Repression rebranded

There are two op-eds in this weeks New York Times that seem to compliment each other by two authors of complete opposite spectrum and intent.

The Romantic Advantage by David Brooks http://nyti.ms/18CtSpD

The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’ by Julian Assange http://nyti.ms/ZBsL93

Brooks writes about how American companies excel at branding to create the impressions of trust and value among customers. He writes China companies have only focused on the bottom-line and thus won’t be a true market threat until they learn how to brand.

Assange writes a response to the book “The New Digital Age” by Google’s Eric Schmidt and former Condoleeza Rice/Hilary Clinton advisor Jared Cohen. He accuses Schmidt and Cohen of heralding the age of compromised privacy via the symbiotic relationship of the government and Silicon Valley and exporting American interests globally using passive means with technology. “Without even understanding how, they have updated and seamlessly implemented George Orwell’s prophecy.”

I can’t help but draw the conclusion that America has used its branding sophistication to remove the discomfort autocratic governments cause their citizens while still overreaching out of the bounds of true liberal democracy the way those governments do. We’ve got drones, Guantanamo, the government assassinating its own citizens, erosion of privacy…all of this has been branded as safety. The majority doesn’t complain (too hard) because the majority is perfectly comfortable. But in a world with Google and the government in bed together perhaps we need to take a sober look at what could happen. Although Facebook gets a lot of flack for its ambivalence for our privacy our real secrets are more likely contained in email. And which email client do you use? Yes, I thought so.

More Thoughts on Music Streaming

On our long-running thread on Rdio we’ve been talking a lot about artist fairness. While that’s certainly a major issue, my original point was that digital streaming is so persuasive that it will inevitably dominate the market of music consumption. It hasn’t exactly been an overnight success, but as I see countless Facebook friends and relatives “fall” to Spotify, it pretty much goes without saying that streaming is on its way to becoming the definitive platform consumers prefer for music.

Friends and family often ask me what I think of Spotify just when they’re dipping their toe into the waters of streaming. I’m actually more like a Rdio evangelist. And for the record, it seems unfair that Spotify is the dominator and Rdio the niche. I’ve come to the conclusion that digital streaming technology is so persuasive and such a revelation that whatever platform a consumer encounters first will be the one they likely stick with. For me that was Rdio as I dived into this before Spotify was even available in the US. At this point there’s still plenty of market-share up for grabs. I think that’s why we’re seeing Rdio billboards in Times Square. But Spotify has a huge brand advantage as their name seems to have become ubiquitous with streaming.

I’ve also realized that most people don’t listen to music the way I do (obsessively, as foreground and always looking for something new and unexpected). Rdio makes discovery of new music very easy and social. Spotify appeals more to people who prefer an iTunes approach. As I never loved iTunes, defecting to Rdio was quite simple as it has it’s own UI paradigm. Although I can’t understand it, iTunes is/was the preferred music consumption UI and that is part of Spotify’s advantage. Whereas Rdio is a greater (dare I say braver) leap into the new world of music streaming, Spotify eases new-comers in by simply not being that radical.

Beyond my digression into brand loyalties, the larger point is that consumers LOVE music streaming. In spite of all the moaning about artists not seeing money from streaming, this is the platform the consumers have chosen (or will choose). When it does become totally widespread and consumers are all paid subscribers (just like they pay/paid for cable) there simply must be a way to pay out viable incomes to those artists who have warranted it. The fact that you can find most major artists an streaming platforms means that major labels see the potential. The equation works for them and it works for consumers. It’s only a matter of time before it works for artists.

Trouble seeing through The Cloud

A year and a half ago I wrote about my desire to self-host in Your Own Personal Cloud. Terry Madley got me wanting to write about this again when I saw his trackback when he reblogged my original post. I think we started on some interesting discussion. The Cloud is even more pervasive now. I admit, in many aspects of my digital life, I have been engulfed. Where to even begin?

A year and a half ago I wrote about my desire to self-host in Your Own Personal Cloud. Terry Madley got me wanting to write about this again when I saw his trackback when he reblogged my original post. I think we started on some interesting discussion. The Cloud is even more pervasive now. I admit, in many aspects of my digital life, I have been engulfed. Where to even begin?

Media

There are aspects of The Cloud where I gladly must wave a white flag of surrender. Mainly in the realm of media. It simply makes no sense at the moment to host video on one’s own web host. If this era of the web is all about User Experience, slow media consumption is simply unacceptable. I don’t do much video so this is one area where I simply don’t care. But I do lots of audio/music. I’ve been won over by SoundCloud. It does limit the amount of audio I can store unless I subscribe, but by keeping things lean I get to all the benefits/speed of The Cloud for free. This feeling of Cloud benevolence does not exactly extend to images. That’s a nice segway to a minor triumph over The Cloud.

Flickr Defection

Flickr. What comes to mind? A dying web brand? For me, it means my content being held hostage in The Cloud. Flickr WAS great. Unfortunately it appears to be in (slow) decline. This is a great lesson in what can happen when you outsource responsibility for your content. My wife has taken thousands of amazing pictures from our travels around the globe. Well, due to our being a bit transient, we nearly forgot to pay the premium Flickr bill one year. That was a close call. We would have lost all that data, tagging and hours of time poured into cataloging of our travel photos. The revelation for me was that if Flickr was going to be a crap social network, it really has very little reason to exist. Why not just self-host all these photos like we should have in the first place?

Without the phenomenal obfuscation layer of the Flickr interface, what are we trying to do here? Simply put our photos on the web in an easy way to view. WordPress is great at this. It’s even better with their Jetpack plugin which can do exactly what Flickr does: show what camera the photo was taken on, photo captions and most impressively serve up different photo sizes based on what device you’re viewing the photo on. Something new that Jetpack does is allow you to cache images on WordPress.com servers. I don’t know why they’re not charging for this but I’m thankful they’re not. This means you get great image load speed despite being on a regular host.

So that’s all great if I were starting from day one and had never posted any images to Flickr. Unfortunately we’re years into this with thousands of images locked up in Flickr. A very, very good soul, Bradt, has created a plugin for WordPress, Flickr to WP, that makes migrating from Flickr to WordPress delightfully easy. It’s scandalous that it only has 736 downloads. I would put this in my top 5 WordPress plugins of all time. So I tried it. And it worked like a dream. I got all the photos, captions, sets and photo camera slugs. Unbelievable. It remains to be seen what we’ll do next. Being designers, we need to put creative care into the site these photos now live on so it may be awhile before its ready to show.

Whatever happened to software?

I’m a designer. I use lots of software to do my work with. Suddenly there are a slew of essential apps that can only be utilized via The Cloud. A few are BrowserStack (for proofing websites on all browsers via real computers remotely) and InvisionApp (for sharing design prototypes with clients and collecting feedback). These are amazing uses of The Cloud. There’s more out there that is very tempting. Interestingly, Adobe Creative Cloud Suite are not true Cloud apps, however the pricing method is. This brings me to a gripe.

The more software goes Cloud the more our personal finances bleed out, little by little, every month. Every great Cloud app or service is a monthly fee. It’s a genius pricing model actually.  They have found a way to lock in customers indefinitely.

Here’s one of my replies to Terry Madley which sums up my feelings on this matter:

I’ve been meaning to write about something regarding Cloud backlash. In the earlier days of personal computers and the web the financial model was very much centered on ownership. Now everything cloud is subscription based. It’s actually a much better business model because businesses never lose touch with the consumer. But the downside for consumers is this compounding of cloud services…things we need…but like you said, things that are for the most part disconnected from each other. And to my original personal cloud point…there is lost accountability. The more cloud services you have the more diluted and less organized and less responsible for your own data you become—not to mention the bleeding of one’s personal finance in daily expenses (this particularly hits home for me…i can’t not subscribe to certain things for work…but they are adding up tremendously). At least if the Personal Cloud remains viable enough costs are magnificently contained. 1 hosting bill and WordPress = free. And thankfully most premium WordPress plugins are not sold as subscriptions. You buy it, you own it. Hopefully that remains although subscription seems more lucrative over the long haul.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a love/hate thing when it comes to Cloud Apps. I just can’t subscribe to them all. It’s the same reason I love Rdio and hate iTunes. I simply can’t buy all the songs I listen to. But on Rdio, at least I can listen to them! (Or maybe that’s a bad point because I’m paying good Cloud subscription money for the Rdio privilege—but undoubtably less than I would on iTunes for much less music consumption.) Perhaps, as the world of web apps gets more compounded, there needs to be some kind of aggregate which gives one access to lots of software instead of me bleeding out money every which way. I love BrowserStack but I only use it maybe once a month during that phase of a project. Is it really worth the $20/mo to me? Maybe it is for now. When IE in all its forms finally dies it’s final death or is sued out of existence in a class action lawsuit by legions of designers and developers who will never get their precious time back…whoops, I digress. But anyway, when all that happens I won’t need BrowserStack as much anymore. Yes, Adobe Creative Cloud could be one primitive incarnation of this cloud software pricing model. Even though it’s more money than I’m comfortable paying out a month, unlimited access to all Adobe Software for $50/mo was ultimately too irresistible. But you see how that happened? One simply ends up giving in to The Cloud—because it’s just easier.

Good Cloud bad Cloud

To conclude, I suppose it’s all about discernment. Some of this Cloud stuff is good, some of it is necessary, some of it nice and some of it sucks. A good use of The Cloud is distributed media (Netflix, Rdio, Spotify). I’m a huge advocate of streaming because the consumer actually does get more for their money and it reduces the cultural desire for pirated media. Necessary is of course my spiel on web apps. Nice is perhaps services like SoundCloud and YouTube. I don’t know if I made a great case that those are irreplaceable. But they do provide a better user experience to consumers of one’s content. And bad…obviously Flickr. But here’s the thing, Flickr was/is huge. Just like Myspace and Friendster at one time. We entrust precious things to these nebulous Cloud entities. But can you really trust that they’re still going to be there years from now? If you self-host, the organizational and control equation gets a lot simpler. The reality is you’re going to bleed money in this internet world. But perhaps a better investment is in a good personal host over the long haul.

The Promise of Diaspora: The Future of Social Networks

Diaspora was introduced to most as an idea that was to be the open source, privacy focused alternative to Facebook via Kickstarter in 2010. That’s how I learned of it and originally that’s what I expected it to be. Now that the dream is in alpha reality and I have joined the network I can tell you that Diaspora is not exactly an alternative to Facebook (although for some it is). What I’ve come to realize is that Diaspora represents the future of social networking.

Diaspora doesn’t have the luxury of humble beginnings like the great open source success of WordPress. There are too many people who simultaneously love social networking and hate Facebook for Diaspora to evolve slowly and organically. The pressure for features will come from this group. However the most important task Diaspora has ahead of it is to become a connector between social networking sites. Continue reading “The Promise of Diaspora: The Future of Social Networks”

Your Own Personal Cloud

This personal cloud idea makes me question a lot of other cloud platforms. Truth be told, all these cloud offerings leave me feeling fragmented once again. How many accounts must we use to store pieces of ourselves? Google has useful document apps, Dropbox and Yousendit for moving files around, Soundcloud for audio, Amazon AWS for media, Flickr for photos, Tumblr and Wordpress.com for blog content, not to mention Twitter and Facebook…I’ve just mentioned a fraction of services I have accounts with and use. DOES ANYONE ELSE THINK THIS IS CRAZY? Whatever happened to the good old fashioned web host?

“The Cloud” is big right now. On some level it’s necessary. Our hard drives can’t be trusted to protect our data in perpetuity. I read an article on TechCrunch about how a Cloud Storage provider called Mozy created an uproar because it needed to raise it’s prices when it realized it couldn’t keep offering customers unlimited data. I was a bit surprised at the tone the author John Biggs took in which he writes that most people should just keep using inexpensive storage devices because the majority of data they save is worthless. Hard to argue with that. However I do like to keep all of my data. It’s like going through an album of my life. I create digital things so it’s really important, at least to me, to have access to things I was making ten plus years ago. So I do see real value in this Cloud fad even though I haven’t signed up with a serious Cloud storage provider. Writing as an average citizen susceptible to the persuasions of mass branding I have not been convinced that there is even a provider out there that will have the kind of longevity necessary for me to make a cloud storage investment. Perhaps Amazon AWS has the clout and reliability to convince me to invest my dollar but it seems more geared toward developer needs than general consumer backup needs. This need to save and preserve has got me thinking of an alternative to all these Cloud services. It’s rooted in an older, preexisting model. Web hosting services.

I’ve used Dreamhost for nearly a decade. It’s something I don’t even think about anymore. I’ve used it to host a multitude of websites but also to FTP and share files. I have even used it to backup my regular data at times. With hosting I’m just renting raw space. I can put whatever I want on it. And I get quite a bit of storage as well. It does require some light web development knowledge such as FTP but not much more. This process has remained the same or similar to when I first signed up for webhosting. The explosion of new Cloud, the reliability of web hosting (old cloud?) and Open Source technologies have got me thinking of an alternative path to preserving our data.

I’ve gotten very deep into WordPress this past year. This site is a self-hosted WordPress site. What I’ve found spectacular about using WordPress is that there are literally thousands of free plugins I can browse for that cover almost any web-related functionality I could dream of (and more often ones I would have never thought of). Not that WordPress is the proper conduit for facilitating cloud data backup…but it could be. Imagine having every piece of data you’ve ever generated backed up and indexed into a database instead of just loosely organized in self-made directories. That data would be searchable within a regular browser on the web. I can only hope a developer reads this post and decides to take this idea and run with it. For me, this option of storing my data, using my own web hosting and WordPress or some other Open Source CMS to index and organize my data is the most favorable. It makes me 100% responsible. Which means if I can’t afford the $100/yr it takes to pay for my hosting service then it’s up to me to rescue all the data I’ve preserved in my own personal cloud. The one flaw of course is if Dreamhost ever shuts down then we’re back to the same problem I’d have with a cloud provider…but the one advantage is that it’s all in one place. So I can literally just dump the whole thing somewhere else (although possibly a severe undertaking if you factor in Terabytes of data needing to be transfered).

This personal cloud idea makes me question a lot of other cloud platforms. Truth be told, all these cloud offerings leave me feeling fragmented once again (See this essay on Singular Login). How many accounts must we use to store pieces of ourselves? Google has useful document apps, Dropbox and Yousendit for moving files around, Soundcloud for audio, Amazon AWS for media, Flickr for photos, Tumblr and WordPress.com for blog content, not to mention Twitter and Facebook…I’ve just mentioned a fraction of services I have accounts with and use. DOES ANYONE ELSE THINK THIS IS CRAZY? This is severe fragmentation of self. I want/need everything in one place (just like I could use one login to rule them all). I need it in a place I own, or at least I feel like I own. Paying for web hosting is like renting. It’s your space and you can do whatever you want with it. If things get really out of control like you accidentally delete crucial data you can ask the hosting company to restore your site to where it was a few days ago. Certainly not something to take for granted but comforting to know it’s there.

In this time of increasing connectivity it seems very plausible to me that if there was a large movement towards users maintaining separate personal clouds the natural progression would be to connect them socially in ways that still preserved their privacy and autonomy. Perhaps that’s where the still in beta Diaspora social network could succeed. The personal cloud is probably not that different than the regular cloud in the long run. It’s just that the personal cloud is totally comprehensive. It is the online receptacle of a life digitized. Maybe Dreamhost will hear my plea for broader data backup tools. If you read my essay Oven vs. Closed Apps I’m suggesting that the future of all computing is entirely done online because of the internet horsepower that can be harnessed even through a tiny iPhone if you’re working remotely. I’ve had a taste of this while managing my WordPress database all from the phone. Powerful stuff happens on the server.

To take the idea of a personal cloud even further, once you have your own hosting you actually could bypass Youtube, Gmail, Soundcloud, Myspace, Tumblr…the list goes on. I won’t go so far as to include Facebook and Twitter in that list yet. As of now Facebook and, to a much lesser degree, Twitter have created a social pipeline that can be used to connect millions of otherwise disconnected websites (Google is still the place to start but it does not facilitate meaningful interactions between users and websites like Facebook).

The Proposal for the Personal Cloud

The personal cloud can work as open source. Benevolent developers could create an Open Graph which differs from Facebook’s. Perhaps the power of multiple computers can be harnessed as the database engine. Webhosting companies could expand their initiatives to market to consumers who are seeking Cloud storage solutions. In an Open Graph users could have a plethora of Social Networking sites to choose from and still be connected to their friends instead of the “walled Facebook model” (I got that phrase from @joygarnett on Twitter). We would use this pipeline to share content we’ve created on our own personal cloud servers. An advantage for many is that this open source Personal Cloud network would change the ad game in that ads would need to be placed on User’s personal cloud networks with their permission. It’s truly cutting out the middleman here (Youtube, Myspace). There could be an entire password protected layer of the Personal Cloud which is used for archiving and storage. Sharing files with others through Personal Cloud networks could be as simple Google Documents as long as there is some site-to-site open source permission network in place.

Can Open Source really create this type of infastructure? The answer is yes. We only need to look as far as WordPress to see how successful and robust Open Source can become. There’s a lot of convergence of technology that would need to happen for a Personal Cloud to overtake the very efficient Clouds we have right now. But I think it’s worth it. In my own experience, with all my stored backup on my own equipment, I have a pretty good idea how to find old files going back years. If you rely on Cloud networks for storage these start-up businesses are often so transient that the insurance you’re paying for is actually just an illusion. The only entities I can trust to secure my data are myself and my webhost. Why do I trust the webhost? Because I kind of have to. Without all these webhosts there really is not much of an internet to speak of. It’s the lesser of two evils in my mind. I don’t want to buy the building, just rent the apartment.

What can we do now in anticipation of the Personal Cloud?

We can start small. I see the value in all these services like Youtube, Soundcloud, Amazon, Flickr but when you have your own hosting you don’t actually need these services. The advantage for many is that they are their own social networks so if you’re after more visibility for the media and content you’ve uploaded it could help to be inside the network community. But guess what, Twitter and Facebook are the most effective ways to share content at least today. Both networks don’t require you to host any of your big media you’d like to share, you can simple pass around links to direct people back to your web host, your personal cloud. No doubt the metrics become convoluted if it’s something you’re worried about. Facebook and Twitter actually interface quite well with many cloud media services. But with Facebook I could have just as many people or more see my self hosted videos or mp3s. In my opinion Youtube, Soundcloud and Flickr just aren’t that great at being social networks and their true value to people is as repositories to get their stuff out on the public web in a sharable place. With this in mind, why not just use your own hosting. There’s a plethora of WordPress plugins for media management which render much of these cloud sharing/storage services useless. We’ve been doing this since the inception of the web and it still works really well. I still have the data I FTP’d to my Dreamhost server 8 years ago (even if I’ve let the DNS registered names expire!). I don’t have anything from AOL, Yahoo, Geocities…all gone. Why? Because those proto-clouds weren’t ‘mine’. They were over commercialized entities that always went out of their way to ensure that those spaces weren’t really mine through shear mega-branding and ad saturation. The same can be said about many of today’s cloud content services like Youtube, Google, Facebook or just insert your service here.

There’s a great post and thread at Zeldman.com about owning your content. It deals with a whole scope of issues regarding data preservation, many of which I haven’t even touched upon.