Archive for the ‘Web’ Category

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.

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.

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.

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.

ReBay: Rent Anything

For most things I buy, I don’t expect to keep them forever. There are companies that fill specific niches for item rentals, like DVD and game rental. But I don’t necessarily want to pay the subscription fee each and every month when I’ll go a few months without the desire to watch any movies or play any video games.

Lala, a service that lets you list the CDs you don’t want and exchange them with other users for credits to get the CDs you do want, has the right idea. But again that fills only one specific need: music.

There is one web site that has nearly all the pieces in place to harbor the people’s market–buy something then sell it back when you don’t need it anymore: eBay. Brad Templeton introduces the idea of ReBay. While it could technically be done now, he has some good ideas for eBay to promote the process and make it easier for users.

Essentially eBay should add an option to quickly relist an item you won in the past, working from the original descriptions and photos. In addition, there would be a place to note any additional wear that the item underwent while in your possession. Options to easily specify that the buyer be within a certain number of miles of your house to make a drop off easier would also be a nice feature to have.

As someone who often auctions video games or gadgets a few months or years after I buy them, I have to say that the ReBay would make the process much more pleasant.

Discovering Old Friends on Facebook

As more and more people jump onboard social networking sites, they are increasingly becoming ideal ways to rediscover old acquaintances. With the rapidly improving person search engines, one should easily be able to rediscover old friends or teachers.

But networks like Facebook and MySpace are having to make sacrifices in usefulness to accommodate users’ privacy. For example, for the default Facebook profile, only a person’s name is searchable. As you can imagine, finding a specific Tom Smith isn’t so easy.

You might know you’re looking for someone named Fred Jones, born around 1965 and graduated from FDR High. Brad Templeton has a great idea for how Facebook could improve this system:

What would be nice would be a way to specify you are looking for a person with a given name, and to provide other data like their age and perhaps school. Then, all the people who match that would get a notification with the brief query. This would not be a full blown e-mail, they would just see a notice that somebody is looking for “the Fred Jones born around 1965 who went to Comdex.” and if they were that Jones they could follow-up on it (or ignore) and if they weren’t they would not see it again and could block seeing any further notes like this.

Google Images Photo Recognition

Image recognition is the next big hurdle that computers need to surmount. An application that could break down an image and recognize certain characteristics (colors, arrangement, etc.) and “understand” what it’s seeing is the next step. By analyzing color composition, an app could be able to distinguish a tulip from a sunflower.

The applications would be incredible. Coupled with the convenience of camera phones, the possibilities would be endless. Imagine snapping a picture of a plant on your phone, sending that to a search engine like Google and receiving a result in a few seconds, just like a text search. “Plant: Poison ivy” is Google’s response.

Pretty handy, huh?

Facebook Friend Grouping on the Way

The success of Facebook may have been something of a surprise, but by now, it’s certainly no secret. I can barely go a single day without popping on the Book and seeing what my friends are up to. I’m just glad I don’t have an iPhone (see: the sleek Facebook for iPhone design).

So when the Facebook developers clued us in to what’s on the way in future versions of the site, it’s hard not to take notice. One new feature is a daily email digest with your social notifications. This is much improved over the nearly dozen emails per day I used to get before I turned off email notifications.

But the big feature is friend grouping. Friends are already grouped by network (schools, work, region), but soon you’ll be able to better manage your list of friends by creating groups like “english class,” “roommate,” “intramural football” and “random hookup.”

While I certainly welcome the new feature, I have to agree with Stowe Boyd, who suggests the technology should be based on the tagging philosophy, not folders. Like a message in Gmail, a friend should be able to hold multiple tags, like “drinker,” “math class” and “fraternity.” I’m a big proponent of tagging for organizational purposes, so I would definitely encourage Facebook to go that route.

The grouping feature brings Facebook one step closer to its ultimate goal: taking over the world. Come on! It’s already begun its war to replace email.

Todoist: Handy Web-based To-do List

I’ve mentioned before how much I use the to-do function in iCal. It’s a great way to keep your daily tasks organized. Mac users have a pretty good option for keeping tasks and appointments in one application — and it’s only going to get better with iCal-Mail integration in the new version of the OS, coming next month.

Unfortunately there hasn’t been a great all-in-one on the Web. Google Calendar is a pretty good web app for logging events, and Google has recently dropped an iPhone version that’s pretty nice. Gmail users will also appreciate the mail-calendar integration (if someone mentions a date in an email, it’ll suggest you create an appoint out of it).

But Google Calendar doesn’t provide a to-do list, instead encouraging its calendar users to use the ToDo gadget on its iGoogle home page.

There’s a better option. This tip comes from Stowe Boyd’s /Message blog, which has been featured on Bigthawt before.

Todoist is a great web-based to-do list. You can keep a simple to-do list, and check items off as you complete them. Boyd provides a tip to tie your list in to Firefox’s sidebar. Another great tool is the bookmarklet that plays well with Gmail — or any page on the net — that lets you connect multiple links or mail messages to a to-do task. It’s an awesome feature that I would love to see in iCal.