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Social media darling Digsby learns hard lesson

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Grid computing

Social media darling Digsby learns hard lesson

What's your computer doing when you're not looking?


In the world of social media technology, lessons are delivered swiftly and often learned the hard way. Just ask Digsby, the third-party Instant Messaging application that went from Internet darling to evil tyrant in the blink of a blog posting.

In an Aug. 13 posting, “Digsby Joins the Dark Side, Uses Your PC to Make Money,” tech lifestyle outlet used its broad reach to deliver a scathing rant against Digsby for what it considers less-than-transparent business practices.

Among the chief complaints are the multitudes of ads users have “the option” to view during the software installation. But, based on subsequent comments posted in response to the article, the general consensus among most regular Internet users is that ads come with the territory.

Then there is the optional ad-in software, such as toolbars that allow you to search, compare and bookmark your browsing experience while cluttering your browser window and installing the dreaded tracking cookies on your PC. Again, it's not uncommon to find these ad-ins in the majority of free software downloads, even if Digsby’s presentation of six different ad-ins is bordering on gauche.

So why the all the hoopla?

Digsby software, by default, redirects any spare computing power on the user's idle PC to grid computing tasks. You might have heard about grid computing efforts like SETI@home which attempts to distribute the computational tasks of searching for extra terrestrials among more than 3 million supporters' home computers. Digsby uses Plura Processing to manage their grid computing for less noble causes like, a for-profit web crawling service, among others. 

From Lifehacker:

Hold everything! They are going to use my computer for "searching the web" without explicitly asking for my permission? What exactly are they indexing, and how do I know they aren't accessing something illegal with my computer? Why are they trying to hide this in the first place?

To be fair, they do give you a way to disable this absurd nonsense—though they bury the setting behind a "Support Digsby" item on the menu, with no clear description on exactly what they are doing with it. It's clear they are abusing their users, but since they technically explain it in the TOS and let you disable the feature, they weasel out of any responsibility.

It seems that Digsby violated one of the unwritten commandments of the Internet; loyal users don't mind giving you just about anything they have, as long as you ask permission first.

Vaguely referenced in the fine print of the Terms of Service - and briefly mentioned in an obscure Digsby blog posting more than eight months before - is the warning that Digsby intended to test new revenue models and users would be the participants in these experiments unless they manually unchecked a menu option after installation. It all went horribly wrong when loyal users, which are not necessarily the same thing as careful readers, actually learned about the effort and felt terribly duped.

Digsby immediately announced changes, promising that the next software update would move the functionality in question to a more obvious location in the menu. Additionally, a pop-up link to more information would be available, and in fact would not go away until closed, for users wanting further details on Digsby's grid computing.  By not removing or disabling the functionality, did Digsby fumble the PR opportunities to retain its fleeing customer base?   Although dotSyntax, LLC, makers of Digsby software have been unresponsive to's requests for comment, they responded in kind - via their blog - to the Lifehacker article. 

Says Digsby:

We want to make it completely clear to all users so Digsby is not doing anything you don’t want it to do. The above changes have been on our to do list but the article really opened our eyes about how few people know about this functionality. Our goal is to create the world’s best IM client and social media tool. The only way to accomplish that goal is with transparency and communication so we can keep working with you to make a better product.

The backlash has been a textbook lesson in making mountains out of molehills, with many detractors promising to remove Digsby's IM client in favor of competitors Pidgin and Trillian. Perhaps the lesson here is not that creative revenue models are bad ideas or even that grid computing, regardless of the purpose, is necessarily evil. The lesson is that the social momentum of the Internet giveth and the social momentum of the Internet taketh away.   Dueling blog entries and defensive arguments over semantics do nothing to help Digsby's case.

Watch for other social media moguls to over-publish and present new ideas in an opt-in mode where the user makes a conscious choice to participate.

Is it irony or poetic justice that a company known for their communication software fell victim to a series of miscommunications?

Grid Computing 101

Most business and home computer users tend to overbuy computer processing power.  That is to say, when you decided how fast your shiny new Dell needed to be to adequately complete tasks (such as word processing, spreadsheet calculations, playing MineSweeper, etc.) you likely followed one of two decision trees: 

  1. You followed your typical consumer spending pattern based solely on price (i.e. "I always by the (cheapest) (most expensive) (mid-priced) option available, whether buying shoes, tires or CPU cycles"). 
  2. You had no idea what you really required, so choosing the option with the biggest number meant you couldn't go wrong.

Quite frankly, very few of us do the math required to find our optimal CPU requirements, so we end up buying more than we need. In the course of normal events, your maximum processing capacity is rarely met, much less sustained, so there are plenty of spare cycles going to waste.

Mathematicians, scientists and programmers have found a way to use all that spare capacity, in conjunction with all the spare capacity of millions of other users like you, to create a "virtual supercomputer" to do complex calculations, analysis and other tasks that would otherwise have to be performed on an extremely large and very expensive computer system.

Your "donation" of spare cycles happens behind the scenes, goes dormant when you are actually using your PC so as not to impede work you are trying to do and saves millions of dollars in equipment, power and storage costs.  Most grid computing is volunteered by the computer owner, who generally opts-in and agrees to the purpose of the computations. 

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