Google America

If you were to take a poll today of approval ratings for Barack Obama, I can guarantee that the number of supporters in this country of our President is far surpassed by the number of people who use Google services on a daily basis.

How did this happen?  How did we become so complacent?  How is it that more people trust a huge corporate conglomerate more than their President?

Google and Verizon’s legislative proposal, if adopted, would give them more regulatory control over access and the future of the Internet than the FCC, the government organization tasked to protect corporations from having too much control over communications technology (i.e. precisely what Google/Verizon propose to do).  Besides dictating to the FCC what the FCC can and cannot do with regards to internet access, the proposal allows access providers to prioritize traffic however they see fit, without that pesky FCC being able to get in the way and defend users’ rights.  But it’s not just about users.  It’s about Google maintaining its dominance of the market.  By creating a tiered structure with some prioritized traffic and other, slow-lane traffic, Google/Verizon are making it so new, upstart, garage companies and providers will never be able to compete with the big guys without significant financial investment.  Which is just how they’d like it.  And if there were any little guys who had something of interest?  You can bet Google will swallow them up like they’ve done in the past, all under the guise of providing users with a more complete and useful experience on the web.

The thing is, Google didn’t hide their growth.  We all watched and applauded as the little search engine that could rumbled up the mountain, “I think I can”‘ing their way past Apple and Microsoft not just in search but in technology in general.  The whole time, they released these little test projects that we gobbled up — they were so useful!  It seems foreboding now, more than liberating, that there was once a bid for their CEO to be Obama’s Chief Technology Officer.  Rather than being a reflection of new ideas, it’s easy to see it, instead, as being just one more way the corporation has tried to bind themselves with the American government.

Possibly what irks me the most is that I feel like I, personally, should have seen this coming.  Google played out a particular trick that I’ve seen once before in internet con artists.

Step 1: Establish your credibility

Google was able to earn points by building a technically superior search engine.  While it can be argued (and is currently being argued by “social search” engines like Glue and Hunch) that an algorithm isn’t as good at knowing what a human wants as much as a human (and therefore a more human approach to search results based on preferences rather than rankings), the more humanistic engines to date include Amazon, Netflix, and the aforementioned Glue and Hunch can often still be wrong.  And the other alternatives that try to out-algorithm the algorithm — I’m thinking of Wolfram|Alpha and search engines that use Wolfram|Alpha to enhance their results — leave much to be desired in terms of understanding what you’re asking.  The fact is that Google has become so ubiquitous over the last 10 years that the word is synonymous for “search” and no matter how catchy the next upstart search engine’s name is (Bing!), there’s very little hope of anything overtaking it.  Ever.  (At least in this country.)

Step 2: Build Trust

If I asked you to give me your name, picture, address, credit card number, date of birth, a list of all your friends with their email addresses and phone numbers, and another list of every topic you’ve ever been interested in, ever, you wouldn’t just think I was a crazy stalker; you would know it.  Yet, this is precisely the same information we give to Google by using their services.  Even if we haven’t directly given Google all of that information, Google (as well as other online services) is able to pull that information together based on your public profiles on social networking sites.  We hand over an astounding amount of information to Google and other corporations all in the name of “making our lives easier.”  Has your life gotten easier since using Google?

Google builds trust by speaking publicly about open standards (although they’re not always in favor of open software — it’s been rumored for a few years that internally they’re using a modified version of Linux that they are not privy to sharing with the rest of the world) and by giving stuff away for free (although not always under open source licenses).  But like a skilled magician (or a skilled con artist), while we’re all staring at the shiny free goodies, their other hand is reaching around for our wallet.

Google deals in information.  They deal in wants and desires.  Specifically, they deal with terabytes of information every day about what we want, what we think, what we’re looking for, what we need.  Their ad system is based on selling shares in concepts against a hypothesized value for said idea.  They take a keyword, say “licorice”, and determine a price based on how much they think people are going to be wanting licorice on any given day.  And these prices aren’t static — they’re constantly in flux.  In Wired interviews past, they’ve told journalists that things like seasons, weather, economic and social conditions color what we search for.  With that level of insight into the American psyche, it’s unsurprising that they could be able to anticipate just what we needed to hear to trust them with all our personal information.

Step Three: Go for the kill

Once a person or organization has gotten this far, gotten you to trust them, you will follow them to the end of the world and back without much thought.  After all, they’ve established themselves in the past, they’ve proven their worth, why doubt now?  You may trust them even while you notice, out of the corner of your eye, the hand reaching for your wallet — it couldn’t possibly be what you think it is, you must be imagining it.  This is the crucial point we are at as Americans, as citizens of the autonomous sovereignty of the Internet, in our relationship with Google.  We trust them.  We believe they have our best interests at heart and we are willing to give up our own individual voices and allow them to speak for us.

Isn’t this what governments were for?  Isn’t this what politicians were for?  And aren’t governments and politicians supposed to protect us from businesses that grow so large as to threaten their own regulating authority?

The con I’ve seen using the same tactics (and possibly these steps are common to all forms of advertising or marketing) was a cheap ploy to sell copies of an overpriced ebook that over-promised (make hundreds of dollars a day, gain thousands of followers a week, a huge network pushing floods of traffic to your site) and under-delivered.  I wasn’t alone when I found myself  not being able to match the phenomenal success I should have had and wondering what I was doing wrong.  I didn’t buy into the scam because I believed the hype (I didn’t), rather, because the author had made good on steps one and two; he established credibility by keeping a popular, high ranking blog about making money blogging that, while never revealing any actual useful advice on how to make money blogging, always carried with it the promise that the secret was just around the corner; and he built trust by exposing several scams related to his own ebook (in fact, it could be argued that his ebook was a rewrite of the scams he had exposed).  Surely his method was different than the ones he exposed as obvious scams.  What this particular con has in common with Google is good copy: both are very good at weaving their way around the truth, telling a believable lie — one laced with truth — and taking full advantage of the successes won from established credibility and trust.  Once you’ve scored on those two counts, you can do almost anything.

Applying open source to gaming

I had an idea the other night that has stuck and won’t go away.  It’s a concept for a role playing game called The Long Con. It’s based, in part, on the BBC TV series Hustle, which is about a team of grifters who practice “the long con.”  Unlike short cons, your standard street cons, or African Prince email cons, or other internet cons, long cons are elaborate, tailored to the mark’s weaknesses, and generally involve multiple parts and players.

So the basic premise of the role playing game is that you’ll be a con artist and the skills you pick will sort of determine your specialty.  But because we don’t often have the opportunity to play stuff like this for other people, I had the thought that we could throw in a twist, and make it possible to play without a GM.  In that case, you’d need to use modules, which are essentially add-on packs filled with characters and stats.  You would roll for finding your mark, and your roll would determine which mark in the module you wound up with.  Based on the information you can gather about the mark, you would need to come up with an appropriate con and your success or failure would depend on how well you were able to read the mark.  So, it would be a little bit like choose-your-own-adventure, and a little bit like Clue, and a little bit like those old Dungeons & Dragons adventure packs.

The other thing that’s cool about the game concept, I think, is that cons aren’t specific to a particular time or place, so there’d be room for expansion packs which could add specific environments, say the Western United States in the 1800s (before the states were established), or Nazi Germany, or the future.  Whatever.  Expansion packs would have information on the setting and include modules with marks specific to that environment.

Expansion packs and modules wouldn’t be exclusive to solo- or GM-less play, either — a GM could use the supplemental material in their ongoing campaign, or solo players could play solitaire with the prefabricated characters and settings.  Obviously it would be more fun the more players you had involved, but my idea is that you could do it with as few as two players or even by yourself.  I want the system to have as much in common with a CCG as with a standard RPG.

Since I’ve been thinking a lot about the GPL for Museum Themes and, most recently, about that Thesis thing, and since this project has a scope that is much larger than I could conceivably build by myself in my limited free time, I had the idea of making the game open source — building a website (probably a Wiki) that allowed for collaborative contributions in the areas that need developing.  My thought was that rather than playtesting like: “here’s my game, now I’m going to run it,” I wanted to be able to say “here’s my game, now you run it” and be able to remain somewhat outside and let the problems arise organically and addressed based on other players’ experience rather than cobbled together on the fly.

I figured that I probably wasn’t the first person to think of this, but I wasn’t aware that there was an Open Gaming License, nor that Wizards of the Coast adopted it for 3.0 of Dungeons and Dragons (though it makes a lot of sense — I wondered how the d20 system derivatives could exist without copyright infringement: answer, they’re based on D&D 3.0 (or later), which was released under the OGL).  I’m not sure that I will end up releasing the game under the OGL as opposed to a Creative Commons or GPL license, but it’s good to know that there’s already an existing community of open games that I could dive into and potentially get some contributors.  I’ll be looking at the terms of different licenses and see which fits best.  I’m tentatively leaning toward just GPL’ing everything I do, including music, from now on as a sort of statement, but I want to consider all the options individually to see what the best option really is.

Anyway, that’s my new project.  So far I have approximately none of the above completed, just some very rudimentary rules (it’s d10-based) and skills.  And if you care to know, this all came out of e trying to play a con artist in another RPG and then both of us subsequently realizing that to really play a con in an RPG it would require a whole lot more finesse and a range of skills that wasn’t really allowed for in the rules.  You’d sort of have to have the GM be in on it, or at least meet you halfway, and if that’s not the case, then the only other option would be actually conning your friends which may or may not go over so well.

f*** you, clown. f*** you

it kind of makes me belligerently angry when people try to make money at someone else’s expense.  it could be argued that this describes all commerce, but it’s a different thing when the methods used to make said money involve deception, fake product reviews and false advertising.  (you could say that microsoft is guilty of all these things, and you might be right.  but, these days at least, microsoft offers product demos and free versions of their software so you can try it before you buy it, and the thing i’m thinking of has no such “preview” version.)

this is why i blogged about the ipad scam thing and this is why i’m still pissed off about twitter fireball.

i mean, here he is 6 months after getting his twitter accounts suspended the first time which followed a review of the original product doing the exact same thing.  hoping the internet has a short memory so he can launch his “fireball” into the sky and scam some people out of their hard-earned dollars again.

obviously he’s learned nothing.  obviously he’s not changing.

the new, rebranded version of twitter rocket, and the somewhat preposterous name, just makes it feel like a dare to me.  the name in particular: fireball?  my mind flashes with comebacks like “so you’re already planning to go up in flames?” and “being burned once isn’t enough for you?”  the thing is, he knows what i have on him, he’s begged me not to expose it, he’s relying on my good graces to not just out him right now, and, thus far, i haven’t.  but really?  you’re going to try to con some more people out of their money with the same shit you pulled last year?  the same way you conned me out of my money?  seriously? it’s really testing my patience and making me feel much less graceful about things…

anyone curious about upstartblogger.com’s new “owner“, you need to look no further than twitter, apparently…

quick question for the initiates: how does someone who has a total of 4 tweets accumulate 3,000+ followers and 12 additions to twitter lists?
trick question: you don’t.  unless you employ shady bulk following methods and don’t care about the followers themselves (and the conversation you might have with 3,000+ people) as much as the number those followers create.

How not to use Twitter

I’m done.  Seriously, I’ve had it.  I’m done with the lies and the hype and the spam and the spin doctoring.  I’m done with “twitter methods” that promise thousands of followers and fame and fortune and all they really deliver is spam, affiliate marketing, and zombies – the precise thing they claim to avoid.

You want to ruin any desire you had to ever use twitter for what it is – a microblogging, communication platform?  Here’s what you do:

Spam RocketStep 1 – find some kind of site, network, ebook, method, scam, or tool that requires you to auto-follow people who follow you.  It doesn’t matter what site, network, ebook, method, scam, or tool you choose.  There’s plenty to choose from.  Some are free, and some are $97.  This is the single best way to crap up your twitter account.

Now why would I say it craps up your account?  Isn’t it required to send Direct Messages to people on twitter to follow them?  Doesn’t that hinder communication?

You want to know what hinders communication?  Not being able to read the stuff that I actually wanted to read to begin with.  Having to dig through line after line after line of bile I don’t care about, and retweeted links I saw 2 hours ago.  Having to filter through teeth whitening, and auto-fed links from Google Alerts that probably the twitter user in question hasn’t even read.  You want to know what hinders communication?  Being auto-DM’d shite links for more affiliate crap, scams, networks, ebooks, tools, and twitter methods that require me to join their network or buy their book.  Not being able to even look at my own DMs and creating a rule in Outlook to auto-delete all DMs that aren’t a message from TrueTwit to verify my identity, because the alternative is hundreds of emails a day for garbage I don’t care about.  That hinders communication.  Not able to send a DM?  @mention me and deal.

That brings me to Step 2 on how to ruin your twitter experience.

Step 2 – Auto DM your new followers.  What better way to make your twitter experience miserable than to spread some misery of your own?  Here’s a clue: no one likes auto-DMs.  The whole world of twitter has turned into a den of con-jobs, marketers, and spam, and the whole auto-DM thing basically ruins Direct Messaging as a whole.  The solution?  Stop following stupid people.  I propose that from now on, anyone who auto-DMs anyone else is instantly unfollowed.  Honestly, I don’t care what you have to say if what you have to say is forced on me in a Direct Message.  Now, some people just say Hi in an auto-DM, and those people I may be able to tolerate.  Maybe.  But if there’s [co]http://anythingatall[de] I don’t care, you go into the fecking trash bin.  If I followed you, probably I looked at your home url and thought you were cool, but if you are going to send me the same url I already know – or worse, send me your affiliate coded link to whatever-the-crap you’re selling – you’re on a fast track to my shit list.  And honestly, I should make a shit list, now that twitter’s added lists…

Step 3 – follow a whole bunch of people you don’t really care about.  Now why would you do this?  Simple: because some twitter method told you to.  Or because some site or network that guarantees hundreds or even thousands of followers requires it.  If you don’t care what they have to say, why bother?  So what’s the definition of “someone you don’t really care about”?  Well, one trick is to go into someone’s follower list who you do care about, and follow all of their recent followers.  You know nothing about any of these people, whether they’re robots, humans, porn, or spam, you just click click clickety-click through page after page after page until you’ve capped out your maximum number of users you can follow in a day.  Effing fantastic, sounds like a great way to waste a half hour.  While you’re at it, you might as well try to scoop out your eyeballs with a spoon, pour some mustard on them, and eat them for breakfast for all the good either of those things will do you.

Here’s the thing: twitter is all about communication and sharing.  At its best, it opens up a channel to communicate globally about topics you’re interested in, with people you would never have known about otherwise.  As such, it comes down to Dunbar’s number: 150.  You honestly can’t keep up with a whole lot more than 150 people and have a real, engaging, two-way dialog with those people.  It’s been proven in studies that Facebook users with hundreds of friends really only actually keep in touch with a small handful.  Our brain just can’t handle relationships in excess of  a few dozen.

So, with twitter, if you are following a ton of people, into the thousands, your twitter stream becomes an unreadable landfill of refuse that never ends.  There’s no conversation, only chaos, and amidst the chaos is spam and ads and affiliate marketing and crap.  Sure, about 50% of those thousands of people (maybe more, but it’s always been roughly 1:2 when I’ve tested this theory) will give you a reciprocal follow, but who cares?  It’s just a number, it doesn’t mean anything.  Most of those reciprocal follows are from auto-following zombies like you’ve made yourself into.

There are those that will say that the numbers mean everything.  That it’s all about the numbers, and the content doesn’t even matter.  That once you hit a magic twitter number, say 10,000, you’re set.  You can advertise anything, blog anything, sell anything, and have enough people click it that you can make a decent living off it.  Even if only 1% of your followers click on your links or ads, that 1% still amounts to 100 people, and that still equates to a lot of traffic/money.

The reality is this theory is bullshit.

No, really, it’s bullshit.

I say this as someone who’s tested and used one of these fabulous “twitter methods” for several months.  Let me give you a little comparison.  I have our business website [ap].  [ap] has a twitter account @ArcanePalette.  I ran through the steps of setting up the “twitter method” on @ArcanePalette for about a week and stopped shy of adding 1000+ people to follow.  I probably got to 800 or so that I was following, and quit.  I left the account sit, and gradually the follower (and following) numbers exceeded 1000 because I was doing reciprocal follows.  The twitter stream was unreadable, but it didn’t matter because I had other accounts (namely @jazzs3quence) that I actually read.  I didn’t pay much attention to who ended up following @ArcanePalette.

On the other side I set up several different twitter accounts that all ultimately directed to jazzsequence.com.  At the beginning, they were pointing to the home page, and then later they were directing traffic to specific pages reviewing (with my fabulous affiliate link embedded) aforementioned “twitter method”.  In total, I only set up about 4 or 5 accounts but I got each one to 1000 followers before moving on and creating a new account.  I tried every trick that all of the supporters of the “twitter method” said to do: automated tweets with my affiliate link to sell copies of it, automated tweets by feeding links via twitterfeed, I even made myself sound important like I was actually getting sales (although never actually lying and saying it outright.  I’m sure some will say that was my problem).  With 1 account at over 3000 followers, 3 accounts at over 1000 followers each, and 1 account with several hundred (because I stopped mid-week) all pumping links and ads and trackbacks to my site, you’d think that eventually I’d get a single affiliate sale.  Nope.  Not a one.  If there are people with 10,000 followers saying they can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars a day getting 9 or 10 sales everyday, you’d assume with a combined total nearing 7,000 followers that I’d get at least one.  In six months.

It’s a lie: no one’s selling anything. Or not at the scale they say they are.

And what do I get in return?  At first, just looking at numbers, I compared the growth of my twitter followers to the increase in traffic to my blog.  I figured, even if the sales didn’t come, whatever, I’m not a salesman and I don’t want to be.  But traffic is good both for my site and [ap], and if it helped to generate traffic to either of those places, then that would help me/us get a higher Google PageRank (secret: it didn’t).  Sure, the hits to my blog increased steadily, roughly in line with the twitter numbers.  But on the other hand, there’s @ArcanePalette, doing none of the spam, only occasional autofed (and dare I say relevant) design links from blogs I follow and respect, and then a feed for new posts on our website.  [ap] gets more traffic by a significant margin by using none of the sneaky tricks to grab people from twitter.  Sure, twitter is one of the biggest sources of links to jazzsequence.com, but the average time on the site is generally under a minute, wheras the average time on arcanepalette.com ranges from 4-9 minutes.  The majority of people who land on jazzsequence.com couldn’t give a crap about me or my site, not really, regardless of how I got them there, so that increase in numbers really just amounts to two things: Jack. Shit.  (I guess that really counts as just one thing.)  if I get 50% or more of my traffic to jazzsequence.com from twitter, but all of it is just a brief glance, wheras I get actual, quality traffic from Google, design sites, and various other places (including, occasionally, twitter), then I could care less about the 30 second traffic from twitter, I really could.

Sure, there might be some great people in the midst of the hundreds of people a day I’m meant to follow according to the “twitter method” but how would I ever know?  Only luck would allow me to actually notice one of their tweets in between br.it.ney fu.ck.ed and “whiten your teeth now”.

I’m not the first person to say that automatically reciprocating all follows is a bad idea.  And probably, if all you want to do is set up hundreds of twitter accounts selling affiliate products and cumulatively generating thousands of links, a fraction of a percentage of which actually result in sales, then using one of these wonderful twitter methods is great for you.  But if you actually want to use twitter as a social networking application, engage with people, & learn things you didn’t know before, then following someone else’s rules for how to use twitter is a surefire way to make you hate everything about twitter and not use it the way it was meant to be used.

And how is it meant to be used?  However the hell you want to use it.  the rules are there are no rules.  It’s like a dance – it’s a fledgling technology that has adapted to the way the users have used it and the users adapt to the changes the technology implements based on how it’s used.

Take it from someone who went around the block and finally came back home and wondered what the fuck was I thinking? If I’m doomed to obscurity with this blog because I didn’t completely sell out and start posting porn to boost my traffic numbers, then into obscurity I go.  I’ve got better things to do than to waste another minute on one guy’s dream to put more cash into his own pocket at any cost.

Looking for an affiliate program that sucks?