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

What’s Google+ waiting on?

Google+ is working on developing business/brand accounts, and asking businesses not to join the network yet. It seems reasonable on the surface, but it could easily backfire.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my first impressions of Google+. I liked it a lot then, and I like it now. I’m noticing, though, that there’s an unhappy trend in posts from people in my Circles. There’s a prevailing attitude of, “Well now what do we do?”

Some brands have managed to slip through. Pete Cashmore of Mashable has a personal Google+ profile that he’s now “winding down” in preparation for a Google+ branded account for Mashable. This is after Mashable’s original personal-esque account went on hiatus. It’s enough to give you whiplash.

Given the benefit of hindsight, I have to wonder if Google wouldn’t have been wiser to beta test branded accounts first, or in conjunction with the very first personal accounts. Waiting until the site has 20 million users before actively discussing branded accounts (and suspending many branded accounts masquerading as personal ones) is like opening a shopping mall with no stores.

A site like Facebook, which started out as personal and casual and only gradually migrated to a more business-friendly approach, is a different animal. The main draw of Google+, near as I can tell, was always the networking/professional aspect. Some people I follow or who follow me use it casually, but the vast majority of them post about technology, journalism and politics. Even the personal is professional.

We can always discuss such things on personal accounts, but if we can’t engage with “official” newspaper, TV station, magazine, business and news site accounts, what can that accomplish?

Google+ needs to present a clear and compelling reason for its existence and open up the personal-to-business channels, or it’ll be drowning in cat GIFs in six months for lack of anything else for people to do.

Show me your badges

Here’s a true story.

Last fall, I started using my Foursquare account more. I was very jealous of my friends’ badges, including a Cupcake Connoisseur badge from TLC. I wanted it (it was cute!). I found a couple of London bakeries on the TLC page and visited one the next time I went into London. That bakery was The Hummingbird, and I’ve been back multiple times since and I kind of want them to make my wedding cake if anyone’s crazy enough to ever actually marry me.

I never got the cupcake badge (it retired and I had eventually had to settle for Bravo’s Just Desserts badge), but the moral is simple: I sought out an entirely new business and became a repeat customer based on a circular graphic.

Foursquare badges are a lot of fun and I’d argue that they’re more satisfying to collect than mayorships (although I wouldn’t turn down 20% off at Starbucks). I have 39, and each one is a happy reminder — an ode to my coffee addiction, another trip to the cinema, a late night at the library, a day in London, airports on different sides of the world. They can mark an event — were you at the Colbert and Stewart rallies? Or access — so you got into five different SXSW parties? Or sheer dogged determination — 20 different pizza shops, really? And, I’d wager, no one has the same exact set as anyone else, apart from newcomers.

In the wake of Google+, Google announced a couple of days ago that you could start earning badges based on stories you’d read on Google News. I mentioned on Twitter that I loved badges and thought the idea was neat, and a New York Times interactive editor tweeted back to ask why.

I thought about it and replied back that it’s in our nature to hoard and collect. Foursquare badges (and soon-to-be Google News badges, I hope) are like digital postcards or keychains. They’re reminders of where we’ve been and what matters to us. You can tell a lot about someone from their badges: where they live, where they eat and shop, what brands they follow. As a committed anglophile eager for others to see the London that I see, I once wrote about how London could use Foursquare, and I stick by that still.

It can be easy to get consumed by social media, but Foursquare is brilliant in its mobility. It’s a social media app that necessitates breaking away from your computer cord and going out. Likewise, Google News badges reward you for expanding your knowledge and learning and reading about different things.

Are badges somewhat silly? Of course. Only a few Foursquare badges are ever linked to any tangible monetary reward. At the end of the day they’re just cute graphics on a profile. Will I keep having a blast earning them, and smile whenever I unlock a new one? Oh absolutely.

Google+ — a plus, or a minus?

It’s been about 32 hours since I accepted my Google+ invite, and I’m ready to give my initial reaction.

My signed-up friends — most of whom are former journalism school classmates — and I have used Google+ to debate the merits of Google+. How meta. One of my friends called it “Facebook built by the post-Facebook generation.” Others praised its cleanness and ease of use.

While I maintain a pretty far-flung social media presence, it’s rare that I join a platform this early on (although my Facebook account, from June 2005, is relatively ancient). So I thought I’d take advantage of that and offer up my impressions. Here it goes.

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  • The design is remarkably clean and straightforward. It doesn’t have a signature “look” like Facebook just yet (although it dovetails well with Gmail, Reader, Docs and other Google goodies), but nor is it an eyesore like MySpace tended to be.
  • I love, love, LOVE the idea of circles. My friends’ opinions vary somewhat — some praise it, others think it builds walls needlessly. My one hangup with Twitter is that it’s hard to separate personal, non-DM replies to friends from more professional/serious tweets. With circles, you can easily keep professional items professional and personal items personal. You can do this with Facebook, too, but in my experience it’s a much bigger headache.
  •  It seems to take the best parts of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr and combine them. You’re free to shape your profile however you want — one of my friends is off and running with GIFs, others are sharing videos and photos and others are having conversations through status updates. It has a definite “it is what you make it” feel.
  • The simple yet aesthetically nifty way that Google+ displays photo albums is something I like, but I haven’t seen much said about it. Instead of cycling through individual photos in an album or seeing a wall of uniform thumbnails (like Facebook), photos are displayed with their cutlines in a crisp mosaic. Thumbs up.
  • I like the idea of Sparks, where you submit subject tags of interest (politics, economics, news, whatever) and receive a filtered newsfeed as a result. It’s nothing that Google Reader and a Twitter feed don’t already do, pretty much, but it’s nice having an in-platform option.
  • I’d like to see photo- and video-specific postings that allow URLs and not just file uploading. You can share online photos and YouTube videos, obviously, but as far as I can tell it’s treated like a generic post. Given Google’s ownership of YouTube, this is kind of awkward. EDIT: Google+ actually does allow for photo- and video-sharing using URLs. For some reason I was unable to locate it earlier, but it’s definitely there. Consider this shortcoming deleted.
  • The hangout feature, which is basically a sprawling video/chat meet-up (either planned or impromptu) has potential, but I confess I haven’t tried it yet. It looks like some outlets, like The Huffington Post, have used it already with some success.
  • Unlike Twitter (which allows one “official” URL) and Facebook (which buries them), Google+ lets you link to multiple personal and social media profiles, and displays them prominently on your page. I have links to this blog, my LinkedIn profile, my Tumblr, my Twitter and my Foursquare. Nifty.
  • The biggest complaint: so few people. With about 4.5 million users (last time I checked), Google+ has less than 1% of the registered users that Facebook does. It seems content to follow a pace of steady, gradually increasing growth. I think its real test will come when “normal” people — not journalists or technology enthusiasts — start migrating over, if they do. Google+ has to offer them something that they’re not getting with Facebook or Twitter. What that might be, I think, depends on the user. But Google+ can’t rely too much on exclusivity and being a journalistic utopia, or else it could easily go the way of Google Wave.
So there you have it. Frankly I’m pretty impressed, but only time will tell if the novelty can successfully segue into indispensability.