Social Networking Services – Part I: A Brief History

From the Oscar-winning movie “The Social Network” to the recent introduction of Google Plus, no-one can deny it: on-line social networking services are here to stay. But, where did they come from and what does it mean for you and me?

All modern social networking services have the same basic structure: you create a profile with some information about yourself, add your friends as connections, and start sharing self-created content: short messages, photos, videos, websites, etcetera. It’s like having a broadcast channel with a guaranteed audience: the people you know. Why is this basic model so successful? My guess: it caters to the human desire to share.

2011-07-19-DDSThe social potential of the Internet was obvious even back in 1995 when I first got Internet access. Back then there was a community in the Netherlands called “De Digitale Stad” (The Digital City). This is where I also hosted my first homepage, and yes: it did have tacky animated GIFs. Although, the digital city was not exactly comparable to the services available today, it did have the same community feel to it: publishing your own things on-line, and finding other as well as interacting with them.

While pioneered some of what we view as a social networking service today, it were probably Friendster, MySpace and LinkedIn that gained widespread global popularity initially. In the Netherlands most people’s first experience was probably Hyves. The layout of Hyves was often criticised for allowing too much freedom leading to unreadable pages with `happy’ color schemes. However, Hyves offered what many people wanted: a quick way to create a homepage, and is still popular to this day. On the other side of the ocean it was Facebook that quietly took the lead from MySpace in 2008. While MySpace was launched before Facebook, and was for some time very popular among artists for showcasing music, it lost the lead firstly because its creators failed to rapidly innovate, and secondly because it was slower: Facebook invested a lot in making their service load and respond quickly which is a key factor in getting users and keeping them. StudiVZ successfully copycat Facebook and gained widespread popularity in Germany. Finally, there’s of course Twitter founded in 2006 which differentiated by heavily focusing on short real-time public messages.

Search-giant Google has had some trouble coming up with its own answer to the social networking explosion. Initially they launched Orkut around the same time as Facebook. Even though Orkut was successful in India and Brazil, it never caught on globally. They tried to take on Twitter with Buzz, and Google Wave was intended to be a completely new collaboration experience, but was discontinued. Recently the company launched Google Plus which is receiving mixed to positive reactions. However, given its rapid adoption my guess is that it will be successful and provide some serious competition for Facebook: the current global market leader. Nevertheless, it’s probably obvious to you by now: these services tend to come and go. We don’t know what will be the Facebook or Twitter of tomorrow, and it may very well be a service that no one has heard of yet.

Curious on how you can leverage social networking services? Read the second part of this article.


How to Shoot Better Film with your Mobile


Many people have it nowadays: a mobile phone that includes a camera that you can use to shoot film. While the output quality of such a device is not great compared to a camcorder, DSLR or videocamera, it has one prime advantage: you always carry it with you. So, why not use it? Below are some tips for more effectively using your mobile device to shoot better videos.

Tip #1: Always record in the highest quality
Mobile phones have plenty of space available from the get go, and if not: they can easily be extended with a larger memory card. Hence, there is no compelling reason to use low quality video recording settings. As a rule of thumb: always set your mobile video application to the highest recording quality available, on modern phones this is usually 720p.

Tip #2: Leave the other camera settings alone
Camera applications come with a variety of manual settings, such as toning the image, tweaking contrast and brightness, or using digital zoom. I suggest that you stay away from these options unless you really know what you are doing. Most of these settings apply effects that are usually better applied in post-production during the editing process. By selecting some fancy looking effect you risk ruining your source material, as the effect of filters can often be difficult to see very well on a small screen. There can be circumstances where it is useful to manually adjust the white balance setting, but most of the time the built-in software will do fine on its own.

Tip #3: Record with sufficient light
The portability of cameras in phones comes at a cost: a tiny sensor – the part that actually captures the image. Unfortunately, small sensors make it very difficult to shoot nice film in the dark without significantly sacrificing image quality. Less light means that the exposure time will need to be longer to actually capture enough light. Mobile phones bring down the video frame rate dynamically in order to do this which results in choppy video: not exactly a feast for the eye. Besides this they usually also crank up the gain on the sensor which makes the image very noisy. So, it is best to record in sunlight if you can, or bright indoor light. Of course: sometimes this is impossible and you’ll have to compromise quality in order to actually capture a moment.

Tip #4: Keep it steady
Many people record while holding their mobile device with only one hand. My advice: don’t do that! Instead hold your phone firmly on both sides between your thumb and index finger. Some people have a steady hand and don’t require anything beyond this technique. However, if you are a particularly shaky person, try to lock your elbows against your sides, stand with your legs slightly spread and try to hold your breath for a couple of seconds to get a really steady shot.

Tip #5: But, use gentle motion as well
Any motion in your video should be a deliberate choice. Try to avoid jerky movements and keep it nice and smooth. You’ll primarily want to use panning motions: rotating the camera from left to right or right to left. Other motion includes tilting: up-down. Optically zooming is impossible with at least all mobile phones I know of, and: please do not use the digital zoom as it leads to really poor quality video. Although with a fixed lens you can’t really zoom, you can use your arms to create a limited dolly-shot effect1: move them outwards from your body to the subject your filming to dolly in and back towards your body to dolly out.

You can’t really use a tripod or monopod with most of these devices, but you can be creative and use other tools or your own body to create great shots. For example: bend your knees and from that position slowly stand upright while you pan or tilt the camera. You can get very nice motion shots with this technique. Try to avoid walking if you can, or walk very slowly. Also, if you have a car kit or dock you can reverse mount your mobile phone in these to create shots from fixed spots, but: take care not to damage your phone.

Mobile phone camera’s, like many professional camera’s nowadays use CMOS sensors. The downside of these sensors is that they are subject to rolling shutter. This means that when you pan the camera quickly, or something moves quickly,  an object that is standing straight in reality appears skewed in the recording. This is the reason why your movements should not be too fast. See the video below for a demonstration of this effect.

Tip #6: Frame properly with the rule of thirds
A simple rule of thumb famous in both photography and film is the rule of thirds. Imagine two equally spaced lines in your image horizontally and two vertically as shown here:

The idea is to use these orientation lines to properly align your subject. For a close-up shot the top horizontal line should be aligned with the eyes of the subject and either the left eye should be aligned with the leftmost vertical line, or the right eye with the rightmost vertical line. When taking wider shots the whole body may line up with one of the vertical lines, whereas the head is placed at one of the top intersections as in the image below. Of course, your subject need not be a person, but can be any object.

Third Rule

Tip #7: Don’t rely on the phone for quality audio
The biggest caveats of shooting film with a mobile telephone is not so much the image quality, but rather the abysmal sound. Most phone manufacturers seem to think that people play back film shot on a mobile phone with that same mobile phone, and for those instances the audio is just fine. However, for listening on the Internet, let alone playback on home theatre equipment, the sound just plain sucks. Unfortunately, there is not so much you can do about this. However, if you have the money you can consider buying a portable audio recorder. Many people, including me, own a Zoom H1 for such occasions. Devices like these are also pocket-sized and can easily be used to record high quality audio anywhere. You need to sync it up in post-production of course, but this can make your recording of a gig you went to that much more memorable.

So, now you have enough tips: start shooting some video 🙂 As with anything, the trick to getting better at this is doing it a lot, making mistakes and learning from them.

1) Technically speaking a dolly is a construction of some sort that allows the camera to move forward or backward, usually on a rail. While things shot with a phone are all strictly handheld the shot type is still a dolly shot.


What is Free Software and Open Source?


There are many people that are unaware of what free software is and what open source software is, and why it matters. In this post I’ll try to shed some light on this.

When people hear `free software’ they usually think of software that does not cost anything in terms of money, which is not the right definition. The word `free’ in free software is free as in speech, not free as in beer. So, what does this actually mean in terms of computer software? To understand this we first need a basic understanding of what a computer program actually is. A computer processor can be operated via an instruction set which allows performing many low-level operations such as adding two numbers together. These instructions are numeric codes, which are very hard to understand for a human: imagine that you would have to type a text and instead of using a – z you had to use the numbers 1 – 26 for each letter. That would be terribly difficult to read and write! So, most computer programs are written in readable text which contains statements such as “x = 3 + 5” instead of something like “1001 1100 1010”. This written text is called the source code, which is like a blueprint of the program, and can not be interpreted by a machine directly. Source code first has to be translated into a binary machine representation: the numeric codes I spoke of before. This translation process is called either compiling or interpreting1. After this step we can actually run the program and interact with it. So, we have a distinction between the source code and the binary.

Many companies that make computer software only distribute the binary to their customers and keep the source code locked away. These companies see the source code as their intellectual property which they must protect. Let’s go back to free software again and consider what makes a particular piece of software free as in speech: four main points. Firstly, the freedom to run the software for any purpose. This means that, for example, you can not distribute a video editor with the restriction that you can not use it to produce a commercial. Secondly, the freedom to study how the program works and to change it to suit your own needs. For this having the source code is a necessity. Thirdly, the freedom to distribute copies of the original program so you can share it with your friends. And finally: the freedom to distribute the modifications you make to the program to others. So, now you understand that besides the binary you also need the source code in order for something to be free software.

Undoubtedly these definitions will give you a lot to think about. Most people assume that you can not make money when you make free software. However, this is untrue as there are many successful companies out there that create and share free software. These companies realize that the real value of computer software is not in the source code, but in the people with the expertise about how the software works. Just like it takes time and practice for a musician to learn to play a musical instrument, it also takes time for a programmer to familiarize himself with a piece of software. Contrary to popular belief making computer programs is primarily a creative endeavor with a significant social component as well. Everyone who has ever written a report or paper knows the value of other people reviewing your work. The same is true for computer software: if more people read it, give feedback and fix errors, the quality of the software improves. And when the source code is available: it is much easier for people to participate in this process.

Now, this still leaves us with the question: what is open source? Is it exactly the same? Well, most open source software is also free software, which may be somewhat confusing. The main difference between the two is philosophical. The free software movement considers non-free software to be undesirable, and is social in nature: its emphasis is on changing people’s behaviour so that they create, use and share free software instead of alternatives. In contrast, the open source movement originated in the nineties as a pragmatic, liberal view on free software. Therefore it is slightly more permissive: some things that are not free software are open source. The difference is also emphasized in the concepts themselves: free software with “free as in speech” as the main issue, and open source software with an emphasis on the pragmatic advantages of having the source code openly available. Since there is a relatively large overlap between the programs these two concepts cover, people commonly use the term Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) to refer to both.

So, have you used free and open source software? It is quite likely that you have! Are you running Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome as your Internet browser? Both are free software. Many websites you visits are powered by the Apache web server, which is open source. Are you perhaps using an Android telephone? The operating system kernel these phones use is Linux, which is free software. You are probably using many more pieces of free and open source software than you realise. Notice that many of these software products have been created by successful companies and not by individuals programming in their basements2. Here is a 2008 video with Stephen Fry giving a quick explanation and his view on free software:

Whether or not free and open source software matters to you personally is entirely up to you. But at least the next time anyone asks you what free or open source software is: now you know the answer.

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1) For this text the distinction does not matter, but if you clicked this footnote you probably want to know a bit more. A compiler takes as input a file with source code and then writes an output file which can be executed directly. An interpreter also takes a source file as input, but translates it to machine instructions on the fly, so no intermediate executable is produced. Generally interpreters are slower, since they can’t read the entire source code file, but instead process it line-by-line. This makes it more difficult to optimise the generated instructions for execution speed. When distributing a program you also need to distribute the interpreter itself with it which is not the case for a compiled program. Nevertheless, they do have advantages as well, such as that they can more easily be tested.
2) Although, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that 🙂