Facebook Messenger now makes up 10% of global mobile Voice Over IP calls. Because the audio quality of mobile VOIP calls are higher than the quality of the standard phone calls, considering that these calls are free and accessible, the use of Facebook Messenger will continue to go up. Facebook will also add free mobile VOIP feature to WhatsApp.
Two years ago, I anticipated Facebook will become a communications medium in which your Facebook ID is your de facto phone number. I admit that while Facebook Home didn’t succeed at all, with 600 million Messenger users and 800 million WhatsApp users the mobile VOIP call feature could have a global impact on the telecommunication services.
The phone companies will have to rely increasingly on charging for data usage rather than for the traditional voice calls. Even that avenue of profits may become problematic with Google, Facebook, Elon Musk and Richard Branson (through their new satelite ventures) aiming to become global ISPs for over 50% of world population. Telecommunications companies will have to adapt and figure out new ways of generating income.
It’s not just a smart move, it is a brilliant move. Facebook brings back the glory of making software. While many large IT companies rushes to control both the software and the hardware as a way to dominate the market, Facebook is attempting to succeed by just being best at designing great software. In a way this is similar to what Microsoft has done through their partnership with Nokia, only at a grander scale. Google must be secretly brooding now. For a moment Google seemed to have it all, software and hardware together set in motion in a big wave overwhelming their long time foe, Apple. But here it is, the nightmare called Facebook is back on the front page. All that money poured into Android and Motorola hasn’t yet given any assurance that it will lead to world domination as planned.
The beauty of Facebook Home, as a concept as we don’t know how successful this is going to be, is its simplicity. Facebook created a social software layer on top of an entire ecosystem: Android operating system, hardware manufacturers, telecommunication networks and application developers. They have a phone, without having a phone. If there is someone else affected almost as much as Google is that must be Samsung. They have tried hard to build a services shop on their phone for some time, but with not much success. The media still calls the Samsung branded software applications ‘bloat ware’. And here it is, Facebook just comes along and in one swoop they capture the attention of all those eyeballs. At least what they hope they will do.
The move is brilliant, but it doesn’t guarantee success. Facebook desktop attraction started to lose some of its lustre and consumers have cooled off a bit. It will be interesting to see how the consumer will feel when Facebook is in their face all the time. Mark Zuckerberg describe Facebook Home as “highest quality experience you can have on Android“. If this is true, then the chances of broad adoption are greatly enhanced, but if not, the brand might suffer. The highest risk for Facebook is that although this move is brilliant, it may be too brilliant for their own good. Users may feel Facebook is too much into their lives. Success could irritate because by occupying the space in a dominant way it causes resentment. We have to wait and see.
It Facebook is successful, this may lead to the demise of good old phone number system. Instead of calling your friends using the telephone system, you just talk to your friends using the Facebook voice or video chat. Your Facebook ID could well be your next phone number.
In an interview given to Robert Scoble, John Gotts, the founder of Connect GOP, talks about how social media can politicians communicate with their constituencies they represent. This could be an unappealing story, one of those that you glance over while rushing to the next exciting news, if it wasn’t for the some very interesting remarks John made about how the technology can transform the political process.
First of all the magnitude of this project commands attention, because if it succeeds, it will transform the political process. Connect GOP is building a database of as many voters as possible and help their representatives use that data to get a pulse of what is going on and communicate their political messages. Here is the interesting bit: Connect GOP wants to store the experience of all campaigns and sift through the data to learn from past mistakes and successes informing the new campaigns to do better. But this is not your typical analytical tool. The system will be designed to provide the representatives with a real-time process that takes the simple political message and morphs it based on the past experience in a message communicated through multiple social media platforms and traditional forms of communication such as email. This has some massive repercussions. The big TV ad campaigns will become much less relevant. The true campaign will be almost invisible to the public eye, and become a stealth operation reaching with much better precision the same audience if not larger with targeted and personalised messages.
Secondly, John’s remark about how many intermediate jobs that exist in the current process will disappear thanks to automation and data analysis. Like office operators in the 70s and 80s, the media staff will be threatened by systems such as Connect GOP. Forget about the days where the communiques where custom crafted on each occasion in each district based on the experience of individuals and the local history. Now the big data will inform a few professionals about what are the best models to be used in various circumstances. John calls this “contextual politics”.
Another interesting thing about this is the issue of trust when it comes to supporting competitors. If you support the team A, you cannot pretend you will help team B in an absolutely neutral fashion. John talks about Votizen and National Builder and how they had an issue of trust because the suspicion that data from one party could be made available to the other side. Through extension, this raises the issue of trust large social network enterprises in the context where their leaders take political positions. As soon as this happens, their members have legitimate reasons to ask of whether their trust should be reconsidered. See my previous post When Social Networks are not Social which touches on the issue of trust in the context of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In campaign.
Finally, the nature of the politics seems to be in for a big change. In the past political machine has been revolving around a broad ideological framework and big personalities. The memory of a party has been passed from generation to generation in form of stories, books, speeches and long history. Now, a political party is extending this memory with large networks and cloud data in which past events, voters information, economic data, and campaigns are stored for processing with complex algorithms. This machinery will play and increased role in the future in the way political platforms are defined and in the way the representatives communicate with their constituencies. Maybe the accountability will be improved through transparency. Rogue politicians will find it more difficult to hide, but in the same time, political heroes will find it harder to make bold moves by themselves. They need data and the help of professional experts.
A sharp article, “Pompon girl for feminism“, by Maureen Dowd from New York Times about Sheryl Sandberg’s social campaign draws some interesting observations about social networks and marketing. I am not going to dwell on the merits or otherwise of Sheryl’s agenda. However, I have an interest in the way she runs her campaign for world domination because she is such a powerful figure at Facebook.
Imagine Mark Zuckerberg initiating a movement to support a cause that involves a large number of people. Suddenly, many Facebook member would become nervous or uneasy. In a perfect world where there is no ulterior motive, this would mean nothing, but in our world when someone with access to the data generated by a social graph with one billion people has direct plans for a large group in our society, that makes a different story.
Sheryl Sandberg wants to create a large community made up of circles of 12 peers who meet monthly to discuss education modules. It is not clear how this community will be built although we know that heavy advertising is planned in the months ahead, but there is a Facebook question in there. Are they going to network outside Facebook, are they going to be initiated, discovered, marketed in a separate environment? Will the Facebook Search Graph going to be used? We will have to wait and see. In the long run, if she is successful this project will make her position at Facebook difficult. Perhaps this is an indication that she has plans beyond the social network giant.
People with high levels of energy who are using their authority to demand others to follow their way, will inevitably be attracted to the idea of applying pressure from the top down to “convince” the group members to adopt the prescribed practices. The philosophy of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter is based on ad-hoc connections and individual laissez-faire. In contrast, the Lean In Circles requires rigorous discipline with unforgiving rules designed filter out the “flakes”.
As Maureen Dowd observed: “People come to a social movement from the bottom up, not the top down. Sandberg has co-opted the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself”. This is a great point. The difference between a social network and an organisation is determined by its social vector representing the diffusion of influence. If the social vector goes top down and if it has a goal drafted by their leaders, then we are dealing with a vertical organisation. If it goes from bottom to the top and it has no pre-planned agenda, then the formation is a horizontal organisation. Lacking hierarchies, self-organising around emerging patterns, needs and motivations, such structures describe what we loosely define social networks.
I was scanning absent-mindedly the public transport vehicles parading in front of me when I noticed a new bus model. That happened not because it was dramatically different, but because it was red and it stopped in a place usually visited by blue buses. That gets my attention! While my unconscious was busy observing colours, my conscious-self stopped to examine an unusual video-camera. How cute! Protruding from the exterior top-edge of the bus, just above the mid-doors, the device was almost unnoticeable. Just like a little rounded soft bump, the camera had its own electronic eye looking down towards the door and the back of the bus. It reminded me of the chameleon.
At that moment the image of the bus, people waiting and moving slowly through the mid section to take their seats, the cameras and the monitor hanging on the ceiling with its images silently switching at regular intervals from one view to another, the whole picture stroke me as how much our urban environment has changed, almost by stealth. The bus – the symbol of slow pace and simplicity- has become such a sophisticated electronic beast. Video sensors are all over it communicating continuously with a central base. The entire vehicle has become a data collector, not just a record keeper to be used only in case of public disorder. Think about how quickly the quality of the monitors has improved in the past decade. The video frames were a joke. Who could identify anyone that committed a crime from a trail of rough pixels smudged over a screen with dubious colours? We now have HD. Faces are easily identifiable; everyone’s face.
Notice how this is a two-edged sword: it is easier to catch a few trouble makers, but it is also easier to monitor everyone else. This system could be used to track your normal citizens who are blissfully unaware that someone is watching them. We do have the technology now to raise the surveillance bar to dangerous levels, and no one knows for sure how this is going to end-up. Face recognition technology means that someone with access to public data could trace your movements during the day by simply running a process that identifies your face and re-constructs your day. A commercial firm in UK used facial images of people who ‘like’ a retailer’s Facebook page to identify those who visit the shop in person with video cameras installed on the premises. This works great for targeted advertising.
So what? This is better service, isn’t it? It is true, well, at least not dangerous. But what if something or someone wants to get something by influencing the public to agree with an idea, which is not necessarily good for the people, but certainly for the benefit of the few? They could target all those individuals that have similar patterns to inoculate message with deep emotional impact, in a way that doesn’t involve obvious advertising, but personal and ‘natural’ communication. This entity could be anything. Anything that is able to conceive a goal that can be described in broad terms: patterns, data, large scale behaviours. Such a goal has no room for personal considerations of the many of us.
The bus I chose to pick on is chicken feed. You want something scarier? Meet ARGUS: the world’s highest resolution video surveillance platform.
With its 1.8 gigapixel video camera, ARGUS can create contextual movements of individual, vehicles, or anything sizeable that moves, for the duration of any day, in the area in which this device was ordered to scan.
I am not a fan of conspiracy theories at all. I am even sceptical that any individual or group of individual would be able to exploit this vast network of sensors and data in which we are enmeshed and destined to become smaller (even though smart!) nodes stripped of any major significance as individuals. But I wonder if the sheer size of this nervous system isn’t bound to create a consciousness that may set goals beyond our grasp. The internet of things will definitely make this more interesting over the next decade.
I recall the day when I bought a Gateway PC (this was about 17 years ago, I think) that came with a Kodak camera (DC25) equipped with a 256k pixels sensor. A few months ago I got a 36M pixels camera. This is an increase of over 1,000 times in resolution. Imagine what kind of world we will live in twenty years from now, with software that will be able to sift through mountains of data and find you wherever you are no matter what you do. What is the meaning of privacy, security and individual freedom in a world like that?