My rant on passwords, the most craptastic part of using technology

Hmm, ESPN.com. I better use my double-helix encryption system for this one.

Seriously, is there anything worse about using websites, apps, services, products, or technology in general than having to enter in usernames and passwords?  Half the sites want a username, half use my email address, and most of the time they don’t even tell me which one to enter.  Not only do I have many different passwords, I even have different approaches to making passwords on different sites.  And not a week goes by that I need to complete some kind of “Reset my password” process.

Some sites want some uppercase letters.  Some don’t.  Some need a number – but make sure the number isn’t the first character of your password.  Some have minimum amounts of characters, some will let me through with “1-2-3-4-5″ (yeah, I know, your luggage…).  The all time granddaddy for most inconvenience?  My online bank.  Why?  Because when I forget my password, I are required not only to make a new one, but one I haven’t used before.  I’m sure this is more secure, but it pretty much creates a 100% certainty that when I come back I have some brand new approach to making the password this time, and therefore, will forget it again the next time I return.

Unless I cheat, and write down the password somewhere, or save it in a google doc.  Which pretty much invalidates the entire purpose of all of this added security.

Oh, and I’m sure it doesn’t help that 90% of the “remember me” or “save my password” features fail.  Which is doubly bad when its a site that has some obscure requirement on usernames, so I can’t remember those either.

It’s awful, and I’m sure that it creates a major amount of headaches and frustration for the typical Internet user.

Supposedly Google is trying to fix it with “automatic strong passwords” but it just gets me thinking: maybe not every single site needs a super strong password system?  Do I really need a distinct username for my online bookmarking service?  Or for Words with Friends?  Isn’t that the entire stated purpose of Facebook Connect?  Is there no way for me to “trust” that this really is a computer only I have access to, and for me to relay that concept onto the websites I want to use?

And I think that’s part of the inherent problem here: every single individual site, service, app, etc is taking on the entire trust responsibility themselves.  There’s absolutely no common sense in play, just a CYA style approach to “best practices”.

So I’ll personally waive some of my online security to the sites I use.  Yes, online banking and credit card companies, this is the only computer I plan to access your sites with, and if I visit, then yes, it’s me visiting.  This goes to you too, video sharing site, online game, and document backup site.  If someone steals my computer, I’ll deal with the consequences and will use the service you build me to un-authenticate this one.  And yes, Zynga, all the apps on my phone are mine, and only I will be playing them.   And if someone should snatch my phone, I too will take responsibility to close access remotely.  Because in all of these examples, I can do exactly that.

I’m not trying to diminish the needs for security and privacy (I’m a huge privacy advocate), but I believe we need to distribute and balance the responsibility in solving this as a relationship between users and services.  I don’t need an extra set of keys to every room in my house, nor provide a thumbprint to use the stereo or air conditioner in my car.  Let’s assume that we do need some strong passwords, good encryption, and safety standards, and let’s also assume human beings can take responsibility for their actions once they are properly informed and the right experiences are delivered.

It's got a pen?!

For the 14 people who missed the Super Bowl this year, a “notable” commercial was the debut of the Samsung Galaxy Note, which basically enlisted virtually every trick of the trade.  Hipster rock band? Check. Playful teasing of Apple users? Check. Flashy seeming new gadget? Check. Tablet with a stylus? Check.  Wait a sec, rewind, what is this, 1998?  Or, as I tweeted (and BTW, Twitter – yet another simple feature: enable easy embedding and reblogging of tweets to other platforms, because screenshots? really?):

So my advice this evening is to Samsung and everyone else competing with the iPad – which is actually nobody in reality.  If you want to play this game, you need to stop grasping at straws.  Go build a damn good product and the market will support your endeavors.  I’d heard some interesting buzz about the Note, that it might be the first “other” tablet to give the iPad a real run for its money.  And then? StylusGate.

Now wait, maybe it’s not about consumers.  Maybe it’s enterprise or other specific applications.  I’m sure there’s a decent market in several verticals for a tablet with a stylus (something I blogged about a full year ago now!).  But your marketing wasn’t about some productivity device, it was about consumers.

Does anyone really think any hipster, businessman, student, soccer mom, or any other typical consumer with an iota of self-respect would walk around using a stylus when everyone else doesn’t have to and can accomplish the exact same goals?  That commercial didn’t show a product superior to an iPad.

That’s the key thing here.  The stylus is showing up in an effort to get on par with the iPad’s user experience.

Except it doesn’t.

Not even close.

We Need a Digital Do Not Disturb System

I don’t need to write much “backstory” on this one.  Thanks to the technologies that pervade our lives, we are in a hyper-connected world.  But methinks it’s too much, and the blame lies solely on us, but all of us and in two different ways.

  1. We let ourselves get interrupted.  Multitasking is basically a lie, nobody’s good at it, and it’s proven unproductive.  If you have multiple windows doing different things, bottom line is you are getting less done.  Further, we leave our ringers on, have pop-up alerts for lots of things (from meeting notifications to Twitter DMs), leave our chat/IM programs open, have email checking once a minute, etc.
  2. We interrupt others.  Sending a chat request, a text message, a DM, etc is, in effect, an interruption on someone else’s time.  I loved Jeff Jarvis’ post on how we need to redefine “rude”.  The problem right now is, we’ve all accepted so many interruptions as “the norm” that we are imposing it upon others, and expecting them to react to our whims.

We need to fix this, and soon.  And I don’t mean for the “decreased productivity” factor – Americans especially have gotten far too focused on how productive we all are.  Here was Bobby Kennedy’s famous quote on measuring productivity:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.

“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

I think we’ve all tolerated these interruptions because we are chasing these false ambitions, and perverting the concept of productive to “work all the time, letting anything interrupt me, because it makes me seem/feel busier and therefore more important and more productive.”  I suggest we stop it.  And, since I’m human too, I’m going to state that I am fairly guilty myself, but I’m working on it.

I want a “do not disturb” app.  I want it to run on my desktop, iPad, iPhone, and laptop.  I want it to let me control when I’m interruptible and when I’m not.  I want it to work in a “polite” way, so nobody thinks I’m avoiding “them” but can be properly informed that I’m using this block of time to work on something specific.  I want it to let someone override in case of emergency, and I want it to mesh with my schedule.  I don’t need it to be very “smart”, it doesn’t have to “learn”, it just has to work.  And yes, I know it’s impossible, and this is unicorn territory.

But what I can do in the meantime…

  • Shut down Tweetdeck and start using Twitter when I want to, not worrying that I’ll “miss something” because in all truth, real-time is irrelevant for 99% of our personal and professional lives (unless you are actually in the media).
  • Turn off all notifications on my iPhone.
  • Close Skype and Adium except for when I want to chat with someone (which I’ve hopefully scheduled already).
  • Close mail, only checking it a few times a day – and move all “rapid back & forth” email conversations to the phone.

I have no idea how to do the above 4 things and actually make it work, but I’m going to try.

ps – my official interruption count while writing this was: 3 incoming texts, 1 twitter DM, 1 Skype instant message, 1 appointment reminder, and a Words With Friends update (I won – yeah, baby!).

Yet Another Cord Cutting Stumble

For the third straight season, I signed up for NHL GameCenter to watch Montreal Canadiens games and so far the experience is a good one ($160 for 82 games is a pretty great deal, although offering 40% off a season that is 60% over is certainly questionable). I also have the sports channel Versus through my cable subscription, and they broadcast around 8 Habs games per season, which should mean more hockey for me (yay!).

But unfortunately, that isn’t what winds up happening. In fact, I get less hockey. Because Versus has the rights to air certain Habs games in my local area, they are blocked out on NHL GameCenter for two days (see above, infuriating pic). What that means, then, is that if I forget to DVR the Versus game at my home, the footage is unavailable to me for 48 hours, even though I have paid to watch the game on two distinct platforms. And I don’t always remember to set a recording, given state of the art hockey schedule on the Versus site (so easy to read!). There is nowhere to go on Versus or on NHL GameCenter to watch the game while it is blacked out. This makes no sense. I can sort of understand blacking out the NHL GameCenter footage during live play (sort of), but once the game is over, the online version should be available to everyone who paid into it. In my opinion, the best way to grow the sport is to show more hockey, not less.

These media blackouts need to go the way of rabbit ear antennas. In an era of streaming online content, DVRs and smart, mobile media players, locking paying customers out of content for any length of time is silly. Someone needs to figure out a way to deliver out of market games in a timely manner so that “blackouts” become a thing of the past. These antiquated media restrictions show that cord cutting is far from a reality at this time. This is an issue facing technology and media companies, as well as the sports world.

Blackout rules were a bad idea when they were first conceived in an effort to make people go to the stadium and they are even more ludicrous now.

The Internet Needs More Humans In Charge

I keep running into a problem with Gmail. Every so often – without warning or good cause – it rejects one of my emails as undeliverable spam.

These aren’t mass email blasts or creepy solicitations. These are emails addressed to my coworkers and colleagues getting bounced back for no discernible reason.

From: Mail Delivery Subsystem <mailer-daemon@googlemail.com>

Date: December 2, 2010 3:16:09 PM PST

Subject: Delivery Status Notification (Failure)

Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:

Ugh. There are two main problems here. The first is that an email between two people who work together and know one another in real life is getting marked as undeliverable spam. This should be a “solved problem”, but apparently it isn’t. Bummer.

The second, far worse, problem is that I have no (reasonable) way to correct to this error message. There is no one to contact in person. Literally not one customer service professional at Google to call and fix this situation. The only recourse I have is a help forum. Which is ridiculous.

Sure, I could pay Google $50 per year and get phone support, but this seems outrageous. And I am not the only person who feels this way. Quoting from Krish Subramanian’s excellent post on this same topic:

I fully understand that Google cannot offer support for free users. However, there should be some other option for me to get in touch with Google (say, an email support for an one time fee of $10). It is important to recognize that Google Apps Standard Edition users not only help Google monetize through Google Ads, they also serve as a “testbed at scale” for Google so that they can serve their paid customers better. Also, many free users eventually become paid users too. In short, these free users are not freeloaders and Google should offer some way to escalate those issues that are not getting solved in the forums.

That last point is especially salient. I support Google in other ways. I search, I click ads, and I use and evangelize their apps. They should be invested in my well being and satisfaction.

But this issue is larger than Gmail’s nonexistent customer service. The bigger picture is a lack of humans in charge on the internet. In order to flourish, the internet can’t be all bots and algorithms. There needs to be a personal touch influencing (or at least checking) high level decisions.

Now, humans can’t run the entire web, but certainly we can do better than this scenario recently published on the RAAK blog. This social media firm set up a few Twitter bots in order to see how klout measured their influence.

The four bots Tweet[ed funny non sequiturs] once every minute, once every five minutes, once every fifteen minutes and once every thirty minutes respectively. They are completely anonymous, have no avatars or custom user profiles set, and do not follow anyone.

The results weren’t pretty. Here are the klout scores for the once a minute bot.

It should not really be possible for a bot to reach a Klout Score of 50 within 80 days merely by Tweeting random (yet entertaining) rubbish every minute, should it?

No, it shouldn’t. And even though the CEO of klout jumped in to the comments to participate in this discussion, the real issue here is a lack of humanity making key decisions online.

I would look back at Rand Fishkin’s post which we wrote up last month:

Why does a page rank first in Google for a particular query? Why does one link stay on Reddit’s homepage for hours while another, with a similar number of votes, fall off in just a few minutes? Why does Facebook show me ads for customer service jobs at Comcast? Why did Amazon recommend buying whole milk with this Badonkadonk Land Cruiser?

If we don’t understand why these suggestions were made, couldn’t that bias us against trusting future recommendations from these services?

As a closing example of the frustrating state of the machine-run internet, Google once marked my personal blog as Spam. And there was literally nothing I could do about it other than fill in some form and hope (I also tried doing the blinky-thing like in I Dream of Jeannie, not sure which was more effective). Not one person to call. No one to follow up with face to face. A machine blindly made a (wrong) decision and I couldn’t contact a human being to talk about why this happened and how we could prevent it from happening in the future. For all the talk about “connecting people,” the internet – as it is set up today – actually does a poor job of allowing humans to interact with one another when they need to most. When things break or don’t turn out as expected.

This isn’t just an problem with Google. It’s Facebook. It’s Yelp. The system we have all agreed to online is callous, demoralizing and broken. And it’s getting worse.  Yes there are help forums and FAQ sections and Customer Service email addresses on Help Pages. But what I am arguing for here- and what the internet should be – is a network that unifies and empowers people. A place where all are welcomed and made to feel welcome by people who care about getting things right all of the time. And for that to happen, the way things work online will take a more human touch.

In other words, make the Internet more like Soylent Green.