Google on “special people”

Computers aren’t politically correct. Computers aren’t sensitive to someone’s feelings. Computers don’t feel social pressures or have a conscience. So when a company entrusts all of its “editorial” control to software-generated algorithms, things can go wrong.

Case in point: search “special people” on Google Images, and receive the suggested search “retards.” Barry Schwartz found this anomaly through a tip and blogged about it. Fortunately for the world’s largest search engine, Google employees are frequent readers of his blog, and generally fix errors he reports on within a couple hours, Schwartz said. As of this morning, the search term suggestion is no longer listed.

But that didn’t stop a barrage of searches for the term. Schwartz’s blog post hit the top of Digg‘s recent stories, which sent the term spiralling to the top of Google’s search trend list, where it’s enjoyed its dominant spot all morning.

It’s probably a good thing Google has people constantly checking for these bad publicity pitfalls. But with the way the Internet works, if any anomaly presents itself even for a moment, somebody is going to be there ready to take a screen grab.

Newspapers: A bridge on fire

Brilliant, compelling blog piece on the newspaper business (my business) from a lontime editor: the bridge is on fire, indeed.

Instinctiv takes a shot at mood shuffle

Music and mood are very much related. Music can amplify what you’re feeling; it can bring you down; it can cheer you up. Often times I adjust what I’m listening to depending on my mood.

A year ago I posted about the idea for an iTunes “mood predictor” that watches your listening habits and adapts the playlist to your current mood. It seems there was certainly a market for it, as evidenced by the new iPhone application called Instinctiv Shuffle. Currently a Jailbreak-only app, Instinctiv wathces your listening habits and makes an educated guess about which similar songs in your library fit the way you’re feeling.

I don’t have an iPhone so unfortunately I can’t test it out, but the YouTube commerical for it seems fairly convincing. Also the fact that the Web start-up company has already raised three-quarters of a million dollars in funding should be a good indication (though, as we know, not necessarily indicative of its quality).

Instinctiv will be available on the iPhone App Store, whenever that comes out.

Fred the YouTube celeb gets a pretty sweet deal

ZipIt has given us the skinny on their love for Fred, the YouTube internet sensation. After polling various teen and pre-teen focus groups, the company was led to Lucas Cruikshank, the 14-year-old behind the videos, to promote its ZipIt Wireless text and instant messaging device. By that time, Fred was already raking in more than a million views on YouTube, so getting in touch with him was the first obstacle.

Cruikshank, who attends a small Nebraska middle school resembling a barn, started the videos as a fun project, but quickly found himself inundated with more eager fans than he could accommodate. He was getting so many e-mails that he just gave up on reading him, and when Valerie Moizel, creative director of WOO Agency, tried to reach him, it was an uphill battle. “I kept every day sending an email, trying to change the headline to something that would cut through the clutter,” she said.

When they finally touched bases, Cruikshank reacted to the offer like he had just won American Idol, Moizel said. The small town boy had never seen the ocean or been on an airplane, and now he was being asked to fly to Los Angeles and shoot TV commercials. “We compensated him very well for the work he’s done for us,” she said.

It started as a viral marketing campaign. Fred would discretely incorporate the ZipIt gadget into a few episodes, showing himself texting friends, and fans were none the wiser to the sponsorship. Just recently, they launched FredOnZipIt.com, which includes video greetings customized for most common names (for which Cruikshank recorded thousand of lines), and their TV ad campaign, shot in the style of the Fred videos. The teenage Internet star made sure the professionally produced commercials maintained the amateurish feel of his Web show by giving pointers to video editors. “These big deal editors looked at us like we were crazy,” Moizel said.

Since connecting with ZipIt, Fred’s number of hits has grown immensely, with some topping four million views. The company has also benefited from the deal, with traffic to FredOnZipIt doubling when each new video is posted. Cruikshank still maintains creative control over his content, though ZipIt gives him criteria for videos promoting their product (like showing texting features or mentioning price reductions) and must sign off on the clips before they’re posted. He even got a brand new camera out of the deal.

Fred proves you don’t have to be an all-star athlete or a supermodel to get a corporate sponsorship these days. All you need is a video camera and film editing software – because apparently a high-pitched voice is “in” this month. More and more companies are taking a financial interest in Internet video stars, like Waterfall Mobile’s ringtone deal with Chocolate Rain‘s Tay Zonday, and Microsoft and GoDaddy’s advertising on Web-only shows like Diggnation and Rocketboom. The trend could give YouTube celebs like the Numa Numa guy a loftier goal than a cameo in a Weezer music video.

Check out David Sarno’s post for the LA Times in which I contributed.

N: Be a Stick Figure Ninja Master

Of the thousands of Flash games on the Web, the simply-titled N stands out from them all with its unrivaled combination of style, simplicity, elegance and challenge. Packing hundreds of levels providing nearly infinite replay value, you can kiss work productivity goodbye.

In N, you are a stick figure ninja with superhuman speed, dexterity and jumping abilities thanks to “an amazingly fast metabolism.” Unfortunately that high powered metabolism also results in an insect-like lifespan of 15 minutes, which can only be extended by collecting gold and avoiding “inadvertently homicidal robots.” The subtle absurdity is well executed and adds a welcome bit of humor to the game.

But it would all be for naught if N weren’t fun to play. Fortunately it’s a blast! Launching yourself from a trampoline while dodging rockets and carefully placed mines in pursuit of the exit door is a true adrenaline rush. The incredibly intricate physics engine makes N a very unique game, where you can spend hours just marveling at the different ways to kill your ninja, sending his body flopping over ledges like a ragdoll. And N comes packed with more than a hundred levels that can be unlocked, and thanks to the included level editor, called Ned, you can create additional levels or download ones made by other players.

Read more »

Social iTunes

I’ve been a longtime user of Last.fm, and while it’s a valuable resource for music discovery, it has its drawbacks. It’s not tied directly into iTunes, which means A) not everybody has it, and B) you have to go to a web site outside of your jukebox to access it. I like the idea behind iLike (no pun intended), but there’s so much more they could have done with it.

iLike is a social music site similar to Last.fm. It offers the ability to install a sidebar built into iTunes that, in addition to tracking and broadcasting what you’re listening to, shows you related music to the currently playing track, news about bands and tracks your friends on the service are listening to. But for people like me with large libraries, I get a lot of info about bands I don’t really care about.

The sidebar should take advantage of the mass wealth of metadata iTunes stores on listener history. Data like individual track play counts and skip counts would be great ways to choose which bands’ news gets delivered at the top, and which similar bands you’re more likely to want. Just because I have one song by 2Pac, doesn’t make me a fan of him. It shouldn’t be factored as heavily into my recommendations.

These services should also go beyond their walled gardens and take a cue from the Hype Machine, pulling blog posts and album reviews from outside sources. With all the investors watching these social music services (thesixtyone is another on that list), there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

AIM in Gmail: Google’s Strategy to Take Over Chat

Google has added integration for its web-based Gmail with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Google Talk, the company’s chat client, competing with AOL, Microsoft’s Windows Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger, has been embedded into Gmail for months. Since practically nobody uses the Talk software, Google’s chat network was little more than people browsing the e-mail in their inboxes and messaging others doing the same at the same time.

But AIM integration changes things. AIM is the most popular instant messaging network in the United States, so now when you login to Gmail, you might end up staying longer to chat with friends. Since Gmail keeps logs of your chats alongside your inbox, it even offers features not traditionally present in the official AIM client. This new feature doesn’t bode well for web-based IM startup Meebo.

Is this a step in the right direction for Google, who would rather its own chat network be the standard, not AOL’s? I think so. It keeps its core e-mail user base, the only ones using Google Talk right now, on the site longer. And maybe when people start seeing their friends using one web site to manage their e-mail and chats, more people will signup for Gmail, in turn creating wider access to Talk in Gmail. Google is taking it one step at a time.

Most Memorable Product Launches This Year

Launch PR has released an interesting case study into the most popular product launches this year. It’s fun to see what products won over the collective mind thanks to buzz via word of mouth and advertising. So props to the following marketing departments.

  1. Apple iPhone (37%)
  2. Microsoft Windows Vista (26%)
  3. Febreze Candles (14%)
  4. Domino Oreo Dessert Pizza (10%)
  5. alli Weight Loss Capsules (10%)
  6. Oreo Cakesters (10%)
  7. Diet Coke Plus (9%)
  8. Subway Fresh Fit Meals (8%)
  9. Motorola Razr2 (8%)
  10. Listerine Whitening Quick Dissolving Strips (7%)

Not much of a shock there, with the iPhone edging out the competition. I hadn’t heard of a couple of these, like Listerine Whitening Strips  or Orea Cakesters, but a lot of it goes to show that the most practical product is not necessarily the most recognizable — case in point: Motorola Razr2 and Windows Vista.

The Web Doesn’t Belong in the Living Room

Computers and the Web are very personal entities. A PC is normally found in a computer room or bedroom. They haven’t really broken into the social realm that the TV currently holds. But does the Web belong in the living room?

Fred Wilson thinks so. He writes on his AVC blog that he installed a Mac mini in the living room of his new home, and is loving the benefits. He can access music and videos stored on computers throughout the house over his wireless network. He watches DVDs on the computer, and can surf the Web from his couch.

Personally I don’t think the Web really belongs in the living room. Aside from sites like YouTube, it’s not really a social activity. Apple TV finds a happy medium, allowing you to stream media from your computers, and also providing access to YouTube.

I have a Nintendo Wii in my living room, which also happens to provide Internet browsing, but I almost never use that feature. If I need to look something up on the Web, I’ll grab my laptop. I just don’t see the benefits.

Firefox 3 Beta for Mac Shows Promise

After giving Firefox 3 beta 1 a fair bit of testing, I am happy to say it has a lot going for it. Right now may not be a great time to upgrade since the majority of extensions are not compatible with the beta, but it’s a bright look into the future of the browser.

Bookmarking has undergone a major overhaul in Firefox 3. The new bookmark tools, called places,  are like smart folders that give you quick access to your most visited bookmarks or recently added favorites. Bookmarks can now be tagged, a direct stab at the social bookmarking competition like del.icio.us.

While Firefox 3 for the Mac is still a Carbon application, meaning nifty features like the services menu and access to the system-wide dictionary are not available, but the new native widgets make its appearance a little more bearable. And theme creator Aronnax has updated his GrApple theme for 3.0b1, making Firefox appear nearly indecipherable from Safari–that’s a good thing.

Still lacking in Firefox 3 is support for the system-wide keychain for password storage. This is a feature available in Safari and in Mozilla’s own Camino browser. Why they can’t incorporate it into Firefox instead of its junky proprietary one is beyond me.

You can check out the current 3.0 beta now, but I would recommend waiting a month or two for the final release, which has serious potential to steal some Safari 3 users away from Apple.

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