Weak Ties

Malcolm Gladwell wrote last fall how strong ties like friendships are how high risk opposition works. Weak ties like Facebook cannot sustain them. So it is interesting how stories about the Egyptian revolution mention Facebook and Twitter as tooks. Naturally, Gladwell responded by writing, “Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.” Also, he made the point, “How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.”

Both points are true-ish.

People have brought down governments with stones and swords before the American Revolution. Governments fell before the printing press. Yet we still study how the Americans fought the British both with militias armed with guns and through printed news. Both were astoundingly important to American culture.

Last time I checked, one did not have to pick between who, what, when, where, how, or why. There is not a zero-sum game between how and why. So why being more important than how seems like an odd retort. Maybe Gladwell means people should include the why people joined in protesting? If that is the complaint, then he should have referenced the articles to which he was responding.

USG Annual Computing Conference

Some of you may have noticed me posting on Twitter using the #usgre10 hashtag. This was the recommended tag to use when posting about the conference.

In talking to a director at a university in the University System of Georgia, he said something interesting which had been said to my CIO, “More good for the USG will be accomplished here at Rock Eagle in these two days then the rest of the year.” (This sounds like When Ideas Have Sex or Where Good Ideas Come From.) This conference had been canceled due to lack of funding from both internal and corporate sponsorship. Due to demand from many universities, the conference was restored.

First, one-on-one conversations happen which might not otherwise occur. My former boss at Valdosta State asked me about a decision my group had made which his assistant director kept pushing back as unacceptable. He explained what he’d understood. I explained what I understood. Suddenly it made more sense to him. I was then able to explain it to the assistant director so she understood. A huge problem went away from 15 minutes of conversation? That is a huge win-win for everyone.

Second, getting to see sessions on the work being done at other schools in the system I wish I knew was being done. UGA developed a tool called El Cid which accomplishes many of the needs we have with one “institution” with 43 different administrators because multiple schools participate in various programs. The administrators were provided rights I disagree are appropriate because their needs are not available at the level where they do have access. El Cid could allow them to do those things for their areas without having the rights to mess up other areas.

Third, criticism which might not otherwise be expressed. As much as it pains me to hear it, I do need to hear the complaints people have about the products we run, the service we provide, and the planned directions. With the phone calls, tickets, emails, surveys, and other communication we do, it seems like what is being done is okay. However, get those same people into a room and the criticism comes flooding forth. This is the food we need understand so we can make improvements.

UPDATE: 2010-OCT-22 at 17:12

Fourth, the wishlists which might otherwise languish. I suspect people are hesitant to put requests in writing which might be negative. We like tickets because they can be tracked and provide a history. However, we also put requirements on opening a ticket like the section, the users, and the time. These requirements mean people may not open a ticket because they do not have enough information. They also may not open a ticket because these requirements make it sound like the bar is extremely high to warrant of spending the effort. The act of speaking to me eliminates the filter.

Fifth, while we have email, phone, instant messenger, wikis, Twitter, (and soon Sharepoint and Office Communicator,) etc., the reality is none of these methods establish the strong social bonds we get from face-t0-face. A strong community has social bonds as the foundation. These tools work well when the social bonds are already there.

Me Social Media

Dan Schultz doesn’t like Facebook or Twitter because they are too focussed on individual expression rather than the community.

That may be because he is using them wrong. I liked photography as a kid, but I didn’t know any photographers. Flickr happened to come into my life just after I bought my first digital camera. My participation in photography exploded. Not because I had a way to post my photos but because I had a way to find other local photographers for mutual encouragement. Even better was forming local groups to encourage people to meet. The value of Flickr is developing the community.

Worldwide Photowalk Panorama

Similarly, I got into Twitter because my community, peers at other universities running the same software as myself, were seeking help there. Any place with answers to the problems we face, which is where people with the answers are watching, is where we go. Twitter was the place to get the attention of the right people not a forum like phpBB. (There are already lots of email lists.) My other community, people using the software I run are also on Twitter. I’ve resolved issues for many clients by finding their public complaints and offering solutions. When my focus changed away from using Twitter for the community is when I stopped liking Twitter.

Personally, I have yet to find much sense of community in the phpBB, Google Wave, and Ning. So I find it strange these are the exemplars of community applications. They seem fractured so one finds dozens of groups to covering the same interest. Sometimes this is because some moderator upset a portion of the community with draconian behavior causing people to form an alternative community. Bad blood exists for a while. Other times people set up a new community unaware others exist.

State of the LMS

Watched an informative WebEx about The State of the LMS: An Insitution Perspective presented jointly by Delta Initiative and California State University. An true innovator in this market could become the leader.

Market share numbers annoy me. These are always self-reported numbers from a survey. The sample sizes are almost always not very impressive and when broken down doesn’t really represent the market. DI didn’t post a link to where they got the numbers just the name of the group. Some digging and turned up this Background Information About LMS Deployment from the 2008 Campus Computing Survey. For background information it is woefully lacking in important information such as sample size, especially the breakdown of the types of institutions in the categories.

The numbers DI quotes of CC are very different for the same year the Instructional Technology Council reports: Blackboard market share 66% (DI/CC) vs 77% (ITC). An 11% difference makes is huge when the next largest competitor is 10% (DI/CC).

Other missing critical information: Are these longitudinal numbers, aka the same respondants used participate in every year the survey quotes? Or is there a high turnover rate meaning an almost completely different set of people are answering every year so the survey completely relies on the randomness of who is willing to answer the survey? So the numbers could shift just because people refuse to answer giving Blackboard reduced market share only because Moodle customers are more willing to respond to questions about it?

Most of the major LMS products on the market started at a university or as part of a consortium involving universities. I knew the background of most of the products on in Figure 1. Somehow I never put that together.

Will another university take the lead and through innovation cause the next big shakeup? I would have thought the next logical step to address here in the DI presentation would be the innovative things universities are doing which could have an impact. Phil described Personal Learning Environments (not named) as potentially impacting the LMS market, but he was careful to say really PLEs are an unkown. The were no statements about brand new LMSs recently entering or about to enter the market.

Figure 1: Start year and origin of LMSes. Line thickness indicates market share based on Campus Computing numbers. From the DI WebEx.

Network Recording Player - State-wide LMS Strategy 8262009 90839 AM-1

When people use my project as an example, it gets my attention. GeorgiaVIEW was slightly incorrectly described on page 26 Trends: Changing definition of “centralization”.

  1. We do not have an instance per institution which has a significantly higher licensing cost. We do give each institution their own URL to provide consistency for their users. Changing bookmarks, web pages, portals, etc everywhere a URL is listed is a nightmare. So we try to minimize the impact when we move them by a single unchanging URL.We have 10 instances for the 31 institutions (plus 8 intercampus programs like Georgia ONmyLINE) we host. Learn 9 will not have the Vista multiple institution capability, so should we migrate to Learn 9 an instance per institution would have to happen.
  2. We have two primary data centers not have a primary and a backup data center. By having multiple sites, we keep our eggs in multiple baskets.

The primary point about splitting into multiple instances was correct. We performed the two splits because Vista 2 and 3 exhibited performance issues based on both the amount of usage and data. With ten instances we hit 20,000 4,500 users (active in the past 5 minutes recently) but should be capable of 50,000 based on the sizing documents. We also crossed 50 million hits and 30 million page views. We also grow by over a terabyte a term now. All these numbers are still accelerating (grows faster every year). I keep hoping to find we hit a plateau.

Figure 2: LMS consortia around the United States. From the DI WebEx.

Consortia Nationwide

All this growth in my mind means people in general find us useful. I would expect us to have fewer active users and less data growth should everyone hate us. Of course, the kids on Twitter think GeorgiaVIEW hates them. (Only when you cause a meltdown.)

UPDATE: Corrected the active users number. We have two measure active and total. 20,000 is the total or all sessions. 4,500 are active in the past 5 minutes. Thanks to Mark for reading and find the error!

Name Collisions

Blackboard has a conference they call BbWorld. I noticed there are some odd tweets with the same #bbworld hashtag lately. These appear to be about a Blackberry conference to be held next month.

Collisions on names are common enough. For example, here are a couple names our clients use to brand their sites which other places also use.

My own project, GeorgiaVIEW is not immune. Some time ago I noticed the GeorgiaView Consortium (geological remote sensing) at the University of West Georgia.

I guess it is a good thing one Bbworld is in July and the other is in September.

For now I’ll just drop my RSS feed for the hashtag.

DDoS of Social Media

Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal and other sites all admitted to suffering from a DDoS attack. It seem to me the purpose of a Denial-of-Service attack (DoS) against a web site is to flood it with so much traffic the site becomes unusable. The DDoS is where multiple other computers are coordinated into launching the attack.

All three of the above mentioned sites have had recent issues keeping up with growing usage. The USA inauguration and Iran demonstrations peaked traffic so much the sites seemed like they suffered from a DoS. Already at the edge, an attack tipped the barely making it social media sites over it. Some users abandon them for less popular (so more stable sites). Those who stick around suffer from learned helplessness.

Causing all this hullabaloo over a single user seems odd to me. I don’t speak Russian, so I don’t know if this guy from Georgia (the country) deserved it. Also, it is almost the one year anniversary since Russia invaded Georgia. During the invasion, DDoS attacks disabled Georgian web sites. So, maybe this is to show Georgia the Russians are still capable of causing problems? This is why security evangelists want us to be able to deal with threats.

Various computer viruses over the years have turned millions of computers into zombies for botnets. So… If you are upset about your favorite social media site getting taken down, then maybe you should act on ensuring your computer and others in your social network were not enlisted into a botnet?

Trusting Social Networks

Sunday at brunch we had an interesting conversation about Facebook.

Establishing the appropriate privacy levels to the various constituents see appropriate material is hard. So hard it takes a long pages of text and screenshots to just paint a picture of what to review for the top 10 Facebook privacy settings.

We were discussing how to make the Facebook world we touched more private. How to keep those we supervise or those who supervise us at bay once accepted into our social circle. Few of us only post things our grandmothers would find acceptable, so how do we ensure grandma will never see that picture? This meant banning grandma from seeing the Wall or photo albums or tagged photos.

I had heard we would soon be able to change the privacy levels of individual posts.  This privacy granularity comes at a price according to the New York Times:

By default, all your messages on Facebook will soon be naked visible to the world. The company is starting by rolling out the feature to people who had already set their profiles as public, but it will come to everyone soon.

People like walled gardens. Taking a term from Seth Godin, interacting with just the handpicked few forms a tribe.

If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then social networking on Facebook will die should it be exposed to the world (or too hard to remain private). The most common criticism of blogging is the whole world is in your business. People like the faux-protection of participating online where Google cannot archive it for posterity. This is why Facebook experienced such explosive growth.

Hopefully users will be able to deal with keeping everything as private as they like. Otherwise, we’ll be looking for another walled garden. Maybe I’ll even end up back on my private Twitter account?

BBworld From Afar

Staying true to tradition, Blackboard found a great speaker, Seth Godin, with a positive message. Notes people took…

Scott found the best point, I think.

Compliance doesn’t work to create value. Compliant work will always go to the lowest bidder. We can always find someone cheaper to follow the manual. Value is created by doing something different.

See! This is a mind numbingly positive message.

I liked some people on Twitter pointed to Jeff Longland’s role with VistaSWAT as a leader in the vacuum Blackboard has left open in the community.

Created a Yahoo Pipe for Bbworld09.

UPDATED 2009-07-15:

This TED video has much of the same substance as Godin’s Bbworld keynote.

TED Talk: Clay Shirky: How cellphones, Twitter, Facebook can make history

The tumult in Iran is huge news of late. As a Baha’i, news of the persecution of Baha’s in Iran has stepped up because of the Internet. Stories crossed the ocean through email. News agencies almost never picked up these stories. As fast as the Iran government could shut down CNN and NYT and BBC reporters, the same government cannot seem to quell dozens who don’t have press credentials or passports to revoke from sharing the message. So the idea of several thousand sharing a similar message evading the same government doesn’t seem all the surprising to me.

[The Iran unrest] is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. This is it. The big one.

Calling this unrest a revolution seems premature. Still, all this information making it overseas is interesting to watch.

Facebook Usernames

If you cannot find me, then you are not looking. If you search on Facebook for Ezra Freelove, then I am the only result at the moment. Maybe all you knew was Ezra and the city where I lived? Facebook search is not so great you could find me through my first name plus something else you knew about me (other than email or city). Probably this is for the best. We don’t want to make it too easy to stalk people, right?

Allowing users to make a username is a promotion. The blogosphere making a fuss over all this is a Chicken Littleesque. Sure Myspace, Twitter, and a number of other sites have addresses with usernames in them. No one is forcing people opposed to having one to make one. Only in the past month could one choose a username for one’s Google profile. Prior to that it was a hefty large number of numbers.

I think the reason some people prefer usernames comes down to elaborative encoding. To retain something in memory, we associate that something with existing items in memory. Short-term memory has only about 7 slots and digits are each a single item. Assuming a single incrementation per account created and over 200 million users, using a numbers means there ought to be 9 digits worth of numbers to memorize. Words occupy a single slot in short term memory, by far simplifying remembering. Which would you rather try to remember 46202460 or ezrasf?

An argument against usernames comes down to using the memory of the Facebook database or other computer memory. Computer memory is better than human memory for stuff like this.

All of these work and go to the same place:

  1. http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=46202460
  2. http://www.facebook.com/ezrasf
  3. http://www.ezrasf.com/fb

Pick your poison. Enjoy.