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Nothing lasts forever

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“Nothing lasts forever”, starts John Naughton’s recent piece in The Guardian. He puts the current tech empires, like Facebook and Apple, into perspective, and compares them to previously glorious hegemonies like Rome which eventually failed and withered. Now, even that is probably giving these companies too much credit. The parallel to Microsoft is probably more accurate; once the star and darling of the tech industry and press, they are now just another boring mega-corp.

One of the reasons Naughton mentions as why these two companies might see dark clouds ahead is their business models built around “walled gardens”. That happens to be in vogue right now, but might show cracks once users find that there are too many restrictions. However, before we see these stars fade, there will have to be alternatives. The Android “alliance” is certainly giving Apple a run for its money, but does still not compete in the “fashion category”. Facebook has some smaller competitors, but none of which can single-handedly sway users away. What would really tear their stronghold would be a federated model and protocols to social networking, just as what we take for granted with e-mail. Again, there are a few attempts at this, yet no signs that things will change drastically in the short term.

1 in 10 Facebook accounts are fake

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Facebook recently filed their quarterly “10-Q” official report, and there are a few interesting details. CNet has picked up on the fact that a lot of users accounts are various kind of fake and duplicate accounts. Although this should come as no surprise, it is interesting to see the numbers straight from the horse’s mouth (even if that probably makes them somewhat biased).

The fake accounts are categorized in three types: 4.8% duplicates, 2.4% “misclassified”, and 1.5% “undesirable”, for a total of 8.7%. Duplicate accounts are most likely to be under-estimated, as one would assume this is a very wide-spread user-pattern amongst young people who want a bit of privacy from their parents. The misclassified part is interesting as includes pets, toy animals, and possibly some businesses. Finally, the undesirable are the hundreds of John Rambos, Britney Spears and less famous yet non-authorized use of somebody else’s name.

Using the number of 955 million monthly active users, and subtracting the fake, we’re left with around 859 – 872 million (8.7% – 10%) semi-active users. Looking at daily active users, the Facebook report states that there are 552 million, but also that many mobile users leave the Facebook application running, without actively using it. They estimate that this is the case for some 5% of daily active users. So, assuming the same proportion of daily active fakes, we’re left with around 470 million users (minus 15%). Or, in other words, around half of their bragging number is in fact active.

Facebook is still big, however they have a vested interest in over-representing their user count. Their latest report shows that their top number should always be taken with a grain of salt, and that around half of what they count as active users is a much more realistic number.

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Real Names

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The “Real Names” discussion is raging these days, and it’s great to see not only fringe opinionist chipping in, but big names on both sides. Danah Boyd from Microsoft chooses to focus on the power people ought to have to secure themselves. While Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, looks at pseudonyms and how they can be used to avoid persisting and attaching information to one’s real identity. The Slashdot crowd says, “if you don’t like it, don’t use their service”. Everybody has a story from Facebook when sensitive information leaked out to the wrong people.

All this starts to sound familiar, and indeed the various points raised now were all neatly collected about two years ago in Viktor Mayer-Schonberger’s book “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Schonberger’s argument was not focused on real name or pseudonyms, but rather examined what happens when the default shifts from forgetting to remembering almost everything. He investigates several options and solutions to the problem of eternal memory, and has at least one suggestion which might help: expiration dates for information.

Although engineers and managers alike would get much back from reading the book, I fear that Schonberger’s argument would be lost on many of them. It would drown in technical details and resistance, never making it into code. Expiring digital information is so counter-intuitive to how engineers work and think, it would be written off as impossible.

As for the “Real Names” debate, my take is “trust no one”. “Enemy of the State” is definitely worth a re-watch if you haven’t seen it lately.

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