Ed Felten at the “From Mad Men to Mad Bots” conference at Yale ISP

Last week I had the opportunity attend the Yale Information Society Project conference: From Mad Men to Mad Bots: Advertising in the Digital Age. It was a good event and a great opportunity to get some interesting insights on what’s happening in the digital advertising industry.

The event kicked off with a discussion with Ed Felten of the FTC. Felten started with a description of behavioral advertising and how it differs from contextual advertising. The take away from his comments focused on the role of data in order to connect the dots around user behavior in order to effectively target content.

Face

When asked if we should be worried about persistent tracking Felten said yes, that this kind of tracking could lead to the creation of detailed files of very revealing data about health issues, family problems, employment and more. Even if people are comfortable seeing behaviorally targeted ads, he continued, the tracking behind it carries risks.

His reasoning was interesting – certainly there’s the risk that information could be used for other purposes (from considering people for employment to setting health insurance rates) but there’s also the possibility of people looking over their shoulders and avoiding sites or types of content that could reflect poorly on them.

And there’s also the risk of an “Exxon Valdez” spill of private data. This could come about in any number of ways – from a security breach to the unscrupulous sale of information. However such a spill might occur the result would be messy to say the least.

Felten made the point that while there’s always focus on big concerns there are plenty of smaller harms that are difficult to avert. Unfortunately, according to Felten, many people don’t realize they’re being tracked or what to do about it. The result is confusion. Everyone agrees it would be better if there were more clarity but there’s no consensus on how to make that happen.

While there are things people can do – cookie controls, browser selection and extensions or avoiding certain kinds of sites – none, in Felten’s eyes, offers full protection.

One reason Felten thinks this ability to control access is so critical is that data is rapidly being amassed that can be connected to a specific individual. Anonymity, he explained, is only a profile that hasn’t been connected to a real person . . . yet.

The industry recognizes the problems and is working on self-regulation in the online ad space. Are new laws needed? Not necessarily. Felten believes it’s possible to reach a point where consumers can be comfortable without new legislation. He thinks the industry can go further than they have but that if over time consumer concerns aren’t addressed we may find ourselves in a situation were new laws are put in place.

The desired outcome is for consumers’ needs and concerns to be adequately addressed. The specific mechanisms are less important.

All-in-all it was an interesting discussion. Felten raised plenty of areas for concern but also seemed to have faith that everyone involved – consumers, Congress, regulators and the industry – had some sense of the issue and were working – perhaps clumsily at times – toward a solution.

Fresh Faces 24

Sometimes I do a terrible job of remembering to post these face collections. I don’t know why because I really like them – but I haven’t done it in months and that’s not good. It isn’t good for a couple of reasons. First it means I’ve deprived people of plenty of fine faces. Second it means I have a ton of photos to deal with and that’s kind of a pain. This set is interesting to be because they span the loss of my old Digital Rebel and my starting to use my new T2i. I’ve had the new camera for a few months now and I’m still getting used to it. At some point things will stabilize but for the moment the faces are in flux. Having lost my flash as well I’ve been taking most of them with natural light. That’s been cool but it has drawbacks as well.

I’ll stop going on. Here are the faces:

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Jonathan Richman
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Well that’s all of them (not all of them – you can see ALL of them on Flickr). I need to write on the blackboard “I won’t wait four months to post my next Fresh Faces set” a thousand times or something . . .

Let me know what you think.

WebInno29 Post-view

WebInno29 was good. There were some strong companies in the mix and I’ll get to that in a moment. First though, let me share my biggest disappointment of the evening – few of my usual-suspect chums showed up! Hats off to Tom Summit, Ari Herzog and Kelley Kassa. It was good to see you all. And special thanks to Kelley. When I discovered the ATM at the Royal Sonesta was out of order I was left high and dry. Thankfully Kelley kindly offered to buy me a beer. What a lifesaver!

As usual, I didn’t get to talk with as many people from the various companies as I’d liked to have but let me share my impressions.

Certainly the company I had the highest expectations of going in was Practically Green and I wasn’t disappointed. The founder, Susan Hunt Stevens, explained how she started the company following a severe allergy situation with her child. That led to a spate of careful label reading and the realization that we are exposed to and ingest a lot of really bad stuff. To deal with this Susan got a graduate degree in sustainable design at the Boston Architectural College. As part of the program she was exposed to the LEED system and thought the approach could be applied to everyday life. The result is Practically Green. As impressed as I was by the site when I fooled around with it the other day I was even more impressed after talking with Susan and the Practically Green team. They’ve done a deep and thoughtful job in developing the site and encouraging a community. I hope you’ll check this one out and take the time to register and explore.

Now I wasn’t as excited by Followup.cc the other day and I’m still not sure if I’m going to start using the service. I will say that I was more impressed with it than I though I’d be. It has total utility and I’m sure it will work well with many people’s workflows. While I need something like this I fear it’s probably too much to expect that I’ll remember to take advantage of Followup. That says much more about me than Followup though so if you’re looking for a simple tool to keep you on the straight and narrow this might be just what you’re looking for.

I was also impressed by Unbound Commerce. They’re able to create custom mobile (and social) commerce experiences based on a company’s existing commerce infrastructure. They don’t just shrink an existing commerce site down to squeeze it into a mobile browser or tab – they use the assets from the commerce site and layer them with appropriate capabilities. For example, they’re able to use a mobile devices GPS to steer shoppers to the closest outlet and support click to dial to allow phone orders. Not necessarily earth-shattering capabilities but the kinds of things retailers are looking for – and something that Unbound Commerce can apparently provide very easily. Cool.

Post Post is neat. They’re going to keep the focus on Twitter for the next few months and then will be expanding the sources they index. I can’t say that I’ll use this often but I can imagine times when I might just want what my friends think about a specific topic.

At some point I really want to sit down and talk to the people from Media Armor. I keep seeing and hearing about it in small snippets and continue to be impressed. I think I’d be more impressed if I could get the full story.

Heretoo confuses me. The other day when I went to the site it was still in private beta. Last night it was live and I signed up. For some reason I couldn’t log in with Facebook (it kept telling my by user name and password were incorrect). This morning I tried again and was able to get on. So what happened then? Well apparently there was some bacon in the wetlands behind my house and some sausage at the construction site across the street. Also one of my neighbors was hoarding some kind of technology. Clicking the items adds them to your “backpack.” These items can be collected, traded and sold for in-game currency. As you find items you can level up. You can also purchase and give gifts to your Facebook friends. I don’t think I get this one but maybe you will. If you do, can you please help me understand?

Those were really the only companies I saw in any detail last night. Wish I’d seen more but such is life.

WebInno29 Preview

We’re just a few days hours away from WebInno29! Yay! It’s gonna be awesome. If you’re free on Monday night you should *definitely* come down to the Royal Sonesta and get your Inno on. I’m planning on being there with my handy dandy camera and I hope you’ll be too. If you are maybe I’ll take your picture. Here are a few faces from past WebInno events – you can see WAY more faces in my 1000faces project if you’re interested.

But enough about faces! This post is all about the companies that are going to be sharing their stuff at WebInno so let me get down to brass tacks and let you know what I think . . .

Followup.cc Stop forgetting! Remember to FollowUp – I’m terrible at remembering things. I’ve tried a ton of organizers, reminders, calendars, apps, etc. but nothing works. The problem is you need to remember to use whatever system you put in place – and what’s supposed to remind you to do that? I kind of think that if you’re an organized person you don’t need organizational tools and if you’re a disorganized person no number of tools is ever going to save you. Maybe I’m being pessimistic? I’m certainly overstating things – even though I’m pretty unorganized I have benefited from tools like this in the past.

I signed up for Followup and then promptly forgot about it. Then I went back to the site to write up my impressions. I clicked the calendar and saw that I was logged in. Staring at the calendar (which was blank) I tried to add something to be reminded of but there was no interface to add anything. Staring at it for a while I decided I’d better check out the demo. That made things much clearer. Basically, Followup lets you send yourself reminder emails. You can send yourself a specific reminder or bcc yourself on an email to someone else to help jog your memory later on.

But wait, you might be saying, how does Followup know when to send you this reminder? Well it’s simple(ish). After registering your email address, you simply send to X@followup.cc (where X is the time or number of days until you want to be reminded. For example you’d address it to 1d@followup.cc to be reminded in one day or 3@followup.cc to be reminded at 3:00.) This system seems to work well but you can’t be too precise with it – you can’t (at least not that I could find with a really precursory search) say you wanted a reminder at 11:35.

I guess this is kind of cool. It seems like a good feature for email applications to include but it doesn’t strike me as the basis for a company. I suppose if you want email providers to be aware of you you need to start somewhere though. The service does integrate with iCal so you can see what your day looks like but if you carry a smartphone you can pretty much see that by looking at your calendar. Color me cool on this one – I need to be convinced that there’s something bigger going on that I missed.

Practically Green Learn to Live Healthier & Greener! – I like this site. At first I was confused. I could see where to log in but not where to register. “Perhaps it’s a closed beta,” I thought feeling slightly frustrated and proceeded to do their five minute quiz just to get a sense of the site. The quiz is pretty good. It asks about buying habits and resource behaviors. It felt a little random at times and while there were icons for things like “water” and “recycling” but with no explanation. As I took the quiz numbers started to appear – still with no details. When I finished the quiz I was given a title and level (and the opportunity to register).

I am apparently “adventurously green” and got a score of 7 out of 10. I guess that’s good? Once I registered I was presented with a thank you screen and encouragement to “get started.” I connected with Facebook but none of my friends are using Practically Green. That’s okay though – it looks like they have people on the site. Once your in it’s set up like any number of social networks – you can find people, see leaders, how different people are doing, the badges they’ve earned, etc. There’s a competitive element to the site in that you can see leaders and how you compare to them (it reminded me of the “compare game” feature on Xbox Live).

The site made me think of Carbon Rally, another company that launched at WebInno several years ago. Carbon Rally is much more narrowly focused than Practically Green. I applaud both for their efforts to make people more conscious of their consumption and to provide tools for people to take action to manage their relationship to resources. The only issue I have with Practically Green is that it felt scattered to me – I found it difficult to get my head around all of the elements of the site. Hopefully this is something they’ll address over time as they get a better sense of their users.

Unbound Commerce Mobile and Facebook Commerce for Retailers – Basically, these guys let you easily build a mobile (or Facebook) commerce site by using connectors to a brands existing ecommerce system. It makes sense to me but I have no real way of judging something like this since I don’t have any sort of commerce site at all.

I did think the site itself looked pretty old school (and not in the fun Will Farrell way) and the photos make to look like drawings are always something that creep me out. All-in-all this looks like a minimalist approach to mobile commerce – especially when you think about some of the very cool things that are happening in the space.

So these are the companies that are going to be getting time on stage. The rest of the companies will be exhibiting only. Here’s details on each of them.

Heretoo – There’s nothing to see folks, move on. Literally – the service is in closed beta. All I can tell you is that the background image is a map of Boston and there’s a cartoon duckbilled platypus (I think) on the page. More than that I cannot say.

Media Armor – I’ve met Elizabeth Zalman of Media Armor a couple of times. Once at WebInno28 and then at the AdMeld Partner Forum in New York. Media Armor does analytics for mobile display advertising. It’s not simple stuff but it’s very cool and it’s the kind of thing that is going to be increasingly important to the growth of mobile commerce. If you’re even remotely interested in the future of display advertising be sure to stop by and hear what these guys have to say.

MobiFlex Create Mobile Apps in Hours – First of all, “hours” doesn’t seem that fast to me – but I understand that app development takes time. I’ve seen a number of sites that promise easy app development but my impression is that most of those are really just letting you do drag-and-drop HTLM that can be displayed on an iPhone or Android. MobiFlex seems a cut above – but to get traction and attention they’re going to need a site/video/messages with a little more pizazz. Everything on the site screams 1997 – and smartphones didn’t really even exist at that point!

Newsle news about your people – The site’s in private beta at the moment so I can only say what I learned from the site and their video. First you give it access to your Facebook friends and choose other people (celebrities, politicians, athletes, etc.) that you’d be interested in seeing news about. Then Newsle starts a news feed for you. The feed is drawn from news outlets and sources rather than from peoples status’ (or is it stati?). I’ll be curious to see how this works.

PostPost – So I can search Twitter AND Flickr AND RSS? Hmmmm. I kind of feel like I can do these things today. Not only in the apps themselves but through a bunch of browser plug-ins. Maybe I’m missing something but this feels like something I’ve seen before (I will say I like the interface very much). I’ll be interested in hearing what they have to say.

Synchronize.tv – This is a really interesting idea that isn’t explained well either by the site or their videos. In some ways this is like Shazam for video content – capture a bit and the system knows what you’re watching and where you are in the content. Then the system can synchronize the content you’re seeing on your phone/pad/computer with what you’re watching. They mention a few ways this can be used – checking in to say what program you’re watching (oddly though it only posts the update after the show has ended so it’s too late for friends to watch with you), presenting advertising based on the products in the content and limiting the tweets and wall posts you see to prevent spoilers. None of them (with the exception of the advertising) seem that compelling to me but there’s more potential here than the company gives itself credit for.

TapCity – Some say the world will end in fire. Some say it will end in ice. I think it’s going to end when someone manages to combine Foursquare and Farmville. That’s basically what Tapcity promises. Time to pack up the kids and head to the hills . . .

Well that’s the run down. I can’t wait to actually SEE these companies in action rather than just reading and writing about them. I’ll try to do a post-event assessment to see how near or far from the mark I was. Until then, let me know what YOU think.