Check messages, update status, register to vote

Almost two years ago, I wrote about how voting should catch up to today’s technology — why can’t we vote on our iPhones or Droids? That hasn’t happened yet, but an announcement earlier this week gave me hope that maybe some people are finally getting it.

Washington just became the first state to let people register to vote using Facebook. The article shows that Washington, already leading the way in online registration, is aiming to reach young voters with this initiative. The app would “fill in” a lot of information pulled from the Facebook profile, minimizing the legwork the registrant would have to do.

I think that’s pretty brilliant.

My interest in social media has three basic prongs: travel, journalism and political engagement. Anything that can encourage people, especially those in the fickle 18-34 demographic, to register to vote should be applauded. I hope that the app is a success and other states follow Washington’s example.

It isn’t so much that this is groundbreaking, even though it is. I wonder why no one has implemented this before now. Roughly 70% of Internet users in the U.S. use Facebook (and that’s data from a year ago; the number could have increased). It’s a vast, relatively untapped source of constituents.

Obviously this registration doesn’t guarantee that people follow through by actually voting, but it’s a start. I’m sure there are ways — alerts, messages or ads — to remind people to vote, even giving them some notice a few days beforehand.

Technological archaism, especially where young adults are concerned, is a legitimate complaint about America’s voting system. If America wants its young people to be engaged voters, it should show a willingness to engage them as well. Facebook touches all aspects of our personal and professional lives (for good or ill), so why not our civic lives? Good for Washington for taking the first step.

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Does Facebook’s disappointment put social media at risk?

Facebook went public last week to much fanfare. Less-welcome news is that the company’s stock has been lagging, with a weak closing last Friday, May 18.

When it comes to scope and sheer volume of users, Facebook is the obvious juggernaut in the room. But as a Wall Street Journal article today suggests, the lukewarm reaction to its IPO could negatively affect other social media companies who might have also been planning their own public offerings. The idea is, if Facebook struggles, why expect other companies to do well?

The WSJ article quotes an IPO author who suggests that Facebook’s struggle could indicate that social media has hit a wall. Carrying capacity has been met, and perhaps the tech industry should move on to something else.

I suspect though that the real culprit here is probably unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the IPO was valued too high, and it had nowhere to go but down or ever-so-slightly up. In that sense, Facebook is simply a victim of its own success, of starry-eyed newcomers who just need to come back down to Earth. There’s talk of a bubble, but the tech press and investors helped create it with sheer hype, only to complain that a bubble exists at all. In economics, expectations are just as crucial as actual events and can even influence those events. If no one bets on social media companies because they don’t believe they’ll flourish, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So rather than discourage social media development, perhaps the wiser course would be to continue social media innovation, tempered with more realistic financial goals. The primary focus should always be on providing a worthwhile experience for the user and building quality symbiotic relationships with brands. If social media companies do that, the rest will follow. It’d be tragic if future good ideas were stymied by the Facebook rut — so set it aside and keep on trucking.

And remember that bubbles that are never overblown don’t pop.

How to use a Facebook cover photo

One of the biggest lessons I learned when first studying social media and multimedia production was, “Follow the eyeballs.” Know where your audience members are looking, what draws their attention and how you can take advantage of it.

Today, Mashable published an interesting piece about Facebook’s Timeline pages for brands vs. the old generic brand pages, using an eye-tracking study. The study found that viewers were less likely to notice sidebar ads on a timeline page, that there was less immediate interaction with the Timeline content (i.e. the new Wall) and that quantitative data measures (Likes, Followers, etc.) are now much more prominent.

The biggest takeaway, though, was the awesome power of the cover photo. Cover photos are new to Timeline, and are found on both personal and brand pages. The eye-tracking study found that everyone — everyone — looks at the cover photo. It’s the prime page real estate, choice material that on an old page would be dominated by the more content-rich Wall.

So why are so many brands wasting this space by filling it with nothing? Take the Huffington Post. The site’s flagship brand page actually has a decent cover photo, of the newsroom. Or more specifically, it’s a photo of people in the newsroom — the Mashable article also notes that cover photos with people in them are better at drawing and keeping viewers’ attention. A similar cover photo adorns its UK page. But on some of its other sub-section pages, the cover photo space goes to waste. HuffPost Religion, HuffPost Denver and HuffPost Books, for example, have generic titles on a colored backdrop. Gawker’s page isn’t much better, with a graphic of the site’s logo.

Considering the study, I offer up a few suggestions for brands looking to maximize the potential of their Timeline cover photos.

1. Don’t repeat anything that can be just as easily seen in your profile photo or in the basic information section directly beneath your cover photo.

2. Use people whenever possible. Even if they’re Muppets (yes, that page was one of those featured in the Mashable article).

3. Don’t be afraid to make use of text, especially if that text conveys information and/or cross-promotes the brand’s other social media profiles. The New York Knicks make great use out of points two and three with their cover photo — it includes both J.R. Smith (a face) and a hashtag for fans to use on Twitter.

4. Keep it fresh. Sports teams can include hashtags for games or playoffs, or information about their next matches. Companies can update their cover pages with newly introduced products, or craft them to fit new marketing campaigns’ visual styles. Newspapers and magazines can use actual staff photos that accompany prominent/centerpiece stories. No brand, be it a news agency, a sports team, a corporation or anything else, is ever completely sedentary. Neither should their cover photos.

The cover photo block is the biggest thing on the page and it will be seen, even if the viewer misses the Timeline, the ads or the metrics. Make sure that the photo does your brand justice.

HBO makes ‘Game’ worth playing through social media

Rather than drive people away from television, the Web has given viewers a larger water cooler around which to discuss it. Networks have taken notice and the savvier ones are taking advantage.

HBO’s handling of online marketing for “Game of Thrones” is the gold standard in social media management for a television show. It’s not just the breadth of its online presence, but also the depth — viewers who like the show’s Facebook page (and 2.6 million people have), for example, get regular access to behind-the-scenes features, photos, posters, quizzes, wallpapers and interviews.

The show’s GetGlue profile is also extremely popular; check-ins for its season premiere were enough to disrupt the site’s service. It’s sailed past a million check-ins, and fans who love the show can earn stickers for watching not just the episodes, but also the various trailers that led up to the show’s premiere.

And of course, what self-respecting television show these days is without its own YouTube channel? “Game” has a YouTube presence loaded with content: recaps, interviews, features, maps, previews and more. The cross-promotion between Facebook, YouTube, GetGlue and Twitter (followers: 316K+) is nearly flawless. GetGlue check-ins show up on the Facebook feed; YouTube videos are promoted on Twitter. The cohesion of the social media strategy is very impressive, in terms of visual style and voice.

But surely any show with a clutch marketing team can make that sort of thing happen, right? Which leads to HBO’s ace up its sleeve: “Game of Thrones” knows who its fans are, respects them and gives them a role in the marketing.

An entire playlist on the YouTube channel is devoted to fan-submitted covers of the show’s gorgeous theme. My personal favorite is Jason Yang’s violin cover, which has racked up more than 2 million views. The guy who runs the show’s Twitter account says that he’s a fan of “A Song of Ice and Fire” in the bio, and his tweets demonstrate a love and appreciation of the source material beyond mere content-shoveling. He finds ways to appeal to both newer fans, those who just watch the show, and older fans, whose knowledge of the story goes beyond “Game of Thrones” and extends into the five books and their author, George R.R. Martin.

Where some shows would ignore fan-submitted art entirely, “Game of Thrones” embraces it, regularly featuring fan-made drawings, paintings and even posters on its Facebook page. Notably, two fan-made posters — one featuring a reimagining of  the Stark direwolf sigil, and another making great visual use of Sean Bean’s severed head — became integral parts of the show’s second-season marketing.

One does get the impression that, if you’re a fan, the show really does want to hear from you. And that, in turn, only cements viewers’ loyalty to the show. It is known.

The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here

How much Facebook sharing is too much?

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new Facebook layout with a lot of new features, including an ultimate timeline of sorts, including every event and post that a person has shared on Facebook.

Full disclosure: I don’t use Facebook as much as I have been. I’ve trimmed my friends list to about 375 (down from 600-ish at its peak) and I don’t post as often. I’m in a long-distance relationship (more or less), but you wouldn’t know it from my profile.

The front-page news ticker Facebook has now is a little too much information for me. I really don’t need to know that someone is listening to something or gave a thumbs-up to someone’s keg party recap. Many of the new features Zuckerberg highlighted involve automated posts, meaning that a lot of what you do will end up on your profile whether you want it to or not. Some of what you see in your own feed comes across like overkill, too.

The master timeline seems cute — imagine being able to chart your relationship, your engagement, your wedding and the birth of your first child. On the other hand, imagine scrolling back on your boyfriend or girlfriend’s timeline and seeing inevitable updates about their exes, the good and the bad.

Let’s be clear: This is first and foremost about maximizing data compilations for ads revenue. I don’t begrudge Facebook its (substantial) income, nor do I resent seeing ads on my profile (well, I might resent seeing weird dating ads). I just think that people should better educate themselves about what they’re putting out there, and Facebook might do better to make some modicum of privacy the default setting, instead of sending you on a wild goose chase for your security settings.

Of course, if you’re after absolute privacy, Facebook isn’t for you anyway. It seems though that users are putting a large amount of blind faith into the company, fawning over it and not holding it accountable for its actions. Who’s to say that the Facebook habits that feed us specific ads won’t one day give away our political philosophies? If an algorithm exists to give us dating, shopping and travel ads, it can exist for more nefarious things.

The key is for Facebook users to educate themselves and know exactly what they’re sharing and how to modify their profile security. In the end, the person responsible for keeping you safe on Facebook is you.

Facebook lays a PR egg

I’ve had a Facebook profile since June (or was it July?) 2005, almost six years. When I joined, it was still novel, still just for university students and still largely text-only. The Farmville scourge was a speck of cosmic dust. If I recall, it was “the Xanga replacement,” and a way to keep tabs on where people were going to school and who was dating whom.

I still use Facebook daily, but it’s become much more of a grind and more about habit than enjoyment. Like many people, I’m wary of its business practices and how it handles privacy, but I also recognize its power of sheer numbers and organizational heft.

Even now, as it’s arguably in a moral decline, Facebook is nigh unrivaled. That makes the following story so baffling.

A Search Engine Watch story earlier today described how a guy named Michael Lee Johnson took out a Facebook ad, calling for Google+ followers. Shortly thereafter, his ad account was disabled and he received a note from Facebook citing vague violations of the site’s Terms of Use policy, but with no concrete explanation.

It’s true that Facebook’s policy mentions banning or disabling competitors’ ads, and on the surface, it seems reasonable. Many news sites, for example, ban links to competing sites in their comment sections. Upon examination, though, it was truly a dumb-as-rocks decision.

1. It had the opposite effect of what was intended. If the site had left it alone, Johnson’s probably would have been just another random, slightly distracting side ad. Facebook ceded the narrative when it axed the ad. Johnson likely gained more Google+ followers through publicizing the suspension than he would have if the ad had remained up.

2. Facebook showed its cards. The company has put up a public face of indifference and wry amusement in the wake of Google+. And frankly, publicly, that was probably appropriate. Even with a boom up to about 10 million members (a rough, unofficial approximation), Google+ still only has a little more than 1 percent of Facebook’s worldwide numbers. But in banning an ad for Google+ followers (not even a Google-bought ad), Facebook looks caught in the headlights and rattled.

3. Whatever merit the “competitors’ ads” argument has, I have a hard time believing that Johnson’s ad is any more ridiculous than ads for weight-loss pills, marriage counseling, divorce lawyers and numerous others I’ve seen. The company looks downright draconian and petty. Bratty, even.

4. Fortification solves nothing. Competitors often must cross paths and even share development and ideas. Without competition, there’s no innovation, no motivation to learn and get better. Apart from being a baffling move in public relations, it’s also a blown opportunity to learn more about an emerging player.

I added Johnson on Google+ as soon as I read about his ad. And you know what?

Dude’s pretty entertaining.