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WATCH: Are We Risking Our Own Extinction?

Bianca Bosker   |   April 29, 2013    8:04 AM ET

Technology is risky business. At least, that's what some scientists fear: the proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge will bring together researchers to brainstorm how we may prepare for technology-related and human-induced dangers in the future.

But what are these possible threats? Well, in part, it's too soon to tell -- that's precisely what the center hopes to study. Yet the center's co-founders have suggested we should pay more attention to the potential downsides of building sophisticated, artificially intelligent machines or of producing designer viruses. What if we build computers that are too smart for our own good, and they write their own code that wreaks havoc on our banking system or electrical grid? Or, what if a powerful genetically engineered virus is mistakenly let loose from a biotech lab and infects millions?

Dr. Martin Rees, entrepreneur and astrophysics professor at Cambridge, addressed these "what ifs" in the video above -- and/or click the link below for a full transcript. Plus, don't forget to sound off in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

CLICK HERE FOR FULL TRANSCRIPT

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WATCH: Will We Bond With Bots?

Bianca Bosker   |   April 19, 2013   10:33 AM ET

We often think of robots as merely assembly-line tools meant for physical labor. But they're capable of much more than that: like companionship, and even love.

Will we come to depend on robots as a source of empathy? And will we welcome them everywhere, from the boardroom to the bedroom? Research scientist Dr. Leila Takayama studies human-robot interaction at robotics lab Willow Garage, and has seen our relationship with bots evolve.

What's her take on our future bond with bots? Find out in the video above, and/or click the link below for a full transcript. And don't forget to sound off in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

CLICK HERE FOR FULL TRANSCRIPT

To keep the conversation going, check out this recent HuffPost Live segment on human-robot interaction.

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  |   April 19, 2013    9:20 AM ET

If a squat, cardboard-framed robot with a high-pitched voice started asking you questions, would you answer it? Would you share your troubles? Unload your concerns?

Many people would -- at least, that's what roboticist and artist Alex Reben has found. He unleashed the smiling bot Boxie in the halls of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to see what people would share with a robot. His work and other research suggest we're not so averse to bearing our souls to the bots. In some cases, we'll even tell them things we wouldn't admit to each other.

In fact, Reben suggests robots and dogs aren't so different.

"Dogs are basically a human invention. They're a technology," Reben told HuffPost Live. "We've bred them to be companions over millennia, just like we're designing robots, we've designed dogs to be companions."

Want to learn more about human-robot interaction? Reben, Stanford University professor Dr. Clifford Nass, robotics designer David Hanson, and HuffPost's Executive Tech Editor Bianca Bosker, sat down with HuffPost Live producer/host Abby Huntsman to discuss robots with humanlike qualities -- and their role in our future.

Watch the full segment above. Plus, join the discussion by leaving your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

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Bianca Bosker   |   March 6, 2013    8:33 PM ET

While we've always known that Facebook has the final say in how people use its service, a new study reveals just how effectively the social network can nudge its members to behave in ways Facebook might consider most fitting.

An unprecedented study from Carnegie Mellon University followed the privacy practices of 5,076 Facebook users over six years, between 2005 and 2011. Researchers found that during the first four years, users steadily limited what personal data was visible to strangers within their school network. Yet through changes Facebook introduced to its platform in 2009 and 2010, the social network actually succeeded in reversing some users' inclination to avoid public disclosure of their data.

In fact, the social network's new policies were not only able to partly override an active desire not to post personal details publicly, but they have so far kept such disclosures from sinking back to their lower levels, according to the study. They also found that even as people sought to limit what strangers could learn about them from their Facebook profiles, they actually increased what information they shared with their friends.

This result “highlights the power of the environment in affecting individual choices," wrote the study’s authors, Carnegie Mellon University’s Fred Stutzman, Ralph Gross and Alessandro Acquisti. "The entity that controls the structure (in this case, Facebook), ultimately remains able to affect how actors make choices in that environment."

“Like a modern Sisyphus, some consumers strive to reach their chosen 'privacy spot' -- their desired balance between revealing and protecting -- only to be taken aback by the next privacy challenge," the researchers added.

In an email to The Huffington Post, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes pointed to Facebook's customizable privacy features. "Independent research has verified that the vast majority of the people on Facebook are engaging with and using our straightforward and powerful privacy tools -- allowing them to control what they're sharing, and with whom they're sharing," he wrote.

The Carnegie Mellon study, the first to follow Facebook users over time, tracked how their sharing with friends and strangers evolved between 2005, when the site was open only to college students, and 2011, by which point it had attracted nearly 700 million users. The study’s cohort consisted mostly of undergraduate students and, later, recent graduates -- a limited sample to be sure. The researchers defined “public sharing” as disclosures to unknown individuals within the Carnegie Mellon University network.

As Facebook’s membership grew, and as the site increased the variety of information that could be shared, users in turn became more cautious about what they displayed to unknown individuals, the study found. Between 2005 and 2009, Facebook users in the study exhibited “increasingly privacy-seeking behavior” and gradually limited what information could be seen by strangers. They grew more protective of all types of personal data, from their interests and favorite books to their birth dates and hometowns.

Then something surprising happened: Between 2009 and 2010, these privacy-aware people suddenly became more open with certain kinds of personal data. The researchers observed a “significant increase in the public sharing of various types of personal information.” (Emphasis theirs.) As the charts below show, users' tendency to share their interests; favorite music, books and movies; hometown and high school decreased steadily until 2009. In 2011, when the Carnegie Mellon team gathered its final set of data, the cohort, which had seemed on a steady march toward sharing less with strangers, was still sharing details with non-friends on their network. As the study’s authors write, “disclosures in the majority of fields had not gone back down to the levels reached before those [privacy] changes.” (Again, emphasis theirs.)

facebook privacy study

facebook privacy study

The Carnegie Mellon researchers observed that the uptick in sharing applied only to certain kinds of personal data. After comparing the type of information shared with the changes Facebook had put in place, they concluded the reversal was, “with high probability,” caused by an update to the social network's privacy controls in December 2009 and the launch of Community Pages and Connected Profiles in April 2010, which made some previously private information about a user’s interests more widely visible.

Perhaps Facebook users simply became more comfortable with the idea of sharing personal information publicly, or perhaps they couldn’t figure out the new privacy settings. (Other research actually suggests people have grown more willing and better equipped to shield their private stuff from strangers. A 2012 Pew Internet and American Life report found that 79 percent of social media users considered privacy settings on social networks not difficult or “not too" difficult to use.)

More detailed privacy settings are not necessarily the answer for users who want to avoid public sharing, according to the study’s authors. They argue, perhaps counterintuitively, that elaborate privacy options might even be part of the problem.

Enabling users to choose which specific group of peers -- such as “friends” or “friends of friends” -- can view their posts can result in a “misdirection of users' attention” and has “been linked to increases in disclosures of sensitive information to strangers,” such as third-party apps or Facebook itself, the researchers wrote. However, they don't offer a clear alternative to Facebook's current approach.

Acquisiti, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon and one of the paper's authors, said the study’s findings call into question the merits of letting companies self-regulate on matters of user privacy. On Facebook, “users were taking charge [of their privacy],” he explained. “And yet things happened to push them to a higher level of disclosure than they’d expressed an interest in previously, or pushed them to disclose [information] to third parties that did not necessarily happen with users’ awareness or consent.”

How Apple's Losing Its Monopoly On Magic

Bianca Bosker   |   March 6, 2013    1:13 PM ET

On October 19, 2011, 14 days after the death of its celebrated founder Steve Jobs, Apple held a memorial service at its Cupertino campus. Posters bearing Jobs’ visage and his inspirational quotations appeared on the walls throughout the company’s headquarters.

“If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long,” declared one poster hung prominently in Apple’s Town Hall. “Just figure out what’s next.”

Nearly a year and a half later, Wall Street and the technology world seem increasingly convinced that Jobs’ company has failed to heed that advice, surrendering some of its aura as a supposedly limitless purveyor of brilliant new inventions along with billions in stock market value. In the Silicon Valley conversation, discussion of a reputedly invincible Apple has given way to questioning whether the company has lost its way while running out of fresh ideas.

On Wall Street, Apple has watched its stock price sink to its lowest level in more than a year, a dive that stands in contrast to its arch-rival Google, whose shares recently hit a new high. In the marketplace, Apple, in its present position, has devolved into a mere purveyor of consistently excellent products -- still an enormously lucrative perch, and yet a comedown for a company that only recently seemed to hold a monopoly on shiny new objects of consumer desire.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

In the three years since Apple released its last category-creating blockbuster, the iPad, investors are anxious for signs that the company has another breakthrough in its pipeline. Meanwhile, Apple’s competitors have successfully mimicked the company’s approach -- offering sleek gadgets and an ecosystem of content to go with them, paired with edgy marketing -- making Apple’s magic now seem almost mundane.

“Apple is going from a great company with unprecedented products to a good company with good performance,” said George Colony, chief executive of Forrester, a research and advisory firm. “The products are still very good, but not highly innovative. That’s different from a few years ago.”

No one is writing the company’s obituary. Despite the worried talk and some missteps, Apple sold 47 million iPhones over the last three months of 2012 alone. It remains the most valuable company on earth (or second-most valuable, depending on Exxon's stock performance on a given day). Over the course of last year, Apple's profits exceeded $41 billion, more than Microsoft, Facebook, Google and Amazon combined.

But by one key measure -- its price-to-earnings ratio, or the amount its stock is worth as a multiple of its profits -- Apple has clearly sunk in the estimation of investors. When stock markets have confidence that a company is on the verge of a growth spurt, they bid its stock price up, paying many times current earnings for its shares in the belief that those earnings are about to expand. Over the last two years, Apple has watched its stock value sink from a price-to-earnings ratio of 23 to about nine -- the same territory as companies viewed as mature and stable, such as electrical utilities.

Amazon, which actually lost money in 2012, boasts a P/E ratio of 150 times expected earnings. The value reflects that investors view the company’s future business ventures -- whether a phone, an HBO-like offering or a push to replace supermarkets -- as a source of explosive earnings growth. To a large extent, Apple's more modest P/E ratio reflects doubt that Apple can upend the Law of Large Numbers and keep pace with the incredible growth rate they've maintained thus far. Apple sold 80 percent more iPads in 2012 than in 2011. Can it sell 80 percent more -- or 105 million iPads -- in 2013? And again in 2014?

Even Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak worries that Apple may be surrendering its touch.

“We used to have these ads, I’m a Mac and I’m a PC, and the Mac was always the cool guy,” Wozniak told Bloomberg. “And ouch, it’s painful, because we kind of are losing that.”

Apple shares precious little about its current and future state of affairs, but the outside world senses trouble -- a sense amplified by turnover at the top. Scott Forstall, the company’s head of iOS software, was fired in November. John Browett, who replaced Ron Johnson as senior vice president of retail operations, lasted just seven months at Apple. Three months after Browett's exit, his direct report, Apple’s vice president of retail, resigned.

The company’s uncanny grasp of consumer taste has lately seemed on the wane. In the past, Apple’s ads have become cultural phenomena of their own -- and yet Apple’s latest round of commercials were noteworthy only inasmuch as they proved entirely unremarkable (the notable exception: a series of “cringeworthy,” “hated” ads for the Apple Genius Bar).

Apple’s major product releases, such as the iPhone 5, new iPad and iPad Mini, offered only incremental improvements over their predecessors, or, in the case of Apple Maps, a product that fell short of expectations (though even with these "incremental improvements," Apple sold 1.7 million iPads and 3.7 million iPhones per week in the final three months of 2012). The company that prides itself on making the world’s best, most beautiful products has recently watched its mapping, mail and browser apps for the iPhone upstaged by Google’s own, in the estimation of some users.

“The Apple user is an adrenaline junky,” noted Howard Anderson, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “He wants the latest and greatest, revolutionary not evolutionary.”

Apple’s business model, which relies on producing top-tier gadgets that retail for top-tier prices, appears weaker than it has in years, given changing conditions within Apple and in the market at large.

Though analysts note that Apple’s existing lineup of devices still bears Jobs’ fingerprints, the chief executive’s obsessive focus on product details can’t easily be matched. Despite Apple’s impressive sales under Cook's watch, Wall Street still seems to be wondering whether the company can maintain its momentum without its visionary founder.

Apple, for its part, has changed its product review process: Where designs for new features or products used to go through Jobs for his sign-off, they’re now evaluated by members of Apple's executive team, with a different mix of people assigned to different projects, a former Apple employee told HuffPost. The person noted that this procedure has been in place since Jobs’ health worsened.

And even as Apple has been adjusting to an innovation cycle that doesn’t include its founder’s input, its rivals are demonstrating that they are both able innovators and keen imitators of the Apple formula.

Competitors like Google, Samsung, Amazon and HTC are closing the gap between Apple’s offerings and their own, with high-quality handsets they sell for less than Cupertino’s, and a growing ecosystem of apps and entertainment to go with then. Analysts warn this trend may erode Apple’s profit margins, which in turn may erode confidence in the company’s future earnings.

“The market as a whole has changed. The Samsungs and others can now almost read the mind of Apple, more than they could have ten years ago,” said Peter Fader, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “It’s not clear to me that Apple can continue to have the same success with this innovation, product-driven strategy, as I think others will catch up. Customers are getting smart, and they can’t have the virtual monopoly they’ve enjoyed.”

Apple's allure has stemmed in large part from the sense that its devices are "gateway gadgets" to more spending: when people buy an iDevice, they are supposed to be making just the first of many purchases from the company, and will eventually fork over their credit cards to buy books, apps, music and other gadgets that all sync seamlessly within Apple's universe. People with MacBooks are enticed to buy iPhones with the pitch that they will be able to use the new device to play the iTunes music that they already own. This dynamic is supposed to be self-perpetuating, making people accustomed to shopping at iTunes -- and especially as the iPad beckons as a screen for video -- or to purchase an iPad so they can sync apps already on their iPhone.

Now, other companies have developed their own media and app libraries, which also act as portals to a range of content. And standalone services, such as Pandora, Spotify, Netflix and Amazon's Kindle ebook library, let people easily transfer their entertainment from one company's platform to another's, providing an alternative around Apple's iTunes.

In the longer-term, analysts like Colony warn that the exploding popularity of Google’s Android operating system, which powers phones and tablets from Samsung and HTC, among others, could lure developers away from the Apple system, which may soon be in an undesirable position familiar to BlackBerry and Microsoft: Apple could find itself playing catch-up with its app offerings.

Forrester estimates that by the end of this year, Android smartphones will outnumber iPhones by nearly five to one, with 894 million Android phones and 247 million iPhones worldwide.

Apple has previously brushed off questions about its share of the smartphone market, while citing data showing that even as Android commands a greater number of users, Apple users more frequently employ their devices to shop online, browse the web and download apps.

Analysts said they expect Apple’s future strategy to look a great deal like its past approach: grow revenues by launching products in new categories, and then push those devices into new markets. In short, adapt to swiftly changing consumer demands.

In the 2007 fiscal year, desktop computers comprised some 17 percent of Apple’s net sales, while iPhones made up only one percent. Five years later, the iPhone accounted for more than half of net sales, while desktop computers had shrunk to just 4 percent. In those past five years, Apple has also conquered new territory, with China now Apple’s second-largest market.

It is worth bearing in mind that Apple’s success has stemmed from entering areas pioneered by others, yet far from tamed, to enable mass enjoyment of consumer products. Apple did not invent the MP3 player; it merely built the most popular version of all time. The iPad came a decade after Microsoft’s efforts at launching a tablet, but Apple’s was the first to find a mass market. The iPhone was far from the first smartphone, trailing entrants from Microsoft, Nokia and BlackBerry, but its public embrace made apps and the mobile Web part of everyday life.

Apple’s future success now seems likely to hinge on its ability to pull off that trick once again, finding another lucrative area to transform -- perhaps television, wearable technology, or even the car. Some speculate that its next major play will be for the home, with devices like an Apple TV to put iTunes, Siri, the App Store and other Apple offerings on more screens and provide more opportunities to pay for Apple content.

The living room and the wrist seem to be among Apple’s primary targets, as rumors abound of possibilities like an Apple TV -- a full television, as opposed to the streaming video box the company sells now -- or an iWatch.

“Apple’s valuation is based on them continuing to revolutionize more businesses, which is practically impossible,” said Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie. “If they want to regain the shine they had two years ago, there needs to be more significant innovation that we have to see in existing core products, or new products.”

Apple’s sticky ecosystem of movies, music, magazines and apps looks likely to keep its base of existing users for the foreseeable future, even if it fails to deliver a revolutionary new product to entice fanboys.

But questions remain about Apple’s ability to produce cheaper devices that enable it to move into developing markets and tap a burgeoning population of smartphone owners. Can it conquer new markets -- a must to maintain its levels of growth -- unless its prices come down?

Cook has repeatedly emphasized that Apple will not sacrifice quality to achieve lower prices, though this past year Apple released a much less expensive iPad, the $329 iPad mini. When it discounted the iPhone 4, Apple was, in Cook's words, “surprised” by the large demand for the cheaper phone.

“They’re missing the popularization of the smartphone in making it a worldwide multi-socio-economic phenomenon,” argued Colony. “In so doing, that may in fact mean that they lose the war for developers … That is the Achilles heel at this moment.”

Domestically, with over half of all U.S. cellphone users already smartphone owners, Apple is “battling for fewer and fewer users, a smaller and smaller addressable market,” noted Ben Arnold, an analyst with research firm NPD.

Still, Arnold added, Apple is still attracting a flood of new customers -– by his firm’s measure, 27 percent of iPad buyers said the tablet was their first Apple product ever, yielding Apple an entirely new population of people that can tap into its app store, and might soon find themselves adding an iPhone or MacBook Air. And iPhone users remain loyal to the smartphone, with 88 percent of current owners saying they were likely to upgrade to another iPhone when the time came to buy a new phone, according to Strategy Analytics.

Wall Street’s pessimism about Apple’s future ultimately suggests that Apple’s obsessive secrecy, for so long an advantage for a company that enjoys more speculation about its products than any other, may finally be doing some harm. Is Apple mum because it’s hard at work on the next gadget revolution? Or is the silence sign it hasn’t figured out its next hit? Investors can’t seem to decide.

“Jobs was brilliant at managing expectations, and it’s hard for anyone else to replicate that … he’s no longer there, and the credibility is no longer as secure,” said Yoffie.

“It’s always a mistake to underestimate Apple,” Yoffie added. “I’ve done it a few times in my studying of Apple, and it’s never a good thing to do.”

'Seductive' Tech And Why You're Treating An iPhone Like A Friend

Bianca Bosker   |   March 3, 2013    2:15 PM ET

Why are people polite to computers? And why are they moved by flattery from a machine they know is spouting words at random?

According to Stanford University professor Clifford Nass, who studies how humans interact with machines, we tend to treat computers much like we treat living, breathing people. Our interactions with our friends and our iPhones aren't so different, after all.

Nass, the author of more than three books about how people use technology, has worked with companies to make gadgets more helpful, more intuitive and less annoying. Microsoft hired Nass to improve its Office assistant Clippy. And more recently, Google has tapped Nass to help with Google Glass and its self-driving cars.

For our "Life As" series, we asked Nass about the future of our relationships with machines, what we most need to hear from our gadgets and how we're re-wiring our brains.

What’s the biggest change you’ve noted in what people want and expect from technology?

People are more accepting now than they used to be of having technologies that are more richly and clearly social. They want personality, they want something that will joke or be more present.

In the old days, people didn’t like that -- remember Clippy the paper clip. Admittedly it wasn’t great implementation, but it’s an example of something that was trying to say "I’m visible here, I’m psychologically present." People are much happier with that than they used to be, and that's a function of voice [recognition technology] and of people becoming more attached to their technologies.

How do you see our interactions with devices evolving?

As technologies become more competent and as they speak like us -- as they use words and phrases the way we do -- we will see people responding much more socially and much more powerfully to technologies. There is no question that we will see much more tight reactions to technology. We’ll feel a much more emotional attachment to technology.

What does that mean for our relationships with each other?

One of the effects is it can impact the conversations we have with other people. We do see a great increase in people using their machines when they’re with other people -- they’re disconnected from the conversation, for lack of a better term.

Many people have healthy relationships with other people. But yes, there’s something very seductive about technologies that cause us to be distracted and to be de-emphasize our person-to-person relationships. Throughout history it has been that we feel people are healthier and do better when they have strong social connections. To the extent that those connections are no longer with each other but with machines, yeah, that’s worrisome. Certainly there’s been a dramatic de-emphasis in face-to-face communication. The importance of seeing you or hearing your voice when we communicate has declined.

What concerns you most about the direction of current technologies?

Unquestionably my biggest concern is the dramatic growth of multitasking. We know the effects of multitasking are severe and chronic. I have kids and adults saying, “Sure, I multitask all the time, but when I really have to concentrate I don’t multitask.”

The research to shows that’s not quite true: when your brain multitasks all the time there are clear changes in the brain that make it virtually impossible for you to focus. If we’re breeding a world in which people chronically multitask that has very, very worrisome and serious effects on people’s brains. For adults it has effects on their cognitive or thinking abilities. For younger kids we’re seeing effects on their emotional development. That does scare the heck out of me.

What’s the most important force driving our multitasking?
The way to make money in media is to sell attention. You have to fight and claw and do all these things to get attention. And the more media there is, the more you have to compete, so it’s an arms race, with everyone competing harder and harder to grab people’s attention.

I don’t think the industry will change, so people have to change. What needs to happen is people need to say, “I’m not going to multitask, I’m not going to fall into the tendency of being seduced.”

Google Glass offers a way for us to keep a screen in front of our faces at all times -- and, to an extent, multitask. What will Glass do to our brains?

We know that chronic multitasking is bad for your brain, but that involves usually using four or more streams of information at one time. We don’t have any data -- because, of course, it’s a new technology -- on what happens if you use two streams of data at one time.

If you want to check email compulsively, neither Glass nor any other technology will stop you. They want you to check things compulsively because they make money on it. It’s not a criticism, that’s their job. They’re going to drive you nuts because that will generate revenue for them and there’s little you can do about it. That’s the reality.

If you were to design the most addictive, attention-grabbing app ever, what would it look like?

It would have a human face (because people love human faces), a human voice and a very clear personality. It would have would be extroverted and friendly. It’d use a lot of vocal range and it would be highly expressive. It would encourage you to talk back to it in natural language. It would understand all the social rules -- it would flatter, it would understand your emotions and it would respond with similar emotions. It would do things to make people feel like they were part of its team. That would be a very good start.

What do we want to hear from our devices that we don’t hear?

Praise. One of the biggest mistakes that’s been made in the industry is we haven’t designed technology to say nice things to us. Whenever technology tells us something, it’s always because we did something bad.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Women In Tech Defend Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg Despite Recent Attacks

Bianca Bosker   |   March 1, 2013    5:48 PM ET

Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer have presented themselves as trailblazing women who, despite continued barriers to female advancement, have managed to secure the corner office.

With both women the focus of headlines in recent days -- Sandberg for a book that some say dismisses the challenges of work-motherhood balance for those without eight-figure incomes, Mayer for an edict that employees at Yahoo can no longer work from home -- they find themselves on the receiving end of accusations that they have effectively created new obstacles for women.

But if the furor has rendered them lightning rods in a national conversation about the pressures on career women, it does not seem to have cost them many admirers among females forging their way in technology.

In conversations with five women who make their living in technology -- some in Silicon Valley, others on the East Coast -- the sense emerges that Sandberg and Mayer remain inspirational figures who have triumphed despite institutional challenges. If the punditocracy cares to make hay of their recent words and actions, these women prefer to focus on trying to emulate their successes.

“I came from nothing -- I didn’t have any relationships or money -- and I wish that when I was struggling with my own career, I had had advice from Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg. I had to figure my own way out,” said Ping Fu, chief strategy officer at 3D Systems and the author of Bend, Not Break, an autobiography recounting her ascent in Silicon Valley. “No matter who gives advice, it’s never applicable to everybody ... You don’t have to take it if you don’t think it applies to you, but it can apply to others.”

Fat bank accounts, nannies and lavish homes don’t disqualify Mayer and Sandberg from being role models, these women said. True, they had educations at elite universities and middle-class upbringings to help springboard their careers, but they didn’t start off with a staff of assistants.

“She [Sandberg] wasn’t born into where she is. She worked to get there, so it’s unfair to criticize her for that,” said Marissa Campise, a vice president at Venrock, a venture capital firm.

And women in tech are not inclined to wholly dismiss the duo's advice if their own situations are not exactly the same, or if certain opinions expressed by Sandberg and Mayer clash with their own. Although they said they don't agree with Mayer's working-from-home ban, they acknowledged it is likely more of a business decision made to save an ailing company than it is a war on working mothers.

The debate over the female tech executives suggests an unfair double standard that persists for women, they added. Men in Silicon Valley who balance fatherhood with life in the C-Suite not only escape similar levels of scrutiny over the helping hand they do or don't lend to women, but have largely managed to avoid questions about their work-life balance.

“Why are no men attacked?” Fu asked. “They have money and a babysitter, so their advice shouldn’t count?”

Women in the tech world aren’t looking to Mayer and Sandberg for a direct career roadmap they can copy, but rather for a vocabulary -- and structure -- for conversations about what still isn’t working for women in the workplace. Sandberg's advice in her book Lean In won't apply to everyone, and certainly puts the onus on women to seize opportunities in their careers. But better to have a high-profile, high-powered person acknowledge the slights and biases women still face than to clam up completely, the women noted.

Sandberg’s life advice crops up frequently in lunches and dinners between female colleagues and friends, and Sandberg's mottos -- like “lean in,” “demand a seat at the table” and “don’t leave before you leave” -- are approaching slogan status among many working women.

Nisha Gulati, a former Facebook employee and current community director for Carrotmob, said she thinks about Sandberg’s maxims “all the time” and credits Sandberg’s philosophy for helping her make the shift to a new job at a Silicon Valley startup. When she was debating her next career move, Gulati, then 30 years old and anticipating that she’d want to have children within a few years’ time, caught herself evaluating her job offers by comparing firms’ maternity policies.

“Then I realized that that mentality was exactly what Sheryl talks about. That was me leaving before I left,” Gulati wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “And it was a totally ridiculous and short-sighted way of making the decision. I realized that I should grab onto the incredible opportunity, not the convenient one -- that's what a man would do.”

Gulati also maintains that Sandberg’s advocacy has helped women discuss issues of work-life balance in the workplace.

“Because she’s speaking about it so publicly, it makes it easier to have these conversations with your coworkers and your family, within Facebook and outside of Facebook,” Gulati said.

Even as the executives' personal success provides inspiration to other women, there's hope that Mayer and Sandberg will more actively move the focus beyond their own career paths to stress what companies can do to help their employees -- male and female -- "lean in." It's one thing to be a role model, but another to be actively petitioning and advocating for systemic change in the corporate landscape.

"For the woman who does want a seat at the table and wants to 'learn in,' Sandberg shows how she can do that more," said NY Tech Meetup executive director Jessica Lawrence. "The other part is that there is definitely a systemic problem as well ... It's not only about women changing their own behavior, but about society changing its behavior as well."

Life As A Cyborg

Bianca Bosker   |   February 23, 2013   11:32 AM ET

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg.

Protruding from his skull is an electronic eye that allows Harbisson, a 30-year-old who was born color-blind, to listen to color. For the past 10 years, the cybernetic device, which Harbisson calls his “antenna,” has converted light into higher or lower-pitched tones that Harbisson hears through bone conduction.

In a 2012 TED talk, Harbisson explained that going to an art gallery is like going to a concert and he looks at food in a whole new way: "Now I can display the food on a plate, so I can eat my favorite song."

Harbisson, an artist and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, argues that technology can endow humans with an endless number of new senses and abilities that expand what they feel and, consequently, what they know about the world. While some speculate about the possibility of a sixth sense, Harbisson dreams of helping us attain a 13th or a 14th sense.

“We don’t depend on natural evolution anymore,” Harbisson explained. “We can evolve during our lifetime and we can evolve in the way we wish.”

For HuffPost's "Life As" series, Harbisson discussed whether Google Glass will make cyborgs of us all, the “end of using our hands” and why he wants to light up his mouth.

What makes someone a cyborg?
To me, being a cyborg is defined by the feeling that a cybernetic device is no longer a device, but part of the body. When I first started using the electronic eye, I didn’t feel like cyborg. It was only once I had the sense there was no difference between the software and my brain did I feel like a cyborg.

When people say tech is distracting us, it’s because we’re using it now as a tool, not as a part of our body.

How do you see people’s senses and abilities being transformed by technology?
We should find inspiration in the senses that already exist and try to copy them and apply them to us. If we compare our senses to the senses of other animals and species that we don’t have, we can get ideas for new abilities that we can adapt to humans by applying cybernetics to the body.

I can perceive ultraviolet, which is a color many birds and insects already perceive. And I can hear through bone conduction, which dolphins already do. We could acquire senses that let us perceive where north is, like sharks, or improve our sense of smell, just like a dog’s.

Do you consider Google Glass a form of cybernetics that’s helping to bring the cyborg movement to the masses?
Google Glass will extend our abilities, but I’m not sure it will extend our senses. I’m also not sure whether Glass will block our vision or enhance our sense of sight.

When I got my electric eye, one of the things I didn’t want to do was to block a sense. So instead of blocking my ability to hear, I decided to hear colors through bone conduction, which was an entirely new sense for me.

Why should we pursue cybernetics and cyborgism?
If we extend our senses, then, consequently, we will extend our knowledge.
It’s really very basic. If we could all perceive reality at the level of other animal species, then I’m sure we’d learn so much because knowledge comes from our senses.

What does a cyborg future look like? What will this technology look like in five or 10 years’ time?
I think it’ll mean the end of using our hands. It’s really not practical to walk around with mobile devices we use with our hands and fingers. In five or 10 years’ time, when it’s normal not to use our fingers, we’ll start accepting the use of technology as a permanent part of the body and we’ll stop using it as a tool.

I think the next real change will come when we can have software in our genes and we can modify ourselves by changing our genes.

What developments in the world of cybernetics are you most excited about?
We receive many emails from children who say they want to become cyborgs. These kids tell us about the robots they’re creating and the senses they’re giving their robots, and I know how interested they are in incorporating those senses into their own bodies, not a robot’s.

It’s strange that we create tech and then we apply it to machines, when we could apply it to ourselves. Cars can now detect if something is behind them, but we don’t have this ability. Why are we applying such a simple sense to a car when we could apply it to ourselves? Kids are really inspired to not just apply senses to robots and machines, but to try them on themselves.

What concerns you most about the cyborg movement?
It would be good to have cyborg hospitals. Right now, there isn’t enough collaboration between computer scientists, psychologists, neurologists and doctors. In my case, if I can’t perceive a color well, I don’t really know where I should go. Should I go see an optician? An otolaryngologist? A software developer?

What do you enjoy most about being a cyborg?
The sense that there’s never an end. There are no limits.

I had this feeling that I would never perceive color and now I feel I can perceive as much color as I wish and more that I ever could have perceived. It’s exciting to know there are other senses I can continue to extend.

What’s next?
My next step is not only to continue extending my color perception and also to extend my hearing through bone conduction.

I’d even like to do something simple like having a light in my mouth. If one of my teeth fell out, I feel like it’d be useless to have it replaced with a normal tooth when I could have an artificial tooth with light in it.

So you could just open up your mouth to read at night?
Yes, exactly. But I’d need to think of a way of turning it on and off because when I eat, I don’t want to have light going on and off in my mouth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Social Media for Your Social Afterlife

Bianca Bosker   |   February 21, 2013    4:45 PM ET

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test to measure the intelligence of machines, one that's still in use today. If a human couldn't distinguish a computer from a human in a text-based conversation, Turing theorized, the machine could be said to be "thinking."

Now consider this: What if you couldn't distinguish your own words from a machine pretending to be you? Would you let a machine do your thinking? And your socializing?

These questions aren't as hypothetical as they might seem.

LivesOn, a social media service-cum-publicity stunt, is using artificial intelligence to mimic individuals' Twitter activity in order to help people keep socializing online -- even once they're six feet under.

"When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting" reads the tagline for LivesOn, which promises to maintain your "social afterlife."

The brainchild of London advertising agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine, LivesOn promises to learn your "likes, tastes, syntax" on Twitter; compose tweets and post retweets that replicate the pattern of your own; then post those messages from your account after you've kicked the bucket. The service, which is being developed with Queen Mary, University of London, has not yet launched, though already several thousand potential users have registered their interest.

"There's so much data and information people are posting and sharing about themselves ... And we thought, 'What is this going to mean for us, as a species, in evolutionary terms? What constitutes you? And what will constitute you in the future?'" said Lean Mean Fighting Machine creative partner Dave Bedwood of the inspiration for LivesOn. "This could be an early version of the Matrix."

As absurd as the concept may sound, LivesOn takes current trends in social media to their logical extreme.

Technology has already enabled us to transcend the boundaries of time and space to socialize, virtually, with people who aren't with us, physically. We carry our extended social circles with us wherever we go, so that while at dinner with a date, we can simultaneously mingle with hundreds of other people and, just by tapping Instagram or Twitter's real time feed of photos and posts, share in thousands of other moments taking place right at that instant.

As cyborg anthropologist Amber Case argued in a 2010 TED Talk, while other technology enhanced our physical abilities, online social networks have allowed for the "extension of the mental self," and endowed us each with a "second self" that's always up to hang out with someone online. "Whether you like it or not," Case explained, "you're starting to show up online, and people are interacting with your second self when you're not there."

Already, when it comes to engaging with others online, our presence is optional. Our consciousness -- and pulse -- could be unnecessary soon, too.

Bedwood hopes that "as years go by, your LivesOn will become almost like an online twin." We may not be able to live forever (though people in Silicon Valley are also working to remedy that), but we could keep up the appearance of immortality online, as author Nicholas Carr noted in a blog post on LivesOn. We take it for granted that information lives forever online. As LivesOn goes to show, people can live forever online, too.

Carr, who compares LivesOn to a "simulated Singularity," observes:

As more and more of our earthly self comes to be defined by our online profiles and postings, our digital garb, then it becomes a relatively easy task for a computer to replicate that self, dynamically and without interruption, after we're gone. As long as you keep posting, liking, and tweeting, spewing links to funny GIFs and trenchant longform texts, circulating the occasional, digitally fabricated instagram photo or vine video, your friends and acquaintances will never need know that your body has shuffled off the stage. For all social intents and purposes -- and what other intents and purposes are there? -- you'll live forever. I update, therefore I am.

Facebook, always on the bleeding edge of social norms, is already digitally resuscitating the dead, often in ways people find ghoulish or creepy. A colleague recently complained that she saw her deceased friend appear on the margins of her News Feed for having "liked" a brand that was advertising on the site. The social network made it appear as if he was still active on the site.

With its frictionless sharing and auto-posting apps, Facebook has also automated some of our posting on our behalf, letting us stay active on the site even when we're not on the social network (or, put another way, ensuring we can be social at all times, even when we're not socializing). Twitter users needn't despair: Bedwood said that the living could use his company's service to keep up their patter online.

And it seems people are quite content to carry on conversations with artificially intelligent approximations of ourselves. People are getting seduced by spambots, as the Tumblr "Okc_ebooks" goes to show. The blog features instant message exchanges with male online daters on OkCupid who, unbeknownst to them, were corresponding with Horse_ebooks, a Twitter bot that spews gibberish culled from ebooks. Though some of the men suspected there was something a bit off about their conversation partner, others flirted back. "Are you a poet?" one asked. Another went straight for, "yeah so wanna get f**ked?"

Will we like our automated alter-egos better than we like ourselves? Twitter, Facebook and Instagram could end up as social networks for our AI identities, with bots chatting to bots, liking each others' tweets and becoming best online friends on our behalf. Maybe that lets us focus on our dinner dates. Or maybe we'll find companionship with the algorithms.

Life As A Tech Reporter In The 1970s

Bianca Bosker   |   February 18, 2013    3:47 PM ET

Victor McElheny was The New York Times' go-to tech reporter in the 1970s, a decade marked by a series of tech-world firsts that moved computing beyond labs and into homes, including the release of Apple's first computer, the introduction of the digital camera and the debut of the Altair computer.

For our "Life As" series, McElheny talked about being a tech journalist at the dawn of the PC era.

The New York Times hired you in 1973 to be one of just two or three writers covering tech at the paper. What did your job entail?
In 1976, The New York Times restarted a column called "Technology." They had had such a column once before in the 1930s; then it had lapsed, and they had sought for years and years to have such a person write the column. In fact, they had hired two to three people in succession under the notion that this person would be the New York Times tech reporter, and I think two or three people in succession signed on, but immediately contrived to escape from covering tech and do other things. The paper hired me in 1973 to be a technology reporter, and I actually did it. I was their principal technology reporter for five years, and I was the second person to write their "Technology" column.

What did you cover as part of the technology beat?
The New York Times didn't have a totally clear idea of what they meant by "technology." They just wanted the other things besides what science covered. The New York Times just thought that you had all these machines -- whether it was copiers or computers or the telephone system -- that you put under the broad label "technology." But that word refers to a combination of skills and insights and devices and systems.

In a sense, what I was trying to do during that five-year period was teach the paper what "technology" meant. It's not just the latest copier, it's the electric power system. It's not just the subways, it's the sewage system. I covered Apple, and I covered Kodak's introduction of the digital camera. I profiled Andrew Grove, who later became CEO of Intel. I was writing about experiments with cell phones in Jersey City and also doing stories about Chinese agriculture and the anniversary of the mechanical cotton picker.

New technology always seems to elicit new phobias and fears. Now, we worry about privacy, dwindling attention spans and whether Facebook is making us lonely. What were people's biggest tech fears in the 1970s?
I think people felt that they were being pushed around by all these new capabilities and made to feel inadequate a lot of the time. When some new stuff comes along, whether it's 1760 or today, new stuff means new skills. It's new stuff someone else may know more about than you or a new machine in the office that you have to learn to use.

The big thing that bothered everyone in the '70s were copiers because they were always crapping out. And you were always in a hurry because someone needed the copies you were making. You felt like a klutz a lot of the time.

What was it like covering Apple as the company was just starting out?
I was invited to witness a demonstration of the Apple II, which Mike Markkula, who was then the chairman of Apple, demonstrated to me at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1977. The top PR man in Silicon Valley, Regis McKenna, had arranged this demonstration. It was amazing because there were peripherals -- a printer and some devices for reading some kind of memory disk -- all over that hotel room and connected to the Apple II to show its potential as a word processor as well as a calculating machine. I was thrilled. I absolutely loved it.

You've seen a lot of technologies hyped, launch, then fail. What do you see as overhyped now?
The obvious answer is social media. There's a lot of practical usefulness to social media, but at the same time there's an enormous amount of hype about this, and people get tired of that. There is a realistic maximum you can spend on social media. There are the classic things that human beings do that people have to leave space for. You can't run life on gossip. You have to make useful things. Whether you apply yourself to writing a speech or hammering away at something, you can't be texting while you're doing that.

What was the most memorable thing you covered as part of your beat?
The most dramatic moment took place around 9:30 p.m. on the evening of July 13, 1977, when I was in my apartment in Brooklyn looking across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan, and the lights start going out in Manhattan as well as in my own apartment. That was the blackout of 1977, and it was certainly the most dramatic moment of my career as a technology reporter at The New York Times. [My story on that] was the most important thing in the paper. And usually my stuff was not the most important thing in the paper.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Check out more interviews in our "Life As" series, which features unsung figures in tech, here.

Facebook Finds Another Way To Make Money Off Your Friendships

Bianca Bosker   |   February 15, 2013    8:58 AM ET

"Liking" a Facebook post just doesn't cut it any more: If you really like a friend's post, you should be willing to shell out some cash to ensure it gets seen.

That seems to Facebook's hope, anyway. Facebook announced users can now pay to promote a friend's status update and ensure it's widely viewed by that person's circle of friends, a move that expands a similar feature unveiled in October. Previously, individuals could only pay to promote their own posts and guarantee they'd be seen by more than 16 percent of their friends (the average reach for a Facebook status update).

The expansion of Facebook's Promoted Posts marks another attempt by the social network to make money off its users' relationships and cut through the clutter in the Facebook news feed. Though Facebook maintains it's "free and always will be," in the year since Facebook announced its plans to go public, the social network has systematically introduced a slew of tools aimed at getting its members to buy things directly from the social network.

In addition to Promoted Posts, there's also Facebook Gifts, a way to purchase presents through the site; the Facebook Card, a "new type of gift card"; and Paid Messages, which charges users to be sure messages bypass the recipient's junk-mail folder.

The social network is increasingly keen to turn its members into customers, and has been working to collect its users' credit card information alongside Instagram photos and wedding albums. So far, however, revenue from features like Facebook Gifts has been negligible, according to Facebook's most recent earnings report.

Sponsoring a friend's post guarantees it will appear in a higher percentage of his or her friends' News Feeds, though Facebook notes the tool "respects the privacy of the original poster -- i.e. it will promote to everyone who originally saw it."

However, users needn't receive their friend's permission before pushing his or her post to more people, and individuals will be notified only after the promotion has been purchased. While it's nice to think that only our accomplishments will get our friends' financial support, that might be a bit naive.

The Promoted Posts feature is also available only to people with fewer than 5,000 total friends and subscribers. Here's what it looks like:

facebook promoted posts

In a press release, Facebook suggested that people had already used the feature to publicize charity fundraising efforts, major personal announcements, items for sale or accomplishments.

"If your friend is running a marathon for charity and has posted that information publicly, you can help that friend by promoting their post to all of your friends," wrote Facebook in the release. "Or if your friend is renting their apartment out and she tells her friends on Facebook, you can share the post with the people you and your friend have in common so that it shows up higher in news feed and more people notice it." Or as HuffPostTech reader Henggao Cai noted on Facebook, "If your friend needs a kidney you can promote his status about a kidney donor to speed up the process of finding a donor."

But Facebook already has a completely free way to ensure more people see a post: users can simply repost their friends' links and share the information to their personal friend group.

Say a friend's band has a gig on Saturday. Is it really preferable to pay, say, $7 to be sure a higher percentage of your mutual friends see information about the concert? Or will you reach more people just by sharing the link to your own friend group, which may have little overlap?

It's also worth considering the social implications of each option. Promoting a friend's post shows someone is willing to put her money where her mouth is. But it remains to be seen whether Promoted Posts could in turn diminish the value of congratulating a friend the classic way, without paying for eyeballs. And which is more thoughtful: spending a few dollars to push out a post, or taking the time to publicly congratulate a friend in your own words?

Google's Assistant Gets Savvier

Bianca Bosker   |   February 13, 2013    1:13 PM ET

Google Now, the search giant's Android-based virtual assistant, is getting a suite of new features that aim to make the tool an even more engrained part of people's daily routines.

The assistant, which seeks to anticipate what information people will need before they've even asked for it, is giving users the option to put the app front and center on their phones for faster -- and, Google no doubt hopes, more regular -- access.

Currently, people have to unlock their phones and swipe their phone's home screen to view the assistant's customized list of "cards," which present personalized updates on sports scores, traffic, nearby tourist attractions, recommended restaurants and reminders, among other types of information.

Google Now's most recent update will allow users to check in with the assistant directly from their lockscreen or homescreen and to save their most frequently-accessed "cards" for easy reference.

"For me personally, this has increased my usage of my own product," said Google Now co-creator Baris Gultekin.

google now
"The new Google Now widget brings all your important Now cards to your home or lock screen, so you don't even have to open the app," Google wrote in a blog post introducing the new look.

Google Now already sends alerts to users when it deems there's urgent information they should see, though Gultekin notes Google tries to use the alert system sparingly. For example, Google Now can tap into a person's calendar, Gmail correspondence and location information, along with Google's own mapping data, to warn someone there's bad traffic on her route to the office that will make her late for a key meeting.

"With Google Now, our goal is to have the computers do the hard work so you don't hve to deal with all the details and you can focus on the things that matter to you in life," said Gultekin. "This is search not with a keyboard, but with your context. We're providing information based on your situation, so you don't even have to search."

Google Now is also being integrated with Rotten Tomatoes in order to put movie reviews alongside trailers and showtime information, Google announced Wednesday. In addition, the assistant will sync with real estate site Zillow so it can alert prospective homebuyers to houses in their area that are on the market. While visiting an open house, Google Now can use a person's location -- paired with Zillow's database -- to push them information about the home they're visiting.

zillowcards
A screenshot of Google Now's Zillow integration.

How To Author Over 1 Million Books

Bianca Bosker   |   February 11, 2013    8:59 AM ET

INSEAD marketing professor Philip Parker has, by his estimation, authored over 1 million books.

His name is on their covers, but he hasn’t actually written them all -- that chore falls to a machine.

Parker has developed a small arsenal of algorithms capable of automatically generating textbooks, crossword puzzles, poems and books on topics ranging from bookbinding to cataracts.

The software isn’t intended to replace Shakespeare or Updike (though a fiction-writing algorithm is in development). Rather, Parker hopes to generate written materials on niche topics and in rare languages that would be economically unfeasible for traditional publishers to produce. His titles on Amazon.com, more than 100,000 in all, range from economic reports ("The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Luggage and Utility Racks," priced at $795) to Unami-to-English crossword puzzles to medical guides ("The Official Patient's Sourcebook on Vocal Cord Paralysis.")

Parker started by generating market reports sold to banks, consulting firms and government trade agencies interested in the sales outlook for, say, rubber or corrugated cardboard. Now, he hopes to use the algorithms to help with language learning and education in developing countries. Thanks to Parker’s automated radio broadcasts, people in parts of Malawi are hearing weather forecasts in the local language for the first time -- and are already changing their farming patterns as a result.

For our “Life As” series, we spoke with Parker about authoring with an algorithm, why dissertations could be automated and how watching television could change in drastic ways.

Will I be obsolete soon? What are the implications of your software for writers?
There are very few implications for writers because we’re covering areas that writers don’t or can’t cover. When you’re looking at small languages, the population of speakers is so small that there might not be people with the expertise in science or agronomy to write optimal planting strategies for maize in the local language. Every title we create is educational. All of these projects seem very diverse, but really they’re all in same vein: we’re using automation to reach areas that wouldn’t have been served otherwise. And it gives people the opportunity to see or experience content they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

But surely we can outsource some existing tasks to your algorithmic authors? Already there are algorithms writing articles for Forbes, for example.
There are many forms of writing that are common, but also very formulaic, such as annual reports or economic studies. In those areas, people would probably be relieved not to have to write those kinds of things because they are mundane and drudgery.

If you want to wax philosophical, you could see these algorithms as an enabling tool. There are a lot of people who want to be writers who stumble at a blank page. You could imagine an algorithm that could give writers a first draft or a starter kit, so it could enable people to be more prolific in their writing.

How might your technology change how -- or what -- we write?
One of the areas I’m working on is, can we create a doctoral-level thesis that’s fully automated -- to save the pain of four years of a Ph.D. program -- and still come up with an original conclusion? If we could do it in an automated way, we’d increase the speed of discovery. As time goes on, someone might be able to say, “I’d really like to do a doctoral thesis on X and Y with a Z perspective,” and with a few clicks, it will have be authored.

What changes do you foresee in how we consume content?
People will be seeing content they wouldn’t otherwise have seen in their language. But this technology is nowhere near maturity – it’s like the automobile industry in the late 1800s right now. One hundred years from now, things I can’t even imagine will be available. When you watch television, for example, there will be a channel specifically for you generated on the fly using your particular profile. It’ll be rendered in real time before you even watch it, so you may be the first person to ever see that program, but it will be what you most want to see.

We’re far from that. But is it technically feasible? Probably.

How does your software actually write the books, poems and puzzles you produce?
There’s no single piece of software, per se. Each genre we do has its own very customized algorithm that’s been created. For international trade reports, we use econometrics. To write poetry, we use graph theory -- we have a semantic web of knowledge, which took us three or four years to create, and we use a trained database to mimic the human mind in terms of word usage.

What can human authors do that these algorithmic authors can’t?
The toughest thing will be the creation of genres themselves -- A computer would have a hard time inventing cubism, for example. Formula creation is magnitudes harder for computer algorithms than actually executing within a formula. But once the genre is created and the formula is known, then the computer can do the repetitive task of executing within the genre.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Di-Vine Life

Bianca Bosker   |   February 9, 2013   12:33 PM ET

Most social media sites begin in relative obscurity, hoping that a small number of dedicated, evangelical users will take them from mini to mass. They begin as one thing, then gradually evolve as their number and types of users begin to grow.

Twitter's video-sharing app Vine got to skip all that.

Thanks to Twitter's enormous reach, instead of building an audience from the ground up, Vine, which lets users share and upload six-second videos, got to pitch its service directly from the top to an audience of 500 million registered users. Now pair that with major weather event to fuel photo and video sharing, and you've got a killer combination most app creators could only dream of.

There's nothing like intense fog/snow/sunsets/rain to get people's iPhone cameras clicking -- Instagram saw 10 photos per second uploaded during Hurricane Sandy -- and Vine got an added boost over the weekend as "Nemo" descended on the Northeast. Twitter, which declined to share data regarding Vine usage on Friday, got to observe people playing with its newest toy. And the world in turn got to watch a critical mass of people learning to use a social network all at once.

Sites like RebelMouse and ViningNemo.com aggregated incoming "vines" capturing the fallout from Nemo, and the results ranged from mini-movies to the highly mundane. Beautiful, sepia-tinted photos they certainly were not, and the stop-and-start nature of the vines made many some seem like less-ghoulish versions of Clockwork Orange's Ludovico technique.

Some social start-ups, when they're just starting out, will seed their service with a specific group of users they hope will instill certain norms and practices in the community as it grows. Through their model participation, early adopters will teach other newcomers how to behave. Facebook, for example, benefited from having thousands of partying, flirtatious college students show that it as perfectly acceptable to share photos, send messages, poke people and post on friends' walls. And Instagram's loyal following of photographers and design buffs early on no doubt boosted its reputation as a repository for aesthetically pleasing and beautiful images.

But Vine has opened to everyone with an iPhone, all at once, and the result is some social soul searching and experimentation by a large group of people who aren't too sure what they're supposed to do with the video app, besides use it.

Twitter for its part seemed to consciously avoid giving people a clear guide for how to use the service. Twitter's blog post introducing its redesigned iPad app clocked in at 249 words. Its blog post introducing an entirely new way of sharing video totaled just 110.

"Rather than tell you more about the app, we thought we'd just show you some of our favorite videos," Twitter wrote in a (very brief) blog post introducing Vine. What followed were three clips: one of kids at a park; another that cut between three views of a recording studio; and an animated flipbook. They couldn't have been more different.

So what did Nemo tell us about how people use Vine? Judging from the uploads during and following the storm, Vine could very well be the Instagram for feet:

The looping photo album -- stop-and-start cuts between more-or-less static images -- is a favorite for vines, along with the slow pan:



There seems to be some confusion about when to take a video, and when to upload a photo:

And, in typical internet fashion, dogs and kids playing around in the snow pretty much steal the show:


While Twitter doesn't necessarily need to lay out any formal rules for the right and wrong way to use Vine, its unorthodox (for social networks) start raises the question of how much guidance users care for as they test out a new way of sharing. A certain amount of structure may not stifle users, but actually provide some inspiration that makes them likely to share more (Instagram's rules of engagement couldn't be clearer: See something neat, take a picture of it, post it). Twitter has always had a sizable population of users who aren't quite sure what to say on the service. Vine may not give them any additional clues.

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