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Friday, December 28, 2012

Digital Diary: Facebook Poke and the Tedium of Success Theater

There's a big problem in social media right now.

It's boring.

A crucial and indispensable source of news and information, absolutely. But more often than not, it's also tedious and predictable.

Don't get me wrong: My use of Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook has never been greater. But I'm growing tired of seeing everyone's perfectly framed, glittering nightscapes of the Manhattan skyline, their impeccably prepared meals, those beautifully blurred views of the world from an airplane window seat. I'm getting tired of carefully crafting and sharing them myself.

As these mediums have matured and more of our friends, colleagues, former flings, in-laws and friends have migrated to them, our use of them has changed. We've become better at choreographing ourselves and showing our best sides to the screen, capturing the most flattering angle of our faces, our homes, our evenings out, our loved ones and our trips.

It's success theater, and we've mastered it. We've gotten better at it because it matters more. You never know who is looking or how it might affect your relationships and career down the road, and as a result, we have become more cautious about the version of ourselves that we present to each other and the world. Even Twitter, a service steeped in real-time and right-nowness, has added filters to its photo uploads, letting its users add a washed-out effect to their posts. It makes me miss the raw and unfiltered glimpses those services used to provide of the lives of my friends and the people I follow.

But the ubiquity of success theater is why I've become so fascinated with Snapchat and, more recently, Facebook Poke, services that let you send photos, messages and videos with a built-in shelf life, that self-destruct after a time interval that you choose. The beauty of these applications, perhaps their main redempti ve quality, is that you can only send photos, messages and videos that you have created within the application. You cannot access your phone's photo library for a more attractive self-portrait or an exotic locale to mask that you're really sitting on the couch on Friday night in pajamas, wearing a face mask.

These applications are the opposite of groomed; they practically require imperfection, a sloppiness and a grittiness that conveys a sense of realness, something I've been craving in my communication. They transform the screen of your phone into a window into the life of your friend, wherever they are at that exact moment.

All of this is not to say that Snapchat or Facebook Poke have any permanent home in our daily routines. The applications, in their current iterations, have yet to gain significant traction in any of my social circles. Part of the fun is the novelty, as with any new service. And both have specific uses that are not as mainstream as services l ike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or even Tumblr. After all, it's much harder to find your comfort level within them. It's startling, at first, to see the poorly lit, grainy pictures of your friends' unfiltered faces, to adjust to the intimacy of realizing that the video of your friend that just landed in your in-box is meant for your eyes only, and that you are expected to send something of equal or greater intimacy in return. It is also possible that over time, Snapchat, VidBurn and Facebook Poke will become warped by their own versions of success theater, or lose steam if they gain seedier reputations.

But they capture a behavior my closest friends and I had already begun to adopt: The practice of showing each other where we are at any given moment in time, either through a short video or photo of our workstations, our faces as we lie half-asleep in bed on rainy Sunday afternoons, a look into our lives that is reserved for only those closest to each other. It is an acknowledgement that the version of ourselves we share through other social media is not the truest one, and has not been for a long time.

This is a variation of the same impulse that made Chatroulette a viral hit, and something that Apple has tried to capture with FaceTime, Google with its Hangouts, even Color's ill-fated last and final iteration. It's enough to make me think that the real real-time social Web is coming, in one form or another.

Bahrain Detains Officer for Slapping Man

Although Bahrain has previously failed to prosecute members of the security forces caught on video shooting unarmed protesters, this week an officer who slapped a man with a baby in his arms was detained after video of the incident attracted wide attention.

The activist Ala'a Shehabi drew attention to the video, which was recorded on Sunday in the village of A'ali.

The clip, which has been viewed more than 450,000 times this week, prompted Bahrain's interior ministry to announce that the officer had been detained pending an investigation.

After video of another incident was posted online, Bahrain's interior minister “condemned the behavior of policemen seen recently in videos circulating on social media” in a statement. The minister also asked members of the public who record such violations to report them to the authorities.

An opposition activist who blogs as Chan'ad Bahraini suggested that it was odd for the government to encourage witnesses who record abusive behavior by the police to come forward less than two weeks after jailing a leading rights activist for documenting injuries suffered by a protester on Twitter.

As Mohamed Hassan pointed out in a post for Global Voices, however, the interior ministry's official statements were undermined by comments made by Bahrain's police chief, Tariq al-Hassan. In a series of updates on his personal Twitter account translated by the Global Voices blogger, the senior police official suggested that such video recording of police brutality were part of a plot:

Attempts to defame the ministry of interior and its staff is a part of a fierce war by known and exposed persons and organizations after their previous plans have failed.

Those organizations and their followers use derogatory terms towards policemen to demean their personalities and incite hate towards them among the people young and old.

They set up ambushes for policemen based on scenarios prepared by media professionals working in known media channels in other countries and then filmed and released when needed.

These traitorous fakers publish those scenes and exaggerate them as they are instructed and the way that fits the go als of those countries and theirs.

The Global Voices blogger also translated a Twitter comment from the Qatari journalist Mohamed Fahad Alqahtani, who observed: “The slap video is agonizing because it is a testimony that the dignity of a human is the least appreciated thing on the priority list of some Gulf police states. What a shame!”

NYC Crime Is Up and Bloomberg Blames iPhone Thieves

Major crime in New York City inched up this year, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on Friday fingered the culprit: too many iPhones and iPads were being swiped

Pakistan to Lift YouTube Ban, as a Viral Video Star Is Welcomed Home

Muhammad Shahid Nazir, a singing fishmonger who became a star thanks to a viral YouTube video, was given a hero's welcome on his return to Lahore on Thursday.Arif Ali/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images Muhammad Shahid Nazir, a singing fishmonger who became a star thanks to a viral YouTube video, was given a hero's welcome on his return to Lahore on Thursday.

Pakistan's interior minister announced on Friday that the country plans to lift a ban on YouTube that was imposed in September, following violent protests over a crude anti-Islam film uploaded to the site by an Egyptian-American. The governme nt acted to rescind the ban just hours after the star of one of the year's most popular YouTube videos, a singing Pakistani fishmonger, was given a hero's welcome on his return to Lahore from Britain.

The minister, Rehman Malik, revealed the news in a series of updates to his Twitter feed, in which he said that Pakistanis should be able to access the site within 24 hours and congratulated the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority on finding ways to “block anti-Islamic material.”

As the Web desk of Pakistan's Express Tribune noted, though, “the news of the video-sharing site being unblocked comes with an ominous cloud over it.” Specifically, the interior minister's subsequent statement that the government is moving ahead with a plan to emulate China by constructing a national firewall to filter content.

Mr. Malik's comments were published one day after the Pakistani star of a viral video was given an elaborate welcome in the city of Lahore. According to a report in Friday's edition of the Pakistani newspaper The Nation:

Hundreds showed up at Lahore airport to honor Muhammad Shahid Nazir, who scaled the British music charts with “One Pound Fish,” which he originally composed to entice shoppers at the east London market where he worked. The song became a YouTube hit after someone filmed Nazir singing i t at the market and Warner Music signed him up for a record deal in the hope of getting the coveted Christmas number one spot in the charts.

Mr. Nazir owes his stardom to a freelance Web designer's YouTube clip of the fishmonger singing his “One Pound Fish” tune at a market in London's Upton Park in March. The video of that performance has been viewed more than 7 million times.

Video of a Pakistani fishmonger singing at a market in London in March has been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube this year.

That viral hit spawned a professional music video for a dance remix of the song, released three weeks ago, that has racked up an additional 9 million views. Warne r Music is also selling six remixes of the song on iTunes.

The “o-fish-al” music video for “One Pound Fish,” the dance remix.

The Nation's report gave a sense of how famous Mr. Nazir managed to become, despite the ban on the video-sharing site in his home country: “Around 250 people, including local politicians met him at the airport, showering him with rose petals and chanting ‘Long Live One Pound Fish!' while TV networks interrupted coverage of the fifth anniversary of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination to show his return live.”

According to a note Mr. Nazir poste d on Twitter on Friday, the ban on YouTube apparently failed to prevent his song from becoming a hit in Pakistan.

Doubts about the effectiveness of easily-evaded block on the video-sharing site were described last month in a video report from Karachi's Express Tribune, whose Web editor noted that traffic to the newspaper's YouTube channel increased in the two weeks following the ban.

A video report on Pakistan's YouTube ban from Karachi's Express Tribune.

While the recent block on YouTube access in Pakistan was explained as a measure to deal with the threat posed to the nation's moral fiber by the crude biopic of the Prophet Muhammad uploaded by an Egyptian Christian living in California, the authorities have also been disturbed by the use of the video-sharing site by Islamist militants. Last year, the interior minister told reporters that Pakistan might need to block YouTube and other Web sites based in the United States to prevent the Taliban and other militant groups from using the Internet to communicate.

Video of Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, speaking to reporters on Sept. 17, 2011.

Dreams of \'Open\' Everything

Software is not merely about automating every aspect of our lives anymore. Some of its makers want to change the way we all interact, spreading their supposed egalitarian excellence.

Whether this is liberation into a new and better mode of being (and yes, the people thinking about this take it to that scale) or the folly of an industry in love with its success is one of the more intriguing questions of a world rushing to live online.

GitHub is a San Francisco company that started in 2008 as a way for open-source software writers in disparate locations to rapidly create new and better versions of their work. Work is stored, shared and discussed, based on the idea of a “pull request,” which is a suggestion to the group for some accretive element, like several lines of code, to be “pulled,” or added, to a project.

“The concept is based around change: what is the right thing to do, what is the wrong thing?” said Tom Preston-Werner, GitHub's co-fo under and chief executive. “The efficiency of large groups working together is very low in large enterprises. We want to change that.”

Mr. Preston-Werner's own company is something of a proxy for how he sees the world. GitHub has no managers among its 140 employees, for example. “Everyone has management interests,” he said. “People can work on things that are interesting to them. Companies should exist to optimize happiness, not money. Profits follow.” He does, however, retain his own title and decides things like salaries.

In his blog Mr. Preston-Werner has written about how important it is for  companies to expose as much of their inner workings as possible. Another member of GitHub has posted a talk that stresses how companies flourish when people want to work on certain things, not b ecause they are told to.

This style and sentiment echoes those at another company, Asana, a corporate social network aiming to improve the pace of work. Founded by Dustin Moskovitz, who was a co-founder of Facebook and for many years ran its technology, Asana bases work on a series of to-do lists that people assign one another. Inside Asana there are no formal titles, though like GitHub there are bosses at the top who make final decisions.

For all the happiness and sharing, real money is involved here. In July GitHub received $100 million from the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. This early in most software companies' lives, $20 million would be a fortune.

Companies pay to use GitHub, and it has become an exceptionally popular way for people to do all kinds of software work; in 2012 its number of users jumped t o 2.8 million from 1.2 million. The number of “repositories” - containing code, its documentation, images associated with a project or other work - increased to 4.6 million from 1.7 million last year.

Many of these are open-source projects, and GitHub does not break out their revenue.

GitHub's popularity has also made it an important way for companies to recruit engineers, because some of the best people in the business are showing their work or dissecting the work of others inside some of the public pull requests. Its founders and backers, however, want to use the GitHub model to make mobile and enterprise software applications, and possibly much more.

Mr. Preston-Werner thinks the way open source requires a high degree of trust and collaboration among relative equals (plus a few high-level managers who define the scope of a job and make final decisions) can be extended more broadly, even into government.

“For now this is about code, but we can make the burden of decision-making into an opportunity,” he said. “It would be useful if you could capture the process of decision-making, and see who suggested the decisions that created a law or a bill.”

Can this really be extended across a large, complex organization, however?

As complex as an open-source project may be, it is also based on a single, well-defined outcome, and an engineering task that is generally free of concepts like fairness and justice, about which people can debate endlessly. Even on a less lofty plane, companies like GitHub and Asana will ultimately test themselves against complex corporate processes lasting years, and involving skills in both science and the humanities. Google once prided itself on few managers and fast action, but has found that getting big can also involve lots more meetings.

Still, these fast-rising successes may be on to something more than simply universalizing the means of their own good fortune. An ea rly guru of the Information Age, Peter Drucker, wrote often in the latter part of his career of the need for managers to define tasks, and for workers to seek fulfillment before profits.

Daily Report: Online Retailers Push Same-Day Shipping

This holiday season, same-day shipping replaced free shipping as the new must-have promotion for e-commerce companies, Stephanie Clifford and Claire Cain Miller report in Friday's New York Times. Same-day shipping is logistically complicated and money-losing - and may not even be a service that consumers want or need, analysts say. But retailers big and small are willing to take the risk. Even the Postal Service has introduced a same-day option for retailers. And the reason is simple: fear of Amazon.com.

Amazon, the world's biggest online retailer, has hinted that it will expand its same-day shipping service, giving customers the immediate gratification that has been the biggest advantage of brick-and-mortar stores.

Big retailers like Toys “R” Us, Macy's and Target have worked with eBay to deliver items the same day, as have ot her old-line stores. Google has begun testing a local delivery service with several chains.

“There's lots going on in this space, and it's all driven by Amazon,” said Tom Allason, founder and chief executive of Shutl, a British same-day delivery service that will expand to the United States next year. “It's not really being driven by consumers at the moment.”

The same-day delivery idea was a spectacular failure during the dot-com boom. Companies like Kozmo.com and Webvan went under because the services simply cost too much to be profitable. Amazon has offered same-day shipping since 2009, but with limits - only in big cities near Amazon warehouses on certain items ordered in the morning.

The geographical limits exist because Amazon had built warehouses far from major cities to avoid charging sales tax in certain states. But it has now given in on the sales tax fight, and in return, is erecting warehouses near cities like San Francisco, which analyst s say is paving the way for faster, more widespread same-day delivery and spurring competitors.