Celebrating data privacy day should be everyday

Are you familiar with the term dark patterns? You probably are if you do any online shopping. The term has been in use in the UX world for a decade and refers to a design choice that makes a user decide on something that they might not have otherwise chosen, such as adding a product to a shopping cart that wasn’t selected, running a deal countdown clock, or warning that a product you are thinking about buying is running low in inventory. These are also called nudging, where the website designer places the preferred answer in larger font or bigger icons such as the image below.

Last fall a group of academic researchers found more than 1,800 instances of dark pattern usage on 1,254 websites, which likely represents a low estimate. Many of these websites had pretty deceptive practices.

Dark patterns are just the latest salvo in the attempt to keep our privacy private. An article posted over the weekend in the New York Times documents the decline of this notion. “We have imagined that we can choose our degree of privacy with an individual calculation in which a bit of personal information is traded for valued services — a reasonable quid pro quo,” writes the author, Shoshana Zuboff. “We thought that we search Google, but now we understand that Google searches us. We assumed that we use social media to connect, but we learned that connection is how social media uses us.” Our digital privacy is now very much a publicly traded service. Zuboff’s study of this erosion of privacy is just in time to honor this year’s Data Privacy Day. She mentions a series of examples, such as Delta Airlines’ use of facial recognition software at several airports to shave seconds off of passenger boarding times, with almost everyone opting in without nary a complaint.

The other news item in time for DPD is the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) recent publication of a series of design guidelines called Age Appropriate Design Code to help children’s privacy and online safety. Let’s discuss what they are trying to do, what some of the issues are with enforcing their guidelines, and what this all has to do with dark patterns.

The ICO rules haven’t yet been adopted by Parliament – that is several months away if all goes well, and longer if it turns into another Brexit debacle. And that is the crux of the problem: “Companies are notoriously bad at self-regulating these things. Guidance is great, but if it’s not mandatory, it doesn’t mean much’” says my go-to UX expert, Danielle Cooley. And Techcrunch likens this to the ICO saying, “Are you feeling lucky data punk? How comprehensive the touted ‘child protections’ will end up being remains to be seen.”

Cooley gives the ICO props for moving things along – which is more than we can say for any US-based organization. “It is a step in the right direction and a good starting point for other government entities, much like GDPR was for motivating California to pass their own privacy legislation. However, there is really no way to enforce much of this and there are multiple ways around it too.” She gives the example of American alcohol manufacturers that prohibit people under 21 from entering their websites. Can they really stop a minor from clicking through the age screen? Not really. “At least, the ICO addresses dark patterns and nudging.” One point Cooley makes is proving the opposite of dark patterns is a lot harder to do, and few analysts have done any research.

The ICO has specific examples of nudging, which “could encourage children to provide more personal data than they would otherwise volunteer.” There is a total of 15 different categories of guidelines, ranging from transparency, dealing with default setting and data sharing, and parental controls. The rules are for all children under the age of 18, which is a wider scope than existing UK and US data protection laws that generally stop at age 13. It is extensive and mostly well thought out and applies to a wide collection of online services, including gaming, social media platforms and streaming services as well as ecommerce sites.

Another plus for the ICO rules is how it adopts a risk-based approach to ensure that the rules are effectively applied. However, while that sounds good in theory, it might prove difficult in practice. For example, let’s say you want to verify the age of a website visitor. Do you have one version of your site for really young kids, while another for teens? Exactly how can you implement this? I don’t know either.

Naturally, the tech industry is not happy with this effort, saying they were too onerous, vague and broad. Like GDPR, they apply to every online business, regardless of whether they are based in the UK or elsewhere. The industry reps do have something of a point. What is interesting about the ICO rules is how it places the best interest of children above the bottom lines of the tech vendors and site operators. That is going to be hard to pull off, even if the rules are passed into law and the threat of fines (four percent of total annual worldwide revenue) are levied.

The UK tech policy expert Heather Burns wrote an extensive critique of the ICO draft rules last summer (while there have been some changes with the final draft, most of her issues remain relevant), calling it “one of the worst proposals on internet legislation I’ve ever seen.” The draft proposed a catch-22 situation: to find out if kids are accessing a service, administrators would be required to collect personally identifiable data about all users and site usage, precisely the sort of thing that the ICO, as a privacy regulator, should be dissuading companies from doing. Another issue is that the ICO rules, which were written to target U.S. social media giants, could be onerous for UK domestic startups and SMEs, at a time when many are considering their post-Brexit options. “If the goal of the draft code is to trigger an exodus of tech businesses and investment, it will succeed,” she writes. Additionally, no economic impact assessment of the proposals, as is required for UK legislation, was conducted.

Her section-by-section analysis is well worth studying. For example, she wrote that the draft proposal associated “the use of location data with abduction, physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse and trafficking. This hysteria could lead to young adults being infantilised under rules prepared for toddlers; rules which could, for example, ban them from being able to use a car share app to get home because it uses geolocation data.”

Only time will tell whether the ICO rules are helpful or hurting things. And in the meantime, think about how you can do something today that will help your overall data privacy for the rest of the year. Ideally, you should celebrate your data privacy 24/7.Instead, we seem to note its diminishment, year after year.

How theme park technologies have helped museums: a case study of the new St. Louis Aquarium

I am a big patron of museums. I go to many of them and try to fit in a visit whenever I am out of town. But what I have seen lately is how they have begun to use the same technologies that entertainment companies have been perfecting for movies and theme park rides, all in the interest of capturing more visitors and increasing visitor engagement. I think this a positive development, and this blog explains its evolution and why it is welcomed.

I have written about this trend before: once for the NY Times when I visited the Lincoln museum in Springfield Ill. back in 2008, and once for HPE’s blog posted two years ago. In those posts, I talk about how the best museum designers combine exhibits involving non-visual senses (not just reading some text plastered on the wall) and using technologies such as RFID and touchscreens to personalize the visit. (I’ll talk about these in a moment.)

You might call this when museums become theme parks. And while this isn’t quite as dire as this might sound, it does show how hard museums have to work to gain notice in this Snapchat world where attentions can shift in a matter of seconds. It also shows how the technology developed for the theme parks (including higher-definition video, complex theatrical control systems and the like) can be deployed in ways to improve learning and make the visits more memorable. These technologies can also help those of us that want to learn more and take a deeper dive into what is being shown in the museum.

I got a preview of the latest example with a new aquarium here in St. Louis that will open next week. The aquarium is part of a major redevelopment of our Union Station, a building that hasn’t seen any scheduled passenger service for many decades and is more than 100 years old. When I moved here more than ten years ago, the building contained a shop-worn mall that had lost its luster. Then a few years ago it began to be redeveloped by its current owner, Lodging Hospitality Management (LHM). That company continued its adaptive reuse with various entertainment improvements: besides the aquarium, there is a Ferris Wheel, new restaurants and an indoor ropes course.

But just saying we have a new aquarium isn’t really doing the place justice. It is probably the most technologically advanced aquarium that I have seen. Its use of technology is done so elegantly that you may not really notice it as you drag your brood through the place, looking at the tanks and the sea life. A preview of what you can see in its tanks is linked here. (There is also this story on a local TV station here.) Let’s stop in and see what is going on.

First is using the latest high-def video in interesting ways. When you first enter the complex, you are in a soaring grand lobby that appears to be sitting at the bottom of a tank, as waves of water wash over you. The wall you are facing has loads of gears and a huge analog clock face, which plays off on that you are located inside a former train station. You then realize that you are looking at various video screens, and some very nice ones at that. The screens are delivering twice 4k resolution. That grabbed my attention. According to Andrew Schumacher, the main architectural designer at PGAV Destinations that lead the project, they spec’ed out the lobby ceiling with projection video three years ago when they first began. “But then LED technology became a better solution, so we made that change.” It is certainly stunning.

PGAV Destinations is based in St. Louis and has been designing various attractions for more than 50 years. They have created exhibits for the Atlanta Aquarium, including building a new shark tank for them. They were excited about creating an entire aquarium from scratch, and were challenged by LHM to incorporate technology in interesting pedagogical ways that combined both “high tech and high touch,” according to Schumacher. I think they have succeeded quite well. When you think about their design challenge, they have to meet three different goals:

  • First, the animal or fish has to be comfortable in its habitat.
  • Second, the keepers have to be able to do their jobs, feed the critters, and maintain the tanks.
  • Finally, the guests have to have something interesting to see.

Balancing these three goals isn’t easy, and given that each animal is unique and that the aquarium has more than 13,000 different “residents,” that adds to the complexity. And the trick is making sure that in the future we still have all of these residents alive and well.

But it isn’t just having tech for tech’s sake. The designers wanted to “bring the visitor into the story, something we learned from Disney and other theme parks,” said Ben Davis, the CTO of MoonDog Animation Studio in Charleston SC. This means you have to craft a compelling story from the moment you purchase your ticket to when you inevitably exit through the gift shop. I think they have succeeded. MoonDog designed the stories that are used throughout the aquarium, something they have done for other cultural institutions. “We were trying to get the aquarium to talk back to you, to bring you an emotional experience and keep you in a state of awe,” he told me. I agree completely. This isn’t your grandfather’s fish tank.

Once we leave the lobby, we then move into what appears to be a mockup of a train car. Instead of the windows on the sides and ceiling of the car, you have additional video screens that take you on the start of your journey to the wonders of the rivers and oceans around you. Once you exit the train car, there are six different major galleries to explore that are defined by various ecosystems, including one that covers the nearby confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers.

Smart Monkey’s ISAAC show control system runs the screens in this and other areas at the aquarium. You can see this company’s work to operate the media installations such as at the Bradley LAX international terminal (shown here) and at numerous museums around the world, including the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the US Mint in Philadelphia, and exhibits at the Kennedy Space Center. This makes it easy to coordinate and operate all the various digital media and to program some very sophisticated special effects.

The ISAAC system at the aquarium is running seven VMs and contains all the digital media assets for the place, along with housing a scheduling system and various databases and workspaces. The key, as explained to me by their director of technology Mitch Schuh, is to enable the graphic and exhibit designers to have tools to make it easier to realize their vision, without having to worry about the underlying networks, servers and other infrastructure. The system also has an active-active failover, in case one system goes down. All of this can be managed remotely via a web portal too, so the aquarium systems can be operated anywhere in the world. “I can think of several cases during the construction of the exhibits where we were able to make quick decisions and adjust show runtimes and make other changes on the fly,” said Schuh. “These would have taken a lot more time and effort without Isaac.”

Besides all the HD TVs, there are also touchscreen kiosks. They are popping up at many museums. The aquarium has them sprinkled throughout its galleries, and they are set in an attractive steampunk-like setup. Why steampunk? This is because the designers wanted to evoke what early 1900s-era train travel was like, paying homage to the early days of the station. These screens can provide a simulated 3D display of the sea life you are looking at, along with a map showing you where you are located and other data such as diet and habitat that can help amplify your visit and provide more context about what you are seeing in the tanks. They are also used to support a personalized game designed for kids visiting the museum. (More on that in a moment.)

Second is its use of music and sound and lighting effects. In my walkthrough I met Michael Gleason, the head composer, who told me that he had written more than 75 minutes of music that will play in different galleries and for different situations. That is more than many feature films have and is indicative of the sensory experience they are aiming towards. But it isn’t just the sound effects, but its combination with theatrical lighting too. I first saw this in the Lincoln museum, but the lighting is used in our aquarium in more clever ways to amplify the music you are hearing and what is swimming in the tanks in front of you. These digital assets are part of what the Isaac show control systems are managing.

Next is animation along with virtual/augmented reality. One of the exhibits is the three otters that live there, and of course they are named Thatcher, Sawyer and Finn. There is another animated one called Tommy that you can interact with is manipulated via computers. This was created by the folks at Groove Jones.  Tommy is next to the same gallery where you can see the real ones swimming around. The human operator has cameras to judge the audience response and answer their live questions. Like the Wizard of Oz, the operator is manipulating the controls in a hidden booth. There is also a sandbar touch tank that has a layer of projected video on it, making it more enticing and interactive for the visitors. The goal here is to engage the visitor and have them literally get their hands wet exploring the life aquatic.

Personalization is also a big plus. When I visited the Chopin museum in Warsaw, we got a RFID tag that would allow us to hear the content in our language of choice, along with further personalization depending on our age and musical sophistication. Museums are getting smarter about making these visits more personal. A good example of this can be found at Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame. When you purchase your ticket, you get a lanyard with an RFID chip that is set to a particular team and player. As you move around the museum, you see statistics that are filtered which are relevant to that player. At the aquarium, children get RFID cards that are age-matched and allow them to participate in a scavenger hunt and knowledge quizzes with results that get posted to their profiles.

Sometimes the personalization doesn’t have to be too high-tech: if you visit one of the Titanic Museums in either Branson or Vegas you will be given a random paper “passport” to allow you to assume the identity of one of the passengers. You get to find out where that passenger lived aboard the ship and whether they survived the accident.

We have come a long way since museums started using AcoustiGuide technology to play recordings of their curators explain their collections to us. MoonDog’s Davis sees one way to make this tech more location-sensitive, to further increase personalization and as a way that it could be driven by an ISAAC or other show-control system. He sees that movie producers and museum curators are converging, so that visitors can create their own stories with their visits.

There is a fine line between putting so much sensory information in a museum that it can overwhelm and defeat its purpose of improving the visitor’s experience. You do want to leave time for visitors to think about what they are seeing and hearing and feeling. While I am excited to see these other, non-visual, elements appear, I do understand that you need to integrate them carefully and ensure that you aren’t becoming a theme park version of the museum. I welcome your own thoughts about this. Please share other examples of museums or places that you have been that have resonated with you in the comments.

How tech can help eldercare quality of life

If you are supporting an elderly member of your family, you might be interested in a collection of home tech devices that can help extend their ability to live more independently. We all need help as we get older, and I write this column based on the experience of my family and caring for my 95 year-old mother-in-law.

She has been living independently for the past 18 months using these three technologies:

  • Hero automated pill dispenser (It now costs at least $30 per month with a $100 initial purchase and 12-month commitment. There are other plans that cost more and provide additional monitoring and support.)
  • BlipCare BP blood pressure monitor (We bought it on Amazon for $159, although it currently is no longer being sold there.)
  • And an Amazon Alexa Show 5 ($89) or 8 (for $129) (These are list prices and are discounted heavily for various promotions.)

The three devices allow us to ensure we can reliably dispense her meds, take her blood pressure, and talk to her when we aren’t able to visit. I’ll explain the limitations and decisions behind each piece of technology. When we brought all this gear into the facility, the medical staff was impressed and also unfamiliar with each of them, which motivated my purpose in writing this column. Note that my mother-in-law lives independently in an eldercare facility, although step-up care is available in other parts of her building. This is a common arrangement.

Each device works with its own smartphone app to setup, but not to use: that is an important distinction as my mother-in-law doesn’t have a smartphone. They also all require decent Wifi service in her room, which could be an issue in some facilities. (This means that you should test the signal strength in your family member’s room ahead of time.) All three units sit nestled together on her desk, which is also important, and I will get to why in a moment.

The Alexa Show is a voice-activated home hub device, similar to what Google and Apple sell with one difference: it has a very simple video conferencing setup. The video screen (either five or eight inches on the diagonal) is critical, because it allows us to “drop in” on her and have a video chat, see what she is doing. This is critical during the pill-taking and blood pressure processes, which is why all three devices are near each other on her desk, and also used to contact her in case we can’t reach her on her cell phone. And it helps that the Alexa show is very simple to use. You do need a smartphone app to make the call. A second benefit of the Alexa-brand of devices is that they have a better event notification process. That is useful for verbal reminders of daily events. Other home hubs, such as from Apple or Google, aren’t as convenient or as capable in this regard.  (Also, Facebook has its Portal, but I haven’t tried it out yet.) BTW, we have had mixed success with her giving Alexa voice commands. You might want to try out one of these devices in your own home with your elderly family member and see how it goes.

The Blipcare device is a bit quirky to setup. It uses its own web server and has alarmingly lax security, but what is nice is that you don’t need anything else to record her blood pressure once you get it working. Results are automatically posted within a few minutes to a special dashboard webpage that family members can check periodically and also share with doctors. If you have two family members to care for, it can track their stats separately.

Finally, the Hero device is used to dispense her pills. It needs to be periodically loaded with them, of course, but it is basically very simple to use: my mother-in-law just presses a button, and the pills drop down into a cup, similar to how a soda machine dispenses its product.  You set up a schedule and which pills get dispensed when.

The notion of having these three devices is to postpone having nursing care or other options for my mother-in-law. While these devices aren’t cheap, using them for several months can have a big payback given what the step-up nursing care charges would be. And they also offer a sense of security for our family. While for our situation the devices involve us in her care, your own family situation might not make this possible or desirable. And like any home tech, you have to be prepared to do some tech support to handle problems.

BTW, I have been using a different device to monitor my own blood pressure, the Qardio Arm ($99). It requires a bluetooth connection to a smartphone to post its results and is somewhat difficult for an elderly person to put over their arm and get it aligned in just the right spot for accurate measurements. I have been using one for many years. And although have had to replace two of the devices, the company quite willingly sent me these replacements at no charge.

Feel free to share your own eldercare tech solutions here.

Further misadventures in fake news

The term fake news is used by many but misunderstood. It has gained notoriety as a term of derision from political figures about mainstream media outlets. But when you look closer, you can see there are many other forms that are much more subtle and far more dangerous. The public relations firm Ogilvy wrote about several different types of fake news (satire, misinformation, sloppy reporting and purposely deceptive).

But that really doesn’t help matters, especially in the modern era of state-sponsored fake news. We used to call this propaganda back when I was growing up. To better understand this modern context, I suggest you examine two new reports that present a more deliberate analysis and discussion:

  • The first is by Renee Diresta and Shelby Grossman for Stanford University’s Internet Observatory project called Potemkin Pages and Personas, Assessing GRU Online Operations. It documents two methods of Russia’s intelligence agency commonly called the GRU, narrative laundering and hack-and-leaking false data. I’ll get into these methods in a moment. For those of you that don’t know the reference, Potemkin means a fake village that was built in the late 1700’s to impress a Russian monarch who would pass by a region and fooled into thinking there were actual people living there. It was a stage set with facades and actors dressed as inhabitants.
  • The second report is titled Simulated media assets: local news from Vlad Shevtsov, a Russian researcher who has investigated several seemingly legit local news sites in Albany, New York (shown below) and Edmonton, Alberta. These sites constructed their news pages out of evergreen articles and other service pieces that have attracted millions of page views, according to analytics. Yet they have curious characteristics, such as being viewed almost completely from mobile sources outside their local geographic area.

Taken together, this shows a more subtle trend towards how “news” can be manipulated and shaped by government spies and criminals. Last month I wrote about Facebook and disinformation-based political campaigns. Since then Twitter announced they were ending all political advertising. But the focus on fake news in the political sphere is a distraction. What we should understand is that the entire notion of how news is being created and consumed is undergoing a major transition. It means we have to be a lot more skeptical of what news items are being shared in our social feeds and how we obtain facts. Move over Snopes.com, we need a completely new set of tools to vet the truth.

Let’s first look at the Shevtsov report on the criminal-based news sites, for that is really the only way to think about them. These are just digital Potemkin villages: they look like real local news sites, but are just containers to be used by bots to generate clicks and ad revenue. Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman provides a larger context in his analysis here. These sites gather traffic quickly, stick around for a year or so, and then fade away, after generating millions of dollars in ad revenues. They take advantage of legitimate ad serving operations, including Google’s AdSense, and quirks in the organic search algorithms that feed them traffic.

This is a more insidious problem than seeing a couple of misleading articles in your social news feed for one reason: the operators of these sites aren’t trying to make some political statement. They just want to make money. They aren’t trying to fool real readers: indeed, these sites probably have few actual carbon life forms that are sitting at keyboards.

The second report from Stanford is also chilling It documents the efforts of the GRU to misinform and mislead, using two methods.

— narrative laundering. This makes something into a fact by repetition through legit-sounding news sources that are also constructs of the GRU operatives. This has gotten more sophisticated since another Russian effort led by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) was uncovered during the Mueller report. That entity (which was also state-sponsored) specialized in launching social media sock puppets and creating avatars and fake accounts.  The methods used by the GRU involved creating Facebook pages that look like think tanks and other media outlets. These “provided a home for original content on conflicts and politics around the world and a primary affiliation for sock puppet personas.” In essence, what the GRU is doing is “laundering” their puppets through six affiliated media front pages. The researchers identified Inside Syria Media Center, Crna Gora News Agency, Nbenegroup.com, The Informer, World News Observer, and Victory for Peace as being run by the GRU, where their posts would be subsequently picked up by lazy or uncritical news sites.

What is interesting though is that the GRU wasn’t very thorough about creating these pages. Most of the original Facebook posts had no engagements whatsoever. “The GRU appears not to have done even the bare minimum to achieve peer-to-peer virality, with the exception of some Twitter networking, despite its sustained presence on Facebook. However, the campaigns were successful at placing stories from multiple fake personas throughout the alternative media ecosystem.” A good example of how the researchers figured all this out was how they tracked down who really was behind the Jelena Rakocevic/Jelena Rakcevic persona. “She” is really a fake operative that purports to be a journalist with bylines on various digital news sites. In real life, she is a biology professor in Montenegro with a listed phone number for a Mercedes dealership.

— hack-and-leak capabilities. We are now sadly familiar with the various leak sites that have become popular across the interwebs. These benefitted from some narrative laundering as well. The GRU got Wikileaks and various mainstream US media to pick up on their stories, making their operations more effective. What is interesting about the GRU methods is that they differed from those attributed to the IRA “They used a more modern form of memetic propaganda—concise messaging, visuals with high virality potential, and provocative, edgy humor—rather than the narrative propaganda (long-form persuasive essays and geopolitical analysis) that is most prevalent in the GRU material.”

So what are you gonna do to become more critical? Librarians have been on the front lines of vetting fake news for years. Lyena Chavez of Merrimack College has four easy “tells” that she often sees:

  • The facts aren’t verifiable from the alleged sources quoted.
  • The story isn’t published in other credible news sources, although we have seen how the GRU can launder the story and make it more credible.
  • The author doesn’t have appropriate credentials or experience.
  • The story has an emotional appeal, rather than logic.

One document that is useful (and probably a lot more work than you signed up for) is this collection from her colleague at Merrimack Professor Melissa Zimdars. She has tips and various open source methods and sites that can help you in your own news vetting. If you want more, take a look at an entire curriculum that the Stony Brook J-school has assembled.

Finally, here are some tools from Buzzfeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko, who has collected them to vet her own stories.


Picking the right social media posting tool

I have been interested in social media productivity tools for many years. Back in 2013, I wrote a review for Network World of eight different ones. Of the 90+ products that I examined as part of this project, only Hootsuite and SproutSocial are still around. That gives you an idea of the volatility in this market. I decided to take another look at what is available and focused on four different services: Hootsuite, Buffer, Later and Zoho Social. I picked these four because all of them have free plans and transparent pricing so you can get a better idea of what they do before you spend significant time evaluating them. There are certainly at least a dozen others to choose from (including Mailchimp, which now offers Facebook and Instagram posting automation in addition to its mailing list management).

The idea is that as you dive into managing your brand’s social media identity, you want some automated method to help with your posts, to monitor your social feeds, and to analyze the results. Now there are specialized tools for each of these three categories. But you have to start somewhere, so if you have yet to use any of these tools, I would suggest starting with the ones that are oriented around posting new content.

Each of the four support a different collection of social media networks: All work with Twitter and Facebook (and support different aspects of the Facebook universe, such as groups and business account pages). Some also support Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and WordPress posts too. Hootsuite has a number of add-on apps that support other social networks.

The free versions of three of the tools come with various posting limits: Zoho Social doesn’t have any limits. As I said, there are other tools that focus on analytics of your posts, but each of these is useful for limited purposes – for example, Later only will provide Instagram analytics. Finally, if you do decide to pay for service, plans vary all over the place in terms of monthly fees and annual payment discounts, ranging from a few dollars a month to several hundred. The chart below has more specifics, along with a link to the pricing page with more details about what each plan offers (and doesn’t offer too).

If you are going to use one of these services, examine three aspects carefully. First is their publishing and scheduling features, since that is what you are going to be doing with them. All four offer various publishing and scheduling features, including their own URL shorteners. Zoho Social will also work with bit.ly too, which is nice. Second is how these tools will fit into a team of folks that will be doing the posting. Some are easier to use in teams and have access controls to make it more useful than everyone sharing the same email address (which could be a security nightmare, particularly if a team member is fired or leaves). Finally, look at the other integrations and plug-ins and extensions that each vendor offers. If you already use any of the Zoho CRM products, their Social tool ties in nicely there. Hootsuite also has several integrations, as I mentioned.

Vendor Social networks supported Posting limits Analytics included Pricing plans
Buffer.com T(Twitter), F(Facebook), L(LinkedIn), P(Pinterest) can’t respond to content, only post new content (retweets allowed) Posts only Free (3 platforms, 1 user), $15- 99/month
Hootsuite.com T, F, L, WordPress, others Unlimited for paid accounts Entire social networks Free (3 profiles, 1 user, 30 monthly posts), $29- 599/month
Later.com T, F, P, I (instagram) 30 per month per platform (50 for Twitter) Instagram only Free  (1 profile, 1 user), $9- 49/month
Zoho Social T, F, L, I No limits Extensive Free (1 user). $10-300/month


Thoughts about live tweeting during arts performances

I realize that I come very late to this issue, but I recently discovered that many theatrical venues are actually encouraging live tweeting of their performances, and have done so for many years. As someone who speaks professionally and encourages live tweeting, I feel somewhat conflicted about this. Granted, my speeches are more than just cultural events — or at least I would like to think so — but still, there are plenty of people in my audiences who are using their phones while I am on stage.

The key event was an article in the NY Times this week about the practice. As I said, it has been going on for many years. One of our local opera companies puts on an annual Twitter invitational performance, inviting social media influencers to attend a single performance gratis and tweet away during the show.

This is a growing trend, and theatrical companies in numerous cities such as San Francisco, Palm Beach and Sacramento have established a separate seating section in their auditoriums called tweet seats where folks are encouraged to use their phones during the performance. Some even have set up monitors in the lobby displaying the tweets during intermission. Again, this mirrors many conferences that I have been to where the collected live tweets are displayed for all to see. Part of my job as a reporter covering a conference is to live tweet the event. I have to admit that I get excited when I see my tweets are trending and liked by other attendees.

I think it is getting harder to make a distinction between live tweeting in certain venues — such as a ball game or a professional conference — and in others, which just makes the issue more complicated.

I asked a friend of mine who runs a New York theater company what he thinks of live tweeting and using devices during his performances. “This is a huge problem. People record our shows on their phones all the time, AND they are now offended that you ask them to turn OFF their phones. I pretty much felt like that was the end of civilization as I knew it.” My friend told me that he “actually has had to crawl down aisles to stop people from texting or recording.”

The Times story notes situations where many Broadway actors have taken the phones out of the hands of audience members or stopping the show to berate the phone’s owner. My friend echoes this with his own experiences.

There seem to be several issues here:

  • Should cellphones and other devices be banned completely from live performances? It used to be that devices were banned as a distraction for the cast and other audience members, either because of the lit screen or because someone was actually on the phone during the show. But now that most phones have video cameras, it is a larger issue. An artist or theater company has a right to control their recorded performance.
  • Should an artistic company encourage live tweeting? I kind of get it: especially for opera, its audience is aging rapidly, and having live tweeting is a way to show they are hip and relevant and seed interest in a younger crowd that may attend other shows. Of course, for those shows they might be forced to just watching and listening. My friend has further commentary: “To be honest, my only objection is the fact that a huge portion of the artistic process is reflection — that moment to think about what you really feel about something that was presented.  A knee-jerk reaction isn’t enough. You need to pause and really connect to a feeling. As a frequent theatergoer, I’m not sure sometimes how I feel until the next day or several days later after I have seen a performance.” He makes a good point.
  • Is this a problem just for the millennial generation? I think it is applicable to all ages. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, our focus is less in living in the moment and more about sharing it with our “audience” and “developing our brand.” Indeed, this is the plot line of a new novel I am reading (Follow Me, out in February).

I welcome your comments and thoughts about this.

Protecting your digital and online privacy

I gave a talk at our local Venture Cafe about this topic and thought I would summarize some of my suggestions in a blog post here. We all know that our devices leak all sorts of personal data: the locations and movements of our phones, the contents of our emails and texts, the people with whom we communicate, and even the smart devices in our homes are all chatty Cathys. There have been numerous articles that describe these communications, including how an app for the University of Alabama’s football team tracks students who agree to divulge their game attendance in return to obtain rewards points for college merch (see the screenshot here). Another NY Times story analyzed the tracking resources when a reporter visited dozens of different websites. The trackers from these sites were able to determine where the reporter lived and worked and could collect all sorts of other personal information, including finding out when women who were using phone apps to track their monthly periods were having sex.

Most of us have some basic understanding about how web tracking cookies work: this technology is decades old. But that era seems so quaint now and the problem is that our phones are powerful computers that can track all sorts of other stuff that can be more invasive. It also doesn’t help that our phones are usually with us at all times. Reading the two NYT pieces should make anyone more careful about what information you should give up to the digital overlords that control our apps. In my talk I present a few tools to fight back and provide more privacy protection. They include:

  • Monitor your Wifi usage and then choose the right VPN that offers the best protection. Open Wifi networks can collect everything that you are doing online: you should find and use the right VPN to at least encrypt these conversations. The problem is many VPNs are owned by Chinese vendors or that collect other information about you. Two studies are worth reviewing: one by Privacy Australia which has a nice analysis of which are faster performers and one by Top10VPN which goes into details about who owns each vendor. I use ProtonVPN on both my phone and laptop.
  • Choose passwords carefully and use a password manager. I have made this recommendation before, do take it seriously if you still are a hold out. Reusing passwords is the single biggest mistake you can make towards compromising your privacy. I use LastPass on all my devices.
  • Change your DNS settings to provide additional protection. There are now numerous alternative DNS providers that can help encrypt and hide your web traffic, as well as provide for faster connections. Cloudflare has two tools, including its DNS service and its Warp phone VPN service. Both are free.

In my talk I also have several main strategies towards better privacy protection. These include:

  1. Eliminate very personal data on social media, such as your real birthday and other identifying information. Be careful about future posts and whom you tag on your social media accounts too.
  2. Delete the Facebook Messenger phone app: it scraps your entire contact list and uploads it to Facebook. Don’t use social media identities as login proxies if you can avoid them.
  3. Audit your phones regularly and eliminate unneeded apps. Know which ones are leaking data and avoid them as well. The app Mighty Signal will report on what is leaked.
  4. Set up your phone for optimum privacy protection. This involves several steps, including updating to the latest iOS and Android OS versions and enable their latest privacy features, such as stripping photo location metadata and blocking unknown callers. A good place to start is to use the JumboPrivacy App to further restrict your data leakage too: it will recommend the most private settings for you, given how complex the average phone app is these days and how hard it is to figure out how to configure each app appropriately.
  5. If you are truly concerned, move to a different browser and search tool, such as Brave and DuckDuckGo that offer more privacy protection. Yes you will give up some functionality for this protection, so you have to weigh the tradeoffs of utility versus protection.

This seems like a lot of work, and I won’t deny that. Take things one step at a time, and change one habit and understand its consequences (including loss of functionality and convenience) before moving on to making other changes. Too often folks can easily get overwhelmed and then retreat to old habits, nullifying these improvements. When you have a choice, pick technologies that are easier to manage and implement.

Do let me know what your own experiences have been along this journey too by posting a comment here if you’d like.


The worldwide spread of government-sponsored social media misinformation

For the past three years, researchers at Oxford University have been tracking the rise of government and political party operatives who have been using various social media tools as propaganda devices. Their goal is to shape and undermine trust with public opinion and automate dissent suppression. This year’s report is chilling and I urge you to read it yourself and see what you think. It shows how social media has infected the world’s democracies on an unprecedented scale.

The researchers combed news reports and found evidence of what they call “cyber propaganda troops” in 70 different countries, with the most activity happening in Russia, the US, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany and the UK.  This is a big increase in the number of places where they found these activities a year ago. In 44 countries, they found evidence of a government agency or members of political parties using various automated tools to help social media shape public attitudes. “Social media has become co-opted by many authoritarian regimes. In 26 countries computational propaganda is being used as a tool of information control.” Azerbaijan, Israel, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have taken things a step further: there student groups are hired by government agencies to use digital propaganda to promote the state’s ideology.

You would expect that these techniques would be employed in dictatorships and in countries with less than stellar press freedoms and democratic records But what is interesting about their study is the few places that we would consider democracies where they didn’t find any evidence of any systematic social media tampering, such as in Canada, France, and Norway. The authors don’t say why this is the case, whether from a lack of research resources or because those places haven’t yet gotten on the state-controlled social media bandwagon.

“Until recently, we found that China rarely used social media to manipulate public opinion in other countries,” they state in their report. Prior to this year, China focused on manipulating its home grown social media platforms such as WeChat and QQ. That has changed, and now Chinese state-sponsored agencies are branching out and can be seen operating in other parts of the world, using Facebook and Twitter. “China is turning to these technologies as a tool of geopolitical power and influence.”

One thing the Oxford researchers didn’t examine is how the practice of using fake followers of major political figures has spread. This analysis was done by SparkToro. As you can see in the above graphic, Donald Trump and Jerry Brown have half or more of their Twitter followers by bots and other automated programs. There are other political figures elsewhere that have high fake proportions too.

It is sadly ironic that the very tools that were created to improve communications and bring us closer together have been so successfully subverted for just the opposite purposes by various governments. And that these tools have become mainstream elements in so many places around the world.

Understanding new non-money uses for blockchain

When it comes to thinking about blockchains, most of us automatically go to cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum and think about money. How much are these currencies worth in US dollars? How much value have they gained or lost recently? It took two financially-related but non-monetary examples that I heard about recently to convince me that I was looking at the wrong part of the elephant.

Before I tell you about how I came to this insight I want to talk about the money part of blockchain first. I recently read Dan Conway’s new memoir, Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire. The book is now out, and I would urge you to get a copy and read it. Unlike many business books that quickly run out of ideas and out of steam after the first chapter, Conway’s tale about how he became an early investor in Ether is both a cautionary and celebratory one. You can read my review of his book here, along with some insights from the email conversation we have had over its launch. From these emails, Conway told me about an experiment by the UN with an Indian local land registry in Panchkula. The issue is trying to identify the rightful owner of a plot of land, particularly in the developing world where paper records are scarce or misfiled. The UN has built a registry based on Ethereum smart contracts to create a single source of truth of ownership status and property history. The buyer will be assured that the land being bought is the correct plot, and that the seller is unequivocally its owner. Everyone can see in near real time who owns what, improving accuracy and transparency. The system doesn’t require computer access or Ether wallets and works in the background to support land transactions. Similar projects are underway in title registries the States and in other countries too.

Blockchain technology is being used in another interesting project as part of a new protocol from Kiva.org. I have been loaning money to various developing world entrepreneurs for a decade through this organization which funds millions of dollar-equivalents of such loans. I wrote about Kiva here in 2009 and since then have been active using their platform. Over the years I have funded 54 different people in more than 30 countries and loaned $1400. This was done with a very modest amount of “new money” because I very determinedly loan my funds when the original loans have been paid back. And what is interesting is almost all my loans have been paid back, with less than $30 lost from defaults, although some loans are paid in full but late. The way Kiva works, once you collect at least $25 back from your loan recipients, you can relend it to someone else.

Last year Kiva announced the creation of its own blockchain-based protocol, and last week announced its implementation in Sierra Leone. It will be available to the about 5M adults living there to use as an identity management device, based on their fingerprints to authenticate each person in financial transactions. One of the problems with many unbanked people is that there is no easy mechanism to verify someone who has no credit score, no previous financial history, no anything that you and I would consider part of our financial footprint. That is where the Kiva protocol comes into play. Whether it will work in Sierra Leone – or anywhere else – is still to be seen, but it is an interesting proof of concept. (I have yet to make a loan to anyone there, but you can be sure that I will look for someone to sponsor at the next opportunity.)

Being based on blockchain means there is no central repository of fingerprints that can be downloaded – they are stored in a distributed database that is created individually by each person. That was a hard concept for me to wrap my head around for some reason, but it makes sense when you think about it. It could be possible to decode each transaction to obtain a single fingerprint scan, but whether this could be done on a large enough scale would be difficult. Certainly, it would be a lot harder than just accessing an unprotected AWS S3 database, for example.

We are still in the brave new world of blockchain, to be sure. Expect to see other innovative ways to use identity and distributed databases in the future that have nothing to do with the bitcoin exchange rate. We certainly live in exciting times.

Review of “Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire”

You probably have read your fill of business books. Author tries to make it big, leverages tons of his money and time, hires the wrong people, fires them, then goes it alone before striking it rich and motoring off into the sunset in some expensive car. Dan Conway’s Confessions of a Crypto Millionaire is not one of these books. Most business books offer just enough advice to fill a chapter, maybe two. Conway has a lot more to say about his obsession and investments in cryptocurrency, in particular Ethereum. Over a period of several years, he used his home mortgage equity loan and borrowed additional funds because he believed blockchain held the future model for decentralized corporations and the way that we will all work together. He ended up cashing out $14M ahead. It is his obsession that drives the book’s narrative, along with the crazy up-and-down valuation of Ether, where you can gain and lose millions in a matter of minutes.

What isn’t in this book is also notable: sordid tales of wretched excess of “tech-bros partying on yachts” or trashing expensive Vegas hotel suites.  Conway is a father of three, and still married to their mother.

Conway’s confessions is a refreshing tale about his fighting his demons, his addictions (alcohol and pills), his insecurities, and his almost always-on self-destructive alter-ego he calls his “Flip Side.” This side rears its ugly head during client presentations where he fumbles and fails and during periods of self-doubt when he tries to reassure himself his huge bet on Ether isn’t about to land him in the poor house.

“The book forced me to make sense of how my addictive personality played a part in my undoubtedly reckless crypto investments,” he told me via an email interview. He is part visionary, buying Ether at a time and at a level few people had the courage, vision, or just dumb luck to do. “It took everything admirable and loathsome about me to make the plunge into Ether. The loathsome part includes my addictive personality. While betting everything was an extreme risk, all risk requires insight, courage and maybe a little recklessness.” He hopes his story will get others to think about how they formulate their own risk taking.

Conway starts out his story “working for the man,” doing marketing and public relations for large corporations, one of whom he calls Acme. He wasn’t a good fit as the organization man to be sure. And since his windfall with Ether, he is unlikely to return to corporate America “unless we suffer a financial catastrophe.” He still believes that the decentralized blockchain can disrupt the traditional corporate power structure and has a lot of merit as an organizing principle. One example he cites is the MakeDAO, where ordinary folks can originate loans and handle other financial transactions without any financial institutional limits. It could pay off; it could fall flat: that is the challenge of cryptocurrency.

One aspect of his book is dealing very honestly with two situations: first, with his addictions. “This undoubtedly played a part in my reckless crypto investments, and writing the book helped force me to make sense of it all.”

Second, the book also describes how his financial windfall changed his family dynamics and the relationships with his circle of friends. Even though Conway lived in Silicon Valley, he was very firmly rooted in the middle class before he made it big with Ether. He writes: “Crypto was suddenly like an overexposed celebrity, and everyone was rooting for it to fail,“ but then realizes, “one of the bittersweet feelings about making a bunch of money is that you can’t bring your (less fortunate) friends with you.” That takes some adjustment, both for him and his family. Still, don’t be too sad: Now he takes long exotic vacations, buys his kids “name-brand clothes” instead of Sears knock-offs, and does car pool duty with a vengeance. “It’s absolutely nice to have the car-ride conversations rather than pinning all parent child bonding on the “how was your day?” question when everyone is exhausted.” True dat.

Conway is committed to Ethereum because of its disruptive ability to change the way companies operate, the way companies get VC funding (the parts about the ICO shysters is worth reading alone), and the way the early pioneers — which Conway counts as himself — had to try to separate the criminals from the legit businesses. This book is well worth reading, even your own exposure to bitcoin and other cryptocoins is minimal.