Saturday, 23 March 2013

Innovation in assembly: what happened to MySpace?

Part of a series on Web 2.0 Applications

MySpace. I imagine if I log into my old, old profile I'll see it occupying a virtual ghost town of rundown, abandoned walls and inactive profiles wearing out-of-fashion clothes and standing forlornly on street corners. Ads might blow past like tumbleweeds, as I navigate through the remains of a once-great social civilisation.

So where did MySpace go wrong?

In competing with Facebook over who could offer the best social platform, MySpace failed to follow some important best-practices. I'll take a look at these, but first...

What's a web platform?

In the olden days before software was written for the web, it was written for a specific platform, like Windows or Linux. Today, through the combined powers of Web 2.0, HTML5 and friends applications can be "platform independent", running in a web browser on almost any machine. The web itself has become the platform.

2.0 applications such as Facebook, Flickr, Amazon and eBay provide their own platforms, enabling developers to produce third-party apps that integrate with those sites in a variety of ways. You see this in action whenever you use an app on Facebook or log into another site using your Facebook credentials. (For further discussion about the properties and types of web platforms, see Platforms on the Web are Platforms on a Platform and this article which has a much less catchy name.)

MySpace vs Facebook

From 2005 to early 2008, MySpace was the world's most popular social networking site. In its heyday it competed with Facebook, but Facebook eventually won and now not even the uncool kids will admit to using MySpace. (For a more in-depth comparison of Facebook and MySpace, this article is worth a read.)

MySpace failed to follow these web platform best practices:

  • Offer APIs to your service
    Offering an open API is key to developing a successful web platform. The API enables users and developers to create programs that interact with, plug into or run on your site. It's also a way to get users to work for you, developing the functions they want and integrating them into your site.

    It's significant that Facebook was the first social networking service to open up its API to the public. This article dates from when the Facebook API was released. MySpace's API was released about five months after Facebook's. Failure to make the API available earlier must have been significantly damaging at the time, when Facebook and MySpace were in direct competition.

    In the article's comments a few people speculate that one day Facebook will be bigger than MySpace. If only they knew.

  • Design for remixability; and Granular addressability of content
    It has been suggested that another reason for MySpace's failure is that it was primarily viewed as a social networking site. Valuable content was available but users could only access it through the homepage. If this content had been more accessible or remixable, MySpace might have been more widely used.

  • Apply API best practices
    Under best practices an open API should provide the features that are actually required by users.

    MySpace offered a high level of user customisation, however this feature was never user friendly and was never part of the API:
    "It looked terrible and it was this kind of awful rainbow of attempts to define different aspects of your personality. But you can't forget that it was really hard to do. You had to paste lots of different pieces of cff and java all over the place. People didn't know what they were doing but they went through incredible amounts of effort. In some ways, it was the most glorious hacking adventure that's ever existed online."

    For a laugh, take a look at these ugly MySpace pages.

    Enclosing this customisation feature within the API would have made the process more user friendly. It would also have made the profiles more secure, by placing more restriction on the user-defined scripts that could be used.

  • Use your platform to build customer trust and loyalty
    MySpace lost trust and loyalty in a number of ways. In addition to being ugly, MySpace's unrestricted customisations made the site look and feel unsafe. Pressure to monetise caused a spammy amount of advertising. Music-hawking spam was another problem, with unsolicited friend requests coming in regularly from random bands. Pages were also slow to load because of large music files, and annoying music would often play unexpectedly if you were browsing profiles.

In failing to follow these best practices, MySpace dropped the ball and watched, sadly, as it slowly bounced away.

Goodbye MySpace, hello ... new Myspace

MySpace has now picked up that ball and is inviting the world to play a different game: new Myspace.

In January 2013, the site reinvented itself as a platform for showcasing artists, especially musicians, and for fans and artists to communicate. Kind of like Spotify and SoundCloud; this article gives a good summary of the new features. Myspace has dropped the camel case, and it looks like an entirely new product is emerging under the badge of the old one.

The new site looks really promising to me but I do wonder whether this reinvention has come too late?

So, what are your thoughts? Do you miss MySpace? Which was your favourite: MySpace or Facebook? C'mon, comments ... hit me with them!


Monday, 18 March 2013

Note-sharing websites: would YOU use one?

Part of a series on Web 2.0 Applications

Data is the lifeblood of the internet, coarsing through the airwaves above your head. To put it another way, "Data is the Next Intel Inside": the chip fuelling many of the largest internet applications.

Sites such as Wikipedia, Amazon and eBay are nothing without data provided by users like you, and the same applies to less-legal torrent and file-sharing sites like EZTV and The Pirate Bay. Key to the success of these sites is data, and the creation of value from this data through employing a variety of strategies (see inset below).

The Whole Internet Truth

Student note-sharing websites: have YOU ever used one?

This week I felt like looking at the seedy side of the internet. Since I wasn't game to pick a porn site for a uni assignment, I've settled on something even better: Nexus Notes, a note-sharing sites for uni students.

The premise behind these sites is that students can buy and sell study notes, searchable by university, subject area and unit code. Students can use these notes to help prepare for exams or catch up on missed classes. They're like the eBay of study notes. There's usually no mention of assignments being available, but that's what we're all wondering isn't it?

I've sold notes through a similar site in the past. As an obsessive overachiever at uni, I make very detailed exam notes: summarised, condensed, colour-coded, with pictures, and bound. So, I thought, why not make some money off these? I signed up for an account and submitted a few sets. My cut from each sale was about $2 a pop, and I probably made about $30 before the money stopped coming in. I never submitted any assignments of my own, but plenty of assignments were being sold by others.

Nexus Notes (NN) appears to have replaced the site I used to use. It's based in Australia, and the homepage clearly states "Turn your University ... assignments into cash".

The site model is familiar: after creating an account students can browse by university, subject area and category, viewing short document descriptions before make purchases. Students can also upload their own documents and descriptive data, including proof of grade, and have the option of making the listing anonymous.

Nexus Notes: following best practices for data-centric applications

  • Unique, hard to recreate data
  • NN is wholly reliant on user-contributed data. This data is the result of a large time and effort commitment by the student author, and the currency of each document is also very important. These factors combine to make the data pool valuable and very hard to recreate.

  • Data is enhanced through user enrichment
    The seller must provide a detailed description of the document and evidence of the grade received for that subject or assessment. Purchasers give a star rating to each document, and the purchase count for each document is also displayed.

  • Enable users to control their own data
    Sellers retain ownership and IP, and have the right to post data anonymously.

  • Provide IP protection, but not be overly restrictive; and Ensure data is reusable and accessible
    The buyer "acquires a license to use the product" but Intellectual Property (IP) remains with the seller. A basic search function is incorporated to provide accessibility.

  • If you can't own the data, own the index, namespace or format
  • NN owns the web application and domain, and profits from commission on all sales, enabling their business model to function despite NN not actually owning the data.


The site appears fairly new, since there aren't many documents available and the list of universities and subject areas is limited. NN are clearly facing the "cold-start problem": the site is wholly dependent on user contributions in order to grow the document catalogue, but with the small range of documents currently available it will be difficult to attract buyers.

IP, copyright and the high potential for sites like this be used for plagiarism are also causes for concern. The site addresses the issue of data ownership by delegating all responsibility to its users:

"Nexus Notes does not have any control over, and does not take any responsibility for, the quality, safety or legality of any Products downloaded by you from the Site.
Nexus Notes does not warrant the infringement of third party IP rights by Products downloaded from Nexus Notes. Each Seller is required to warrant that its Product does not infringe the intellectual property rights of any third party."

Now, I'm no lawyer, but this looks a bit risky to me. With study material, it is often difficult to determine who holds the IP in the first place: university, lecturer, or student notetaker. This isn't policed or investigated by the site, so it all becomes a question of trust.

There are also ethical issues surrounding the potential for plagiarism, which the site's plagiarism policy attempts to address. However if you buy an assignment online, I'm betting your intentions might not be totally honest.

What do you think, will this assignment be used as a "layout example"?
-- Screenshot from Nexus Notes

Competitors and challengers

There are a number of similar sites on the net, although NN looks like it could be the main one in Ausralia. Prominent among other sites is Notehall in the US, which presents itself as pretty legit. There are also a number of anti-plagiarism sites, like Turnitin, which may be used to detect students who have plagiarised assignments through a note-sharing site.

What do you think, would you ever use a site like this? For buying or selling? Please take a minute to complete this week's survey, and let me know what you think.


Friday, 8 March 2013

Google Docs: a student's tool for harnessing collective intelligence

Part of a series on Web 2.0 Applications

"Collective intelligence is ... shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals"

Nobody likes group assignments, right?

There is this problem, and there is that problem, and then there is another problem. Even for those of us who do enjoy group work, we usually have some horror stories to tell.


In this post, I'd like to share some collaboration strategies for successful group projects. Clever use of Google Docs for online, real-time collaboration can make the assignment process more reflective of a "group effort" and can produce a higher quality assessment. You may not know it, but with some of these techniques you too can harness your group's collective intelligence!

"Collective intelligence is groups of individuals doing things collectively that seem intelligent"
— T Malone, MIT

Characteristics of collective intelligence

  • Openness
    "benefits accrue from allowing others to share ideas and gain significant improvement and scrutiny through collaboration"

  • Peering
    "users are free to modify and develop"

  • Sharing
    "share some ideas while maintaining some degree of control over others"

  • Acting globally
    "no geographical boundaries"

— D Tapscott and A D Williams. Cited on Wikipedia. Original source available from Amazon.

Even small groups display collective intelligence

Collective intelligence is often known as crowdsourcing, and a common misconception is that it is only a product of large, distributed groups. However research conducted by MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence found that even small groups (2-5 people) show significant collective intelligence. MIT poses the question: Could a group’s collective intelligence be increased by, for example, better electronic collaboration tools?

In my experience Web 2.0 tools such as Google Docs are the perfect collaboration tools for university group assessments, enabling the group to tap into shared knowledge, skills and intelligence in a very effective way.

What is Google Docs?

Google Docs (Docs) is an app available on Google Drive, designed for sharing documents between multiple users and devices on the cloud. The interface is similar to most desktop word processing applications, however Docs is stored on the cloud and accessed through the user's web browser.

Documents can be edited collaboratively and in real-time by multiple users. Users can view changes made by others, comments can  be made within the document, and a chat function is available for live group discussion and feedback. Changes are also tracked and past revisions are automatically saved.

How is Google Docs used by students today?

Docs has revolutionised the way smart students collaborate on group assignments. I just conducted a quick poll of Hubby's friends, who graduated about 4-5 years ago: for them, group work involved dividing the project up into parts, working on those parts individually, and holding weekly meetings to discuss the project. They complained that the parts of the assessment were of varying quality and rarely had a consistent style, and the burden fell upon one member of the group to collate those parts into a final report, often at the last minute.

Just a few years later, and all of my group assignments are done on Docs. Yes, it is my tool of choice, but other students consistently recommend it to me as well.

I generally kick off a group assignment by putting a rough outline of the report structure into the Doc. The group does divide the assignment into parts, and we each take responsibility for our share. This may sound similar to how assignments were done in the past, but the use of a shared online document for collaboration has a number of additional benefits:

  • We can view, comment on and edit others' sections 
    For this technique to be successfully adopted, it is important to agree with the group from the outset that all feedback is welcome and encouraged, and to stress that the report is ultimately a combined effort. I have observed that multiple group members editing the same section, each with their own knowledge and ideas, can produce a very coherent and well thought out report. Common mistakes by individual group members, such as misunderstandings or failing to identify important concepts, can often be prevented by collaborating in this way.

  • We can chat with group members in real-time
    Docs' chat function, and ability to view and comment on others' edits in real-time, promote communication within the group. Weekly meetings are still desirable, but Docs enables more regular and convenient virtual meetings.

  • We can view and comment on others' changes in real-time
    Receiving comments on a section you are currently working on can be useful, enabling you to action those suggestions and/or discuss them further at the time, while you're still working on the project, rather than having to go back to them later when the project isn't fresh in your mind.

  • We can see which group members aren't pulling their weight
    This promotes accountability and makes it easier to pick up potential group issues early on in the project.

Effectively using these techniques enables the assignment to be more than a collection of parts; it can become a true product of the collective intelligence of the group.


But is this really "collective intelligence", or just "collaboration"?

Four characteristics of collective intelligence are openness, peering, sharing and acting globally (Tapscott & Williams). In my typical group experience using Docs, these characteristics are all met.

Sharing your own sections of an assignment facilitates openness, allowing other group members to suggest new ideas and provide feedback. Recognising that all members take equal ownership of the project is an example of peering; this helps group members take responsibility of the whole of the report rather than just their individual sections, often resulting in a better quality of work being produced overall.

Sharing ideas is the central reason why this form of collaboration is so successful, and the ease of accessing the application coupled with Docs' tracked changes and revisions enables all group members to have control over both the process and the final outcome. Finally, Docs enables group members to act globally, as they can collaborate with the group on their own schedule and at their own location, outside or even instead of weekly on-campus meetings.

"Collective stupidity is just as possible as collective intelligence"

Does this approach have disadvantages?

An online collaborative approach is never foolproof, particularly if a group member is untrustworthy, careless, or wants to deliberately sabotage the group, however this is more a disadvantage of group work than of any particular collaborative technique.

A report by NCBI does suggest "most users prefer parallel writing—either users work separately and occasionally upload their sections or write the entire sections separately and merge the sections with the document upon completion". However I would question this statement of user preference: among academically-matched peers, my experience of the collaborative Docs approach has been very positive. We do still take ownership of our own sections, perhaps a reflection of this "preference", but we also benefit greatly from the giving and receiving of feedback.

NCBI also suggests some potential disadvantages of collaborative online authoring.
  • Misinterpreting comments made by other users
  • Resolving conflicting suggestions
  • Lack of awareness of social concerns within the group
  • Poor annotation and version tracking tools

Docs' chat function and ability to simultaneously edit the document decreases the risk of misinterpreting other users' comments, and provides an additional forum for resolving conflicting suggestions. Real-time chat also increases the social cohesiveness of the group.

Google Wave: in memoriam

In relation to annotation and version control, brief and regretful mention should be made of Google Wave, which was similar to Docs but even better for group collaboration. One disadvantage of Docs is that it's not possible to see which user made which change, if you weren't online when the change was made. In comparison Wave used to clearly indicated which comments and changes were made by each user, through colour coding and annotation.

Wave also had a more prominent and easily accessible version control tool: users could view any past iteration of the document and could step through the changes made by themselves and other users. This provided greater control and security, and further reduced the potential disadvantage of poor annotation and version tracking.

The Wave project was sadly shut down in early 2012, due to "slow user uptake". The concept was handed over to Apache, and Apache Wave Wave in a Box is now being developed. Docs is good, but Wave was even better, and I will be eagerly watching as this project evolves.

What technologies do YOU use for group collaboration? Please let me know your thoughts, and take a minute to answer this week's poll on the right.


Monday, 4 March 2013

How do YOU show your love of IT?

This is my tattoo. It signifies the two most important things in my life: programming and good grammar. Just in case you doubted how cool I am. ;)

Pic of my semicolon tattoo

Getting this tattoo was a little reward to myself for reaching the half-way point in my degree with my GPA still intact.

You might say a semicolon is an odd tattoo, but I'm very fond of the little thing. I've been a hopeless grammar pedant for, like, forever, and I wanna do my bit to make sure my favourite punctuation mark never dies out. My wrist isn't large enough for two independent clauses, so I settled for just the semicolon.

Even if emoticons will ultimately keep the semicolon alive, it makes me sad to hear 'Hey, is that half a winky* face on your arm?'.

* I'm the sort of person who googles 'winky winkey winkie' to get the spelling right, then looks up 'googles' in her dictionary app to confirm the lower case usage (Macquarie Compete Australian Dictionary which, by the way, is the very first app I put on my iPhone, for $34.99, while Hubby was still browsing the free games - priorities, people!).

But ... back to the other significance of my awesome tattoo. I fell into programming by accident and have only discovered how totally fun it is fairly recently. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, so after school I ended up working in admin. For a long time I didn't know what I was good at, or what special skills I might have.

I'm old enough and/or the schools I went to were poor enough that if they offered computer courses I didn't know about it; the computer was basically a neat word processing tool to me. Of course when I entered the workplace the computer became much more useful, and I started to get a better and better understanding, as a user, of what computers can do. I'll skip the bit I mention in interviews, about how useful some of the things I learnt during this time were, and I'll land just before the bit where I say I enrolled in a BIT degree.

I thought I'd end up as a system analyst, if not on a helpdesk, but after one introductory programming unit I was hooked. I enjoy receiving a problem, working through the logic, and finding the most elegant solution I can. I enjoy thinking in code and can spend hours 'in the zone' at my computer. And yes, I also enjoy making sure all my semicolons are in place.

My tattoo says to me 'Amber, always remember, you've found something to be passionate about!'.

How do YOU show your love of IT?


P.S. Here are some others I also like:

'</head><body>' tattoo
Actually not a favourite; this
one just bugs me. Where are
the opening head and closing
 body tags? Link

JavaScript tattoo
There's an awesome explanation of this tattoo
on this guy's blog.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Who am I and why am I here?

Well, I'm doing this subject at uni and the lecturer said I have to make a blog.

Sorry, I'm (partly) kidding there. Yes, I'm a student, and yes, there is a thrilling series on Web 2.0 coming to this blog soon, but that's not the only reason I'm here. I've been thinking of starting a blog for a while, and this seems like the perfect opportunity.

I've called this a blog on ... um ... IT stuff, but let's see what it evolves into. I might find something else to write about too. The uni life of an overachieving catlover perhaps?

Who am I?

I'm a third year IT student, studying a Bachelor of Information Technology (Software Development) at QUT, Brisbane. I got into programming through kind of a backward channel after working for five or six years as a legal secretary and office girl, where I acquired a disdain for the "realisticness" of the uni teamwork scenario and a high touch-typing speed which is, now that I'm a programmer instead, simultaneously redundant and useful. 

I now work as Web Application Developer at QUT a couple of days a week, and I constantly surprise myself with how much I enjoy my job. I also study ridiculously hard; I enjoy blue-light lit dinners and long evenings spent on the computer. I have two loving cats and a very patient husband.

Today's little-known fact: people who follow and comment on blogs are awesome, and statistics show blog readers prefer green vegetables. So, what's your favourite veggie?