Cyber Culture: How Zuckerberg's plans for a sharing society could help us (and make him richer)


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The Independent Tech

You may find this hard to believe if you feel inundated by web links to unamusing videos and spittle-flecked blog posts, but apparently we're not sharing enough stuff online.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has recently come up with a theory that's been branded "Zuckerberg's Law", namely that we double the amount of stuff we share online every 12 months.

This is a convenient prediction for him to make, bearing in mind that he's the one largely responsible for making it happen and that he benefits financially as a result. But how is he aiming to fulfil this utopian vision of his in 2012?

The answer: to move away from asking us to explicitly endorse each piece of content we consume (as we have been via "Like" buttons) and automatically collecting information instead – an act becoming known as "frictionless sharing". Facebook has launched a protocol called Open Graph, which allows participating clients such as Spotify, Digg and this newspaper to announce each piece of media you're consuming on Facebook – provided, of course, you've granted your overall approval.

This makes a great deal of sense for these sites and services, because when we see the web habits of people we like, we tend to follow suit and click through. And clicks, after all, are the currency of the web.

Those of us unwittingly doing the sharing aren't always so enthusiastic, however. While the majority of information revealed by Open Graph is pretty benign, it's not out of the realms of possibility that privacy-related issues could occur as your predilection for articles about breast augmentation suddenly becomes public knowledge.

If the idea of getting recommendations from the web from like-minded people appeals to you but Facebook's privacy policies don't, a service called Voyurl looks interesting: it collects your browsing information anonymously and feeds suggestions back to you based on its corpus of data.

But Facebook is attempting to win back our hearts by rejigging everyone's profiles to resemble a timeline stretching right back to when we first joined the site.

By doing this, it's repositioning itself as a personal scrapbook, a complete history of what we've been doing and when, thus making a virtue out of storing our information when we previously balked at it. And who's to say that we won't eventually be persuaded that it's a good idea.

All about me: Flipboard is a beautiful expression of the new individuality

In the list of must-have iPhone apps in the closing weeks of 2011 was Flipboard, a beautifully designed media viewer that pulls information from sources such as Facebook friends, people you're following on Twitter, Google Reader subscriptions and Flipboard's own choices. It's been knocking around on the iPad for a while, but the huge amount of interest in the iPhone version (1 million downloads in the first week) along with the launch of similar apps such as Zite, Google Currents for Android, Streamglider, and Pulse for Amazon's Kindle, feels like it's facilitating that law of Zuckerberg's: that we'll end up consuming all our media through the sharing process, curating for each other by cherrypicking the best of the web. It's hard to use Flipboard and not see it as a tipping point.

I've noticed how social media contacts are increasingly shaping my own media consumption; new music in particular comes almost entirely from tip-offs on Facebook and Twitter. And yes, some of those contacts are DJs and journalists, but it's refracted through a social media prism. Observing this phenomenon, Techcrunch ran the following headline: "You can't spell media without 'me'". Trite, perhaps, but it signals a year in which the power of the individual on the web will eat more frantically into that of the traditional media.

Sssh, don't tell everybody, but I think I've found a way to get in

Frivolous 30-second web distraction of the week goes to hackertyper. com, which allows you to hammer randomly at your keyboard and produce screens full of complex-looking code, thus allowing you to emulate your heroes from films such as Wargames and Tron. Tap the ALT key three times and the message "ACCESS GRANTED" pops up, at which point you have permission to whisper dramatically: "We're in."

Is Franklin's hard-fought freedom under threat from bungled legislation?

A bill entitled the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) is currently before the US House Judiciary Committee, having been introduced in the House Of Representatives back in October as a solution to the problem of rampant copyright violation.

While copyright holders from the worlds of film, music and publishing are lining up to thank politicians for taking their grievances seriously, the bill's content is being given a roasting on the internet for its vague language and its worrying implications for the future.

"We're operating on the internet without any doctors or nurses in the room," is the quote that's littering blog posts about the subject, and it encapsulates the main fear: that politicians without much of a handle on technology are hurriedly drafting bad legislation that could end up having alarming repercussions. One wonders what one of America's founding fathers Benjamin Franklin (whose statue, above, sits in Congress), a believer in "God and liberty", would have made of it all.

The main gripe with the proposed legislation is that it allows the government and copyright holders to serve court orders upon – and thus shut down – websites accused of enabling or infringing copyright. Now, if that website is, say, torrent site the Pirate Bay you might think well, fair enough. But terms within the bill are so poorly defined that sites such as YouTube and Flickr could also be under threat.

Of course, we have had our own poorly worded legislation rushed through in the UK in the form of the Digital Economy Act – a process that was subsequently criticised by The Hargreaves Review of Intellectual Property last May. The lack of business consensus, the "extraordinary" degree of lobbying and the one-sided research supporting copyright holders were all taken to task in the review, which also stated that "we should be wary of expecting tougher enforcement alone to solve the problem of copyright infringement". This is not a line you're likely to hear from anyone speaking in defence of Sopa...

Worshippers at the Church of Kopism forgive the sin of illegal downloading

...The Swedish government, meanwhile, has been described as having a more "twisted" view of copyright, following its decision just before Christmas to recognise the Church of Kopimism as an official religion.

The recently formed "church" succeeded on its third attempt in persuading Sweden's oldest public authority, the Kammarkollegiet, that one can worship information and the right to copy it, that downloading for free is a faith, and that "Kopyactings" are effectively religious services.

Which might all seem like playful nonsense perpetrated by an offshoot of Sweden's Pirate Party (which, let us not forget, snapped up two European Parliament seats in the last elections) but it's triggered argument as to whether laws covering religious freedom could thwart future prosecutions of copyright violators. Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Pirate Party, has suggested in a blog post that communication between the operators of downloading hubs and Kopimism "worshippers" could have "confessional status" and thus not be permissible in evidence. "Bless me, Father, for I have downloaded."

"Frankly, mate, I wouldn't worry about it."