GET IT ALL TOGETHER: WordPress, Social Media and Content

I can say with certainty that I’m not alone on this: my inbox has slowly, almost imperceptibly, switched from my primary source of communication to my least-used spam trap. Not even my parents generation is necessarily using email for much these days. Without realizing it, I’ve allowed my FaceBook account to be the de-facto means of communication in my life for all but the most specific of topics and recipients.

But this makes things very difficult, doesn’t it? For one, my entire communication circle is entirely under the banner of one company who can do whatever they like with it. That includes just plain screwing it up and making the service unavailable through some inadvertent “whoopsie.” Another problem is that I have really no means of auditing this type of communication: FaceBook keeps its own logs of wall posts, messages, comments and status updates to itself and I cannot backup my posts to my own private store. This is not the height of concern for those “I just ate bacon and it was good,” kind of status updates, but what about communication from really important sources?

Because, believe me, this type of communication can only grow more common and robust. We have a danger, in embracing the up-to-the-minute web, of losing what happened five minutes ago.

Alternative solutions which mimic the FaceBook system are being developed, of course. I suspect they’re being developed in one form or another just about everywhere. My company is looking to integrate such a system into an eCommerce website. Google Labs is developing Google Wave. Mozilla is looking to hit it big with Rain Drop. Such experiments and projects are inevitable whenever the meme of Internet communication changes in some way. I’m certainly starting to work new projects around the idea of FaceBook Connect logins as a gotta-have component; meanwhile, everything I build has at least some air of “Social Web” communication to it.

I’m not sure that any of these really hit the mark, though. Rain Drop, as it has been explained thus far, sounds like something akin to a Tweetdeck/Ping.fm hybrid. Google Wave looks interesting, but even with as much as communication has changed, I think it might be just a bridge too far for the majority of Internet users; the interface as it current exists is just too wonkish and geek-centric. Individual sites – both eCommerce sites like my company and service-based projects like I’m working on in my spare time – will inevitably include some very personal means of communication, but they hardly hope to replace email.

And the most distressing thing of all is that the one component lacking in these various systems is an open source protocol on which to build. What has to this point made email such a great option was largely the fact that the underlying system is an open protocol which can be and was adopted by myriad companies in their own ways. But an AOL user was never prevented from sharing information with a Juno user or a Hotmail user. As much as the good systems now include APIs to spread their influence, they don’t include open standards which allow free sharing across the networks.

Does anyone with influence step in to say something about this? Or have we sufficiently commercialized the Internet to the point where its foundations no longer matter? Open forum communication and status updates are a great feature of the modern Internet, but it will be a dark day when the primary means of communication becomes mired in proprietary warfare.

Great article from Mashable author Ben Parr about the rise of LBS, or Location-Based Services. There have been location-based concepts floating around the Web2.0 sphere for quite a while, but as iPhones and other smart wireless devices become more robust and applications for them more ubiquitous, LBS is becoming the hot new ticket:

Location-Based Services: Are You Using Them?.

How this shakes out in terms of privacy will be interesting to watch. Privacy people are probably going to largely take a dim view of such technology, and its good to have them in the public discussing the security aspects of this. It’s also true that, with every new technology, there is a host of information of which much of the population is largely unaware. This therefore makes the public potentially much more exposed to abuse.

But taking the progressive view of the subject, it seems to me that even without LBS applications, we are incredibly trackable anyway. Just about every new phone is equipped with GPS, making it a homing beacon for whomsoever can hack into it. Bluetooth broadcasts its location to anyone within a few dozen feet unless you turn off the search mode, which technical support experience tells me many people probably do not.

So what changes about LBS is that, rather than simply being open to the possibility of being tracked, users make the voluntary choice to be tracked. If they are making deliberate choices, it stands to reason they are taking security into account on at least some level. This to me seems like a good thing – a progression in personal security – not a lapse into doom and gloom of a remote-controlled dystopia.

I can’t imagine how much worse this could possibly be. Google’s new plan, announced on it’s AdSense blog, is to allow it’s widgets to read site user’s cookies and advertise to them based on their browsing preferences. To restate: visitors to your website will have their cookies read by a third party and then they will see ads based on their own search history rather than your website’s content.

Let’s walk through the reasons that this is a bad idea:

Site Content Integrity

While its certainly true that Google’s AdSense ads very often make almost no sense to your site’s content in the first place, there is at least a keyword similarity which, while not always actually relevant, at least provides some amusement for you and your audience. But with Google’s new plan, content completely unrelated to your site will appear on your site – without so much as even the veneer of relevance.

Ads featuring Spider Man comics on a breast cancer site are bad enough – they’re non-sequiturs, but basically harmless. But consider what happens when a person browses to TownHall.com or RedState.com – two politically Conservative websites – and then browses to TalkingPointsMemo.com: they see a bunch of ads supporting Conservative causes or promoting Republican politicos on a site that’s supposed to be Liberal. The reverse is just as bad, of course.

The person browsing your website may not be savvy enough to know that their cookies are being read. As a result, they question your dedication to a cause based on the advertisements that seem to directly contradict your stance.

And maybe worse than that, what happens when the politically active user browses to a mainstream news website? Now that news website is advertising for politically-biased goods and services. That’s not a good precedent to set.

Parental Control vs. Uncle Google?

There are lots of other scenarios which are just about as bad. One such scenario might be a user browsing porn sites and then visiting a child abuse website. But honestly, I’m sure Google must have thought this part through, right? Right?

And what about a shared computer for a family? Does a user with kids really need to see Dora the Explorer crap on WebMD? What about the reverse? What adult content – not necessarily porn – do you want your kid to be introduced to by Creepy Uncle Google?

Privacy Issues

This one’s pretty clear-cut: Google is making changes to it’s own code for advertisement that violates Internet user’s privacy. We just got done illegalizing SpyWare not too long ago, now Google wants to start snooping your cookies again? How can this not be illegal?

And here’s the real joke: they expect us as web masters to make changes to our own privacy policies because of their illegal behavior. That’s right: Google makes the changes, you wear the egg on your face. And clearly, if they want you to update your own privacy policy, there must be at least some potential legal backlash. And since they sent you an email, well, it’s not their fault anymore. You’re on your own.

Follow the Money

All these things being equal, it’s hard to imagine most reputable web site owners really being comfortable with this new advertising regime. Irrelevant content on your site, violating the privacy of your users, potentially being open to litigation for someone else’s wrong doing. This is not a good scenario.

So what does that leave us? Well, the only people who don’t care about irrelevant content would have to be Sploggers and other black-hats making money off Google Ads. After all the talk about not wanting to reward these types of websites, Google goes ahead and launches a new program which cannot possibly benefit anyone else.

This is not going to happen, I can almost feel it. The backlash is already pretty fierce. Once news of this program makes it’s way to the main stream news, it’s done for. Google, my advice to you: don’t be evil.