Third Voice: Boon or Bane?
Jun 14, 1999
When I first read about Third Voice the other day, the immediate thought that crossed my mind was, "What in the world was Third Voice, Inc. thinking when it decided to release this product to the Internet public?" And as I began picking up more information from the several (generally negative) articles written about it, I grew more wary of the service and how it would affect websites like mine. So I did the next logical thing — I paid the website a visit to find out what all the fuss was. And now I'm here playing the devil's advocate — I think.
You Want Feedback? You Got It.
As explained on its website, Third Voice is a unique, free browser companion service that lets you post your thoughts and opinions via inline notes on any web page, just by turning on Third Voice and logging in.
How It Works
Once the Third Voice client is activated, you can begin to read inline notes immediately simply by looking for markers within websites left by other Third Voice visitors. Click on any marker and a note pops up. Posting notes on web pages is a similarly effortless affair. The only thing is you have to login to Third Voice with your username and password, and in order to do that, you first need to register with the service.
And Why Webmasters Hate It
However, if one puts aside for a moment the instances of abuse (where the contents of notes are clearly unsavory or obscene), Third Voice is an incredibly innovative new product that, when used under the right conditions, holds great promise. (This is probably the one time when one should shoot the messenger.:-) Still, I hope that Third Voice would spare a moment to think about the ramifications of the misuse or abuse of their service on all the websites out there which may want no part of it until its negative potential can been safely ruled out. At least, they should heed the call for the service to be usable only on an opt-in basis, that is, Third Voice has to first verify that websites welcome these online stickies before the service can be extended to those websites. (Isn't it only logical that the onus should be on Third Voice since they began the whole thing?)
This episode reminds us of a previously-released software (although I forget the name) which was designed to stop banner ads from loading on browsers. To their credit, however, the producers of that particular software promptly realised the long-term detrimental effect it would have on affected websites, and voluntarily withdrew the product from the market. Currently, iCab does the same thing too, but its makers present the argument that advertisers would have to think of better ways of promoting their products on the Web than with slow-loading banners. But even the effects of these products on websites pale in comparison to the far-reaching consequences which Third Voice would possibly have.
I think that even if webmasters want improved feedback and interactivity with their readers, it's best left to them to decide how to achieve this, and many options are already open to them, all of which are within their control. Few webmasters, I think, would want to relinquish this control to just about any keyboard-happy surfer who happens to visit the site armed with Third Voice. And why not? Webmasters are ultimately responsible to their readers for the quality of content on their websites, and can ill afford to have them turned into some online public toilet wall, if not worse. But does the use of Third Voice really deface websites to the extent that the case has been made out to be?
Does Third Voice Really Screw Up Websites?
The way that Third Voice actually works is still a bit of a mystery, at least to Mac users who have yet had a chance to try it out. Some articles have suggested that it introduces a "layer" over a targeted web page, as if the servers at Third Voice, Inc. are able to project a layer (on which users' notes are posted) which is mapped over the targeted web page, which itself is essentially untouched. So, just like how cascading style sheets work, I suspect it doesn't change the inherent content or code of a web page, at least not that visitors are aware of who are not registered users of this service. Even if a registered user of Third Voice posts a "public note" on a website (the two other options being personal and group notes), it is visible only to those within the Third Voice community, so to speak, and not beyond. So in that sense, Third Voice may in reality be more innocuous than say, that voracious email-transmitted worm that gobbled up all those Microsoft files in PCs the other week. And can somebody please explain to me just why PCs always get to have all the attention?:-)
Here's another thought: Even if Third Voice messes up a website as badly as some have claimed, the detriment is evident only to those to use the service. And if they become so disillusioned and disenchanted with the software having experienced first-hand how its indiscriminate use can degrade the quality of any particular website, don't you think they'd be the first to find Third Voice a turn-off? So in reality, the threat if any comes from a possibly much smaller group of clearly malicious abusers whose sole intent would be just that: to go out on the Web and find a hydrant to piss on. Ultimately, for all the good intentions that may be behind the creation of Third Voice, some form of control is still necessary to prevent its abuse.
Whether celebrated or denounced, there is no denying that Third Voice has taken interactivity on the Web to a new level and has quickly caught the attention of the vast Internet community. The reasons cited by Third Voice as to why you should use Third Voice are frankly plausible, and if you're curious about how it works, it's described in detail here. Third Voice has allowed users now to personalize and interact with websites and among themselves in a much more immediate fashion than before. Under the right conditions, a Third Voice-accessible website could develop a greater sense of place and community where visitors could converge upon and feel free to interact within, to venture beyond the paradoxical state of connected isolation that Net denizens still find themselves in. If webmasters should choose eventually to entertain Third Voice visitors in their websites, then that could well be a start to more spontaneous dialogue between the two. And that could be a good thing in the long run.
Perhaps Third Voice isn't plainly the dangerous toy we think it is that could go out of control in the wrong hands. Perhaps we should all give it a chance to prove itself before nipping it in the bud. In that regard, if Third Voice, Inc. is prepared to respect the right of control webmasters have over their websites and to seek their approval for access privileges to specifically designated pages, then I for one might be willing to meet them halfway and see where things lead to. But there can be no laissez faire.
What do you think? (Uhmm... just email would be fine, thanks.)
* * *
I received several letters from readers in response to the above article (thank you all). Two in particular made some interesting points which I thought I'd share with the rest of you.
The first is from Mark Carmichael who copied me a letter he wrote to the people behind the Say No To Third Voice campaign:
I discovered your site (www.nototv.hypermart.net) today through a link on the Mac OS Rumors site. This was the first I had heard of Third Voice, an irony you may want to consider carefully in your campaign.
I am appalled at the arguments you present on your site, and your current methodology for addressing the problem you perceive. Therefore, I'm writing to suggest better ways to discourage use of the Third Voice service in particular, even though I am unsympathetic to your current appeals on the subjects of "URL ownership", "derivative works", and web site inviolability.
I haven't attempted to use the Third Voice service myself, because some of the Terms of Service conditions:
"User grants Third Voice the right to disclose to third parties certain User Information or any other information about User's use of the Service in the aggregate. Such disclosures will exclude User's name, mailing address, email address, and account, unless User expressly directs Third Voice, or any other person User may specifically designate, to disclose such information or unless Third Voice is required to disclose such information by any applicable law or legal process served on Third Voice."
When these and other terms of the agreement are considered along with the basic operation of the Third Voice plugin, it seems clear that Third Voice plans to support itself through the sale of marketing information to web site developers and web advertisers. In addition to the demographic information the user gives when applying, Third Voice gets a precise trace of URLS visited by the user, across any and all sites they visit with the Third Voice plugin enabled. That can be priceless to marketing boffins.
That is also the sort of privacy concern that causes users on the Web to flee services like the plague. If you want to marginalize Third Voice, harping on privacy is a more effective way to do so than trying to bring in government regulators.
The other major flaw with Third Voice from a user perspective is the completely open nature of the postings, as you have drawn some attention to already. This is an important part of their conjectured business model, but reduces the quality of the content to unacceptable levels.
While it is good to emphasize this, it seems likely that others will take this annotation idea and use it with limited groups of subscriber/posters, or strictly with trusted posting authorities. Then the annotations will have a guaranteed level of quality.
In the simplest case, this is exactly how SurfWatch and other systems for web censorship work; they simply restrict their commentary on URLS to a content rating. The government *loves* those services; don't count on getting interactive URL commentary outlawed any time soon...
This one's from Ken Kashmarek:
As best I can tell, ThirdVoice is a browser plugin. We don't call other plugin client software, so just call it a plugin.
Next, the concept is simple. The plugin takes the URL of a website (or web page), ships that URL to the ThirdVoice server, and if the URL is logged, returns the already posted notes. If not logged, then it logs that URL and adds it to the database.
By the way, when you register, your are also on the ThirdVoice database, but as a user.
Therefore, the plugin logs web site access by URL and by user. Guess what, ThirdVoice is a marketing tool. It is the absolute measure since it logs every URL you (or any ThirdVoice user) use(s). Its data can be mined, sold, and used for marketing purposes. Crap on the post-it notes. That is just the tickler to get you to participate.
When you sign on with ThirdVoice, you give them permission to collect data on you and the sites you visit.
Over time, the ThirdVoice servers are going to be the busiest on the web. Every URL access will go to their servers, making them as busy as the ones from Microsoft. In fact, one wonders why Microsoft hasn't bought these guys out yet or tried to crush their technology. Why? Microsoft is already doing this under the covers and really does not want anybody to be aware of that. I believe that ThirdVoice tracking could start to show such a pattern.
This one's from Dan Berkes:
I like the idea of feedback of this type, what I do not like is not being able to be in control of it - to moderate or remove offensive or inappropriate postings.
It isn't so much that I'm afraid of some foul-mouthed random idiot polluting my index page with nasty comments.
What does concern me is that like just about any other useful technology of this type, eventually spammers will find it and start using it to hijack advertising on my pages. Legit advertisers are hard as hell to attract and retain if you're a small content provider. The last thing I need is some spammer dolt using Third Voice to get a free ride and possibly spooking a technophobic sponsor in the process.
It's a good idea, just a poorly executed one.
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