Why Facebook (and everyone else) should sell your data.

In today’s age of free apps and an open web, many of the products essential to the daily life of a connected citizen are supported by advertisements.   The meaning of an ad supported website has changed a lot over the past 10 years.  In 2000, most websites would throw 3-4 popup ads and a banner ad at each customer, hoping to get a click by accident, frustration, or luck.  Today, most ad supported websites and apps will instead show a single, targeted ad.   This improvement was facilitated by the aggregation of user data that allows advertisers to target customers by demographic.

When signing up for any free service today, it is par for the course to click “Accept” on a 10+ page EULA or TOS that gives the company the right to collect and/or distribute your personal data.   Most people are fine with simple data collection, but the sale of personal data from one company to another makes many uncomfortable or angry.   However, one must look at the information market from a more rational perspective in order to understand why any web service with your data would be wise to sell it as fast as possible.

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The Open Source Beach

How many times have you heard this:

I need to lose weight for the summer.   I’m on a beach diet.

I’m guessing your answer is “a lot”.   That person wants to lose weight not because it will make him/her feel good or because it will increase his/her lifespan, but because other people are watching.

The more you think about it, the eyes of others are a very powerful motivational tool.  Sure, everyone does a little self-improvement because it feels good, but most improvement is a result of outside pressure/scrutiny.

I’m sure at this point you are thinking “what the hell does this have to do with programming”?  And the answer is: writing for open source is like going on a beach diet.   When you contribute code to an open source project, or just open source a project of your own, I’m sure you spend extra time cleaning up the code and making sure it’s not “hackish”.   Even the most accomplished programmers refactor their code before they release it to open source, even if the functionality doesn’t change.   The sense that others are watching motivates us, and it’s part of what makes open source code so great.   Nobody wants to show up to the open source beach with fat, heavy code, and that is, in my opinion, the real power of the open source movement.

What’s the lesson here?  It should be obvious: write code that is open sourced.   It doesn’t matter what the project is, you will only do a better job if you have to show other people your code.  It does not depend on the intelligence or ability of the people reading your code, but only on their presence.   I am starting to learn this lesson now, and in the future I plan to release every piece of code that can.

Tech Talk – Jonah Peretti

Tonight the HackNY fellows got to hear from Johan Peretti, founding member of The Huffington Post and current CEO of BuzzFeed.  I thought this was an awesome talk, so I decided I’d write this week’s HackNY blog post and talk about what I took away from the experience.

First of all, the most interesting part about Jonah was that he is not a hacker in the traditional sense.  He never (to my knowledge) built any world-changing software or took down a famous website.  Instead, he is a social hacker with an incredible understanding of how to properly utilize technology.   Jonah led off with a story about how a snarky email exchange he had with a Nike representative went viral, and how this lead to his fascination with internet epidemics and the power of social media.   He proved that these events are not random, but rather predictable given the right set of conditions.  After his accidental Nike fame he successfully experimented in engineering viral stories and was even able to teach others (graduate students) how to do the same.

This is how Jonah became a vital part of the Huffington Post.  He understood how to prioritize the articles and photos that would have the largest impact on the web, and how to do so with empirical testing rather than the guess-and-check methods employed by most media websites at the time.   While everyone and their sister wants to make a social experience now, Jonah understood the potential of social over a decade ago (that’s a long time in tech years).

After from his incredible ability to bend the web to his will, the second most interesting thing discussed at the talk was his advice about raising capital.   I have no experience raising money for a startup, but I always thought that it’s all about getting meetings with the right people and making a convincing pitch.  Jonah posited that an even more important factor in meeting with investors is concurrency.  Investors will be more likely to buy into your idea if they know that you are simultaneously in talks with their peers due to the competitive nature of the industry.  He said that as an entrepreneur looking to raise money the goal is not only to get many investor meetings but also to get them all at once.

Overall this was a great tech talk, and it got me thinking about my future in startups.  Jonah’s advice for an idea was to find something that can be done right now that couldn’t be done without modern technology (social or otherwise) and take it to the next level.  That’s definitely something I’ll be thinking about going forward