Archive for April, 2011

Teens that Tweet – I can haz privacy

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

As we speak more and more about how social networks and associated media affect the lives of our children and younger generations in general, we often make the assumption that younger people care less about their privacy than older generations. What I think is interesting about this is the presumption that their different view on personal privacy is _worse_ than the standard established by ourselves. (Arrogance of the present anyone?)

tweetersNow I don’t doubt that we have to do much more to help people (young and old) to better understand the consequences of public communication – this is usually the point where someone will bring up the inevitable friendly warning about prospective employers screening candidates via their Facebook escapades, but that notwithstanding, it’s important to dig a little deeper around this issue as the reality is much more interesting.

This article from Danah Boyd and Alice Marwick, starts to show that the reality of how younger people think about and deal with their individual privacy is more about having your cake _and_ eating it.

My theory is that younger generations are much more binary about elements of their personal lives that they share versus keep private or within a very close circle of friends.

They may have a broader list of personal data “elements” they are willing to share with the world, but they maintain fierce control over a smaller subset of their personal identity that they will only share with their inner circle of their closest friends.

The truth is, younger people are very adept about managing what stays inside the private circle and what gets broadcast outside, often using complicated obfuscation techniques, encrypting private messages in public conversations using language that no parent could ever penetrate.

The other thing to remember is that there’s really nothing new about the view that younger generations have a looser definition of what they are willing to broadcast to the world. Since the beginning of time, young people have been more public about their personal likes and dislikes as a means of establishing their identity in their society. As we become more confident in our identities we lose the desire to be so promiscuous with the elements of our identity and settle into the shoes we were destined to wear.

For my own example, having reached a certain age, I no longer feel compelled to tell the world I am The Men They Couldn’t Hang’s biggest fan by wearing t-shirts and other paraphernalia emblazoned with their logo or boring people in the pub with how much I know about BMW motorbikes and beer (OK, scratch that last one), frankly, my identity is established and I am free to live in my size 12’s and worry more about other things (like life, death and taxes).

So understanding this, what do we need to do? Well as technology providers, we need to provide an open and transparent means of letting individuals (young and old) establish and maintain a firm boundary between public and private, with the understanding that the line will be different for every single individual, and will change based on the context of what they are doing at any given point in time. Failure to do that will only result in more embarrassing headlines about unintended personal data breaches and a continued lack of trust in how we use technology effectively in our personal and professional lives.

Oh, and by the way, if you really are worried about prospective employers judging you on your Facebook feed, worry not, these days you can probably turn the tables by looking them up first…

Searching for Spongebob–A primer on user intent

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

It’s no secret that the more a search engine knows about you, the better it can serve results. An important part of achieving this is based around an important concept called user intent – effectively, the more I can guess/understand about what you are actually trying to achieve, the more relevant I can make the results.

User intent is typically split into three key domains, Navigational, Informational and Transactional. Watching my young son make his way around the internet provides some good examples of each of these:

Navigational Intent
compassSometimes referred to as lazy browsing, this is simply using the search engine to save me from having to remember the URL’s for my favourite sites, e.g. searching for Spongebob to find his internet home.

Informational Intent
infoThis is where the purpose of my queries is to find out more about a particular topic, e.g. what is Sponegbob’s best friend called? (He’s called Patrick, and he’s a starfish in case you were wondering).

Transactional Intent
walletAdmittedly this feels like a bucket where you put all the other intents that don’t fit into the above categories, it’s a fairly obvious but broad topic, and ranges from I want to buy something, e.g. I’d like to buy some Spongebob merchandise to the use of the search engine to help you with a particular task. e.g. I’d like to set up an email account so I can email Spongebob.

(N.B. A warning to parents with “digital children” – commercial intent is rather easy to acquire and unless you set up your Amazon/eBay etc accounts properly, you’ll find yourselves with a lot of Spongebob merchandise you perhaps weren’t expecting Winking smile)

Now this is all well and good, but the concept of user intent reflects a very transactional view of the internet and how we use it. This was all well and good in the early days of the web when the web was fairly flat and much more reflective of the “book” analogy that html presented, but in today’s internet age, we require something rather deeper and more joined up – effectively some kind of “uber intent”.

Our current concept of user intent is based on a serial, transactional approach (e.g. complete task a, move to task b, complete task b and onto task c and so on), and is the way we are forced to search and use the internet even though outside our digital existence, we complete the same objectives in a much more parallel and holistic way.

Planning a night out or a holiday is a good example of this – in order to achieve the outcome I’m looking for, I’m forced into an endless series of transactional queries – where to stay, what to see, what to eat, how to get there and so on whereas what I really want to do is enter my chosen destination and have the search engine do the heavy lifting – understanding that my intent is a trip to Toronto, I want it to bring me back a range of details on that destination that cover all those areas and I want them all in one location – the results page.

Understanding just how hard that is to do, makes me realise that we are at the very beginning of our journey to really make the most of what the internet has to offer. To us, the internet is still a very dumb tool, offering only a fraction of it’s overall potential. To unlock it however, will require us to face some pretty heavy obstacles –such as; How do you do all this and ensure the (data) privacy of the individuals? Culturally, are we ready to trust the “machines” to make our decisions for us? And finally, is there room for serendipity in a world of anticipated, formulated responses?