. It has got the effect of a long distance call. When I’m calling with Skype for example, this delay doesn’t happen.
In the upcoming month I will be testing Fring and I’ll give you an update by the time I figured out all of the functions and options. Also I’m thinking of comparing it with Jaiku, anyone got some experience on that software?
Firefox use in Europe is up to 24%, but use here in the Netherlands is at 14%.
Anyone want to speculate why this is? Of the stereotypes I’m aware of, the one that best fits this figure is apparent in the phrase “doe gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg”, which translates to something like “don’t do anything outrageous, ‘normal’ is crazy enough as it is”.
More seriously, though, what kind of firefox ‘marketing campaign’ would work at a local level? It’s worth noting that there is just one local version of spreadfirefox.com (a Japanese, ‘beta’ version). Perhaps the national level is irrelevant here, and one should start by getting firefox on all of the computers at one’s university?
The masters of media blog is redesigned and updated! Since the beginning of this semester the masters of media v 2.0 have been posting on this blog. A new group of masters also needs a fresh new look. In this post you can read about the new features, as well as an evaluation of the collaborative process during the redesign of the blog.
The past couple of weeks we collaboratively brainstormed and negotiated about the redesign of this blog. Most of the masters took on a task such as making a proposal for the design, linklist, tag cloud, navigation, and looking into new plugins and the new features of the WordPress 2.3 update. After this initial research we came together in a meeting with both master classes to vote on important decisions. In this group decision process we decided on some main issues for the redesign of this blog. After online/offline discussions Maarten’s layout proposal was voted on as best suitable. These group discussions turned out to be very productive for decisions on the general structure and reorganization. But once we got to implementing and refining the design group decision-making didn’t turn out to be as effective. During implementation of the new design, Erik came across some decisions that needed to be made more collectively. Group decision in class was not as productive on these specific issues that needed more close attention. Erik, Esther, Roos, and first year MoM blogger Anne got together on a Monday to work the whole evening on refinement and implementation of the design.
Redesign and implementation
The group of four turned out to be a good number for working effectively on these problems. One of the foremost issues addressed was the proposed header of the blog. Although the Japanese people with cell phone taking a picture of our new MoM logo was very funny when it was proposed in class, it was not very “masters of media.” We needed something more “new media,” something more geeky, something we would blog about. In sync, Roos and Anne came up with the idea to use a QR-code of our blog URL as the image of our header. A nice extra of the QR-code logo is that it is great for hiding easter eggs. One is implemented, I’m sure others will follow soon. Besides some designer pixel frenzy and the proper implementation of these ideas we had to call it a night at around midnight.
Today Erik, Roos and Esther came together again to finish the blog for publication. The design was tweaked and some very nice plugins were added. The new most popular posts listing shows the most popular posts last month. Besides being a very nice addition in the side menu, this plugin also provides some nice stats at the backend. Since we wanted to write a post about this collaborative process collectively, we needed a new plugin that makes it possible to write a multiple-author post. This plugin automatically adds authors to the post when a post is edited and makes collaborative posts possible.
Although we are very happy with the result of the blog so far, it is a blog and some important work still needs to be done. Always. We now have 403 posts, 837 comments, and 404 tags.
- The tag cloud now represents a selection of the most used tags overall but needs some cleaning up (can be done at “manage tags”).
- Although we collectively decided on a tag cloud and no categories, the discussion on a combination of tags and categories for navigation purposes might need to be addressed again. Navigation is not clear now and after all, a 404 on tags hints we need categories as well. An interesting analysis on the use of tags and categories can be read at Problogger. The tag cloud can use some redesign and might only list tags of the last x days.
- A new cleaned up link list needs to be composed and put online.
- We got a calendar, do we want it on the new blog and in what form?
- Since we now have a QR-code that can serve as a logo on t-shirts and coffee mugs, and since we have been collecting cool quotes in the past couple of months, the Cafepress section of our blog will be updated soon.
- Look out for bugs and report them.