Facebook’s ‘Locality of Friendship’

This visualization by Facebook intern Paul Butler illustrates what he calls

the locality of friendship. I was interested in seeing how geography and political borders affected where people lived relative to their friends. I wanted a visualization that would show which cities had a lot of friendships between them.

It’s a magnificent effort and scores marks for beauty:

and for the amazing amount of data it carries within it.

Look at how the world of social media breaks down into clusters:

Europe is hard to subdivide: 

image

But Australia and New Zealand are almost three countries:

image

But of greatest interest to me is my own patch, Southeast Asia:

image

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are, perhaps unsurprisingly intimately connected:

image

North vs South

While the links between the southern  half of the region and Thailand and Indochina are by comparison quite weak:

image

Philippines stands alone

But the links between the Philippines and Hong Kong appear as strong as those between the Philippines and the southern half of Southeast Asia:

image

The other point to take into account is how spread out Facebook is in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is about as densely packed as Italy or England.

Facebook is not a phemenon limited to the country’s major cities (and this is true of the Philippines and Malaysia, of course.)

I’ll be updating my Facebook Asia Pacific data later this week.

(Thanks to the Guardian’s Simon Rogers.)

The Missed Call: The Decade’s Zeitgeist?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a longer version of an upcoming syndicated column.)

When people look back at the last decade for a technology zeitgeist they may choose SMS, or the iPod, or maybe even Facebook. Me? I’d choose the cellphone call that rings, briefly, and then is silent.

It’s one of those social phenomena that has so embedded itself in the culture that we don’t even notice it. It developed its own syntax, its own meaning, and even shifted the boundaries of cultural mores and social intercourse. Even I didn’t realise it was so widespread until I started researching this article. And yet, at least in the middle of the decade, it spanned all continents and was accounting for more than half of cellphone traffic in many developing countries.

So what is the miscall and why is it—was it–so big? The miscall is simple: I call your cellphone but hang up before you pick up. Instead of you thinking there’s a mistake, you know exactly why I called, and either call me back, or don’t, depending on how we’ve agreed on what the miscall means. It’s a form of communication that requires no words, no speech, and, most importantly, no expense. At least for you and me. Not, sadly, for the cellphone operator.

But initially cellphone operators weren’t too bothered.

There’s a temptation, after all, to regard the miscall as a poverty thing, done by poor people. I don’t have any money; you have money, so you call me. Indeed, in Ethiopia it’s called miskin—Amharic, deriving from the Arabic for “poorest of the poor”, with a distinct connotation of being worthy of pity. And among youth the lure of the cellphone is matched only by the limits on a budget. So, someone somewhere is going to call back, so money will be spent on a call, somehow.

But two researchers for Norway-based Telenor Hanne Geirbo and Per Helmersen found that was only part of the picture, even in a place like Bangladesh. Combing the data from a single day of Grameenphone’s traffic, they concluded that “the charged traffic generated from an initial missed call is minimal compared o the missed call activity.” In short, a missed call didn’t result in a real call.

This was communication in itself, not just a plea for communication.

Not only that: making the missed call was so easy—hit the green button, wait for a ring and then hit red—that it was stopping other services, like SMS, from getting any traction. And we’re not talking small potatoes here: Missed calls constituted upwards of 70% of Grameenphone’s total network traffic in any hour. Some people were sending miss call after miss call, one after the other—100, or even several hundred, miscalls in a short period. This, in the words of the researchers, was “a major cause of congestion at peak periods,” leading to calls disconnected, or not being connected in the first place. In 2005 one Kenyan cellular network estimated that four million miscalls were being made daily on its network.

A miscall, then, is a lot more than a call me back thing. It’s a fast way to communicate a key piece of information to someone who is already expecting it around that time, and only needs to be activated:  “I’m home, throw the gate keys down.” The timing is the context that gives the unspoken, unwritten message meaning: A miscall at 6 pm may mean I just left work.

And, if there isn’t any specific time context it may just mean: “I’m missing you.”

Then there’s the another parameter: how many missed calls are made can vary the message. Two missed calls means “I’m running late” or “I’m at home, where are you?” depending, it would seem, on what part of Bangladesh you’re in. In Syria five missed calls in rapid succession means “I’m online, let’s chat.” There are business uses too: Farmers in Bhutan, according to UNCTAD’s annual Information Economy Report published in October, know how much milk their customers want by the number of miscalls. They then miscall the customer back within 15 minutes; no miscall means no stock. Researchers in India, where miscalls accounted for about 40% of all calls, found that the miscall was used by print and ticketing shops to let their customers know their orders were ready.

Missed calls can be fun if you don’t have much else going on in your life. Try to irritate your friends by miscalling them; if someone is doing it to you, try to pick up before they hang up, losing them credit and the game. This may sound inane, but these calls are likely to be serious network congesters. If the power goes off, the researchers found, Bangladeshis would entertain themselves by miscalling friends, relatives, and even complete strangers. The researchers found one young woman met her boyfriend that way. If you call communicating only by cellphone a relationship. Who said blackouts couldn’t be fun?

Talking of flirting, missed calls can create a private space between two people who couldn’t otherwise connect without fear of exposure or ridicule. One 44-year old Bangladeshi admitted to expressing his love by sending the object of his affections hundreds of miscalls. In Damascus it’s no different: One young man proudly explained to a journalist from Syria’s Forward Magazine last year that he sometimes gets 250 miscalls from his girlfriend.  Young couples in a relationship miscall each other to check the line is free or to keep the line busy—either way ensuring their paramour is not otherwise engaged, so to speak. Starting to feel sorry for the network operator yet?

Husbands expect calls from spouses at fixed times as signals that the house is running smoothly. Children check in with their parents. Newly married women get their mothers to call without incurring the wrath of their mothers-in-law. Friends miscall a member of their circle who couldn’t make their evening out, as if to say: we’re missing you.

There are rules, of course, about who one can and cannot miscall. No one below you in the hierarchy, either in the family, the office, or the community (one man is quoted as specifying “driver and electricians…it’s a matter of prestige.” And don’t miscall your teacher or your boss. At least in Bangladesh. in Africa, where it’s called variously “flashing” and “biper”,  there are complex rules about who can be flashed. Among friends, one commenter on a Nigerian blog said, it’s about exclusion: with miscalls “there is complete communication beyond the scope of outsiders.”

In other words, the missed call is not some reflection of not having enough credit. It’s a medium of exchange of complex messages that has become surprisingly refined in a short period. Much of it is not communication at all, at least in terms of actual information. It’s what the researchers identify as phatic communication: where the interaction is the motivation not the content of the message itself. Or, as a Filipino professor, Adrian Remodo put it to a language conference in Manila in 2007 at which they votedfto make miscall, or miskol in Tagalog, the word of the year: A miskol is often used as “an alternative way to make someone’s presence felt.”

Indeed, the fact that the message itself has no content is part of its beauty. Just as the SMS is confined to 160 characters—meaning it can either be pithy or ambiguous, depending on the effect you’re looking for—so can the missed call be open to all kinds of interpretation. A lover receiving a missed call can fill her evening contemplating what was meant by those few unanswered rings.

The Telenor researchers speak of how this “practice contains valuable information about the communication needs and preferences of our customers.” Very true. But one gets the feeling that their call for more research to “provide the telecom industry with a much-needed window into the socio-cultural life space of our customers , and suggest new service offerings that better match their needs and circumstances” may have fallen on deaf ears.

I’ve not found much evidence of this, and that was written back in 2008. Some African cell providers gave away five free “Please call me” text messages to each subscriber. A Swiss company called Sicap has had some success in Africa with a service called Pay4Me, which is a sort of reverse charge call for mobile phones. The only difference I can see between this and the miscall is that the callee doesn’t have to make the call, so to speak. That, and the fact that most prepaid services nowadays don’t let you make a call if you have a zero balance—which accounts for 30% of African users, and 20% of Indian cellphone users, according to Telenity, one company hoping to offer the callback service.

Telcos in Afghanistan offer polling services where respondents, instead of texting back their answers, miscall a number depending on their choice of answer. More creatively, some socially minded organisations have used the miscall as a cheap way to communicate: Happypill, for example reminds you to take medication if you fail to miscall them at an appointed time each day.

The point is that while usage may vary it’s common in many countries—and has been for much of the past decade. As soon as mobile phones came with prepaid vouchers, and operators included the name and number of the caller on the handset display, so did the opportunity arise for someone to pay for your call.  In France and in French-speaking Africa it’s called “un bip”, I’m told, and one commenter said that it’s included in some prepaid packages. In Iran it’s called “tak”; in Australia “prank” and in the U.S. “drop call”. In Italy, apparently, it’s called “squillo” and in Oman a “ranah” (where there’s even a pop song based on the practice).

And it goes further back than that: “Call me and hang up when you arrive,” my mum used to say to her impoverished student son.

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned about this. One Indian columnist wrote:

What, then, will happen to the human voice? If two rings on the mobile are sufficient to say “I miss you”, what will become of the impassioned verses that poets have so far written to appease their beloved? I wonder how a dialogue will sound in a world where voices have become ringtones.

It may be that the miss call culture is in decline. Jonathan Donner, a Microsoft researcher who has looked into this phenomenon more than most, noted back in 2007 a “beep fatigue”, leading some to turn off their caller ID function and ditch phone numbers that clearly indicate they are on a postpaid package. And in some places where the costs of a call and an SMS have fallen to pretty much nothing, the appeal of the miscall has waned in some places.

An SMS would work, but requires typing, and in a place like Bangladesh, where more than half the population is illiterate that’s not a popular option. And text messages sometimes take a couple of minutes to arrive: a call is immediate—something that’s apparently important to my Filipino friends.

Then there’s the fact that the missed call can be discreet in a way that a phone call, or an SMS, can’t be. You could make a miscall from inside one’s bag or pocket (and I frequently do, though that’s by accident.)  Which may explain why, a student  in Pakistan wrote earlier this year:

what amazes me the most is unlike other fads such as texting obsessively etc have gone away pretty quick ,this ‘miss call’ culture still reigns supreme in most of our society.

My tupennies’ worth? As the SMS, which created its own culture out of the limitations of what was not supposed to be a commercial service, so has the miscall created its own norms. Whether these survive the next decade is unlikely. But we should watch these things carefully, not because they represent commercial opportunities—we’re bound to mess that up—but because they speak volumes about the inventiveness of the human spirit, and its ability to squeeze rich new forms of communication out of something that, on the surface, seems to be nothing—a briefly ringing, and unanswered phone.

Facebook in Asia: Seeds of Decline?

Some thoughts after trawling through data I’m collecting on Facebook membership in selected Asia Pacific countries

Membership of Facebook in developed Asia Pacific territories declined for the first time in a year in September, suggesting, possibly, that interest in the social networking site in the region has peaked. The figures may also reveal insights on whether, in developing countries, a social networking site can break out of their middle class enclaves.

Facebook populations in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong all fell during the month, while those in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines all either grew only marginally or shrank somewhat. Hong Kong dropped by the largest margin—5.7%—while Thailand, alone among the countries under study, grew by more or less the same amount.

India and China, though included in the study, offer a more confusing picture. China’s data may be unreliable: after showing slow but steady growth until April, membership dropped precipitously before rising by nearly 140% in the past month. The reasons for these spikes and dips are unclear, but may have something to do with China’s limits on access to the service. In any case, the proportion of China’s real population remains negligible.

India’s too is negligible, although it did rise above 1% in July and and has been growing by between 400,000 and 1.7 million people per month. In most other countries that would be noteworthy.

But while the data overall remain questionable—these figures are from Facebook’s own statistics, but are not transparent, and are based on where members say they are from or in—there are some identifiable trends:

  • Australia and New Zealand seem to have not only hit a limit in terms of percentage of their overall population who are on Facebook (45% and 41% respectively), but may actually have begun to decline. After recording impressive growth up until May, membership plateaued for a month or two before falling in September. Google Trends graphs measuring traffic to facebook.com in these countries seem to confirm this. (Australia; New Zealand)
  • Hong Kong and Singapore seem to be in a similar boat. While more than half of Hong Kong was on Facebook in July, and nearly 49% of Singapore was on Facebook in August, both populations shrank in September. Only five months ago both territories were recording double digit growth.
  • Thailand is still growing, as is the Philippines. But both are from low bases: Less than 3% of Thailand began the year on Facebook, although that has now grown to 8%. The Philippines has risen from about 10% of the population to about 18% in the same period, but growth in both has dropped recently from earlier rates of up to 25% per month.
  • Indonesia is an interesting case. Its membership, too, was surging in the first half of the year—twice growing by a quarter in the space of a month—but has slowed considerably in the second half. Indeed, its population seems to have plateaued at about 11% of the overall population. That pretty much covers the country’s middle class, according to my calculations. (I wouldn’t want to labor the point, but based on the latest ADB figures, Indonesia is remarkable in the way that Facebook has extended beyond what would usually be considered the middle class limits of an Internet-based service. Those considered to be middle class or above by the ADB is about 11.6% of the population, which is exactly where Facebook’s Indonesia population currently stands. The Philippines—at 18.25%, about 5 percentage points behind the ADB’s calculation of the country’s middle class—has a little way to go, while Malaysia’s Facebook population has space to double in size. Of course, this has a lot to do with the growth of the mobile Internet, which is another topic in itself. )

Previous Facebook data posts:

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth? – loose wire blog

Facebooks Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North – loose wire blog

Why Google Needs China?

Playing with the AdMob data on iPhone and Android devices—which is a bit old now, the U.S., a much bigger iPhone/Android market than the rest of the world, reflects the worldwide distribution of iPhone vs Android devices (the blue is iPhone):

image

The pattern seems to be mirrored elsewhere, but not evenly. In Australia, particularly, there seems little room for Android right now. Look at China, though: Almost as many Android devices as there are iPhones:

image

Ironic, really, that Google is so dependent on China to make headway with its phone OS. The third tier of countries follow a similar distribution:

image

Facebook’s Asian Growth: Not Everywhere is North

I’ve seen some posts recently suggesting that Facebook is not doing well in Asia-Pacific. This, for example, from Forrester’s Reineke Reitsma:

For example, Facebook is struggling to gain ground in Asia Pacific:

With 58% of online adults accessing it, Orkut is the leading social platform in metropolitan India, while 27% of Japanese online adults use mixi; and in South Korea, Cyworld is most popular, attracting 63% of South Korean Internet users.

I won’t quarrel with her stats, but I’d suggest she’s missing a bigger picture: Facebook is growing at quite a clip in many Asian countries. My figures, based on Facebook data—which doesn’t include Japan and South Korea, admittedly–indicate that in 10 Asia-Pacific countries, Facebook membership has been growing at an average of nearly 9% per month for the past five months. That includes Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, China and India.

By far the biggest growth is in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia growing at 14% per month, Thailand 15%, Malaysia 12% and Philippines 13%.

India is growing at a similar rate, but with a far smaller proportion of population: still less than 1%. Thailand is less than 5%, but 10% of Indonesians now have a Facebook account, as do 23% of Malaysians, 14% of Filipinos and 42% of Singaporeans. Only Hong Kong beats that, with 44% of the population having a Facebook account.

Hong Kong and Singapore join other developed economies at reaching a critical mass—Australia 38%, New Zealand 36%—where growth has understandably tapered off to 5% per month or less.

So while it may well be true that Facebook ain’t big in North Asia, it’d be a mistake to assume that’s true of the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Facebook is still the one to watch, and showing consistent growth this year in all 10 countries I’m monitoring.

(This updates my post back in January on Facebook stats.)

Facebook in Asia: A Limit to Growth?

image

Here are the latest figures for Facebook populations in Asia-Pacific:

Country Users
Australia    7,395,200
New Zealand  1,279,260
Indonesia    15,254,060 
Singapore    1,763,340
Malaysia    4,155,880
Philippines    8,667,880
Thailand    2,000,320
Hong Kong 2,565,440
China    60,440
India 5,459,440

While there’s no doubt that Facebook is the premier social networking site in most Asia-Pacific countries, with subscription growing by about 20% in the past month in some countries, growth is tapering off in the developed economies of Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.

The figures, gathered over the past six weeks from Facebook’s own data, suggest that once about a third of the population is on Facebook, there’s not much more room for growth.

image

A comparison of Facebook users between November and January shows growth of 2.6% in Australia, 7% in New Zealand, 4.7% in Hong Kong and 2% in Singapore.

 

Australia

Hong Kong

New Zealand

Singapore

Proportion of population on Facebook

34.6%

36.77%

30%

36.44%

Growth, Dec-Jan

2.6%

4.7%

7%

2%

The Emerging Four

Compare this with the four Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, where despite impressive growth Facebook penetration remains relatively low:

 

Indonesia

Malaysia

Philippines

Thailand

Proportion of population on Facebook

6.68%

15.4%

9.6%

2.97%

Growth, Dec-Jan

24%

18.3%

20.2%

20.1%

India and China

In India and China, Facebook has yet to make much of a dent: China restricts access to the service, while in India users make up less than half a percent of the population. With 5.5 million users, Facebook’s India footprint is smaller than the Philippines.

Country observations

What growth there is among Facebookers in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong comes from younger users, particularly the under 18s.

In Singapore, with the highest penetration in the region, is growing only among those groups with a small pre-existing share of users: Females over the age of 35, for example.

In Malaysia growth is being driven by teens: the number of females and males between the age of 13 and 17 grew by a third between December and January.

Indonesia is seeing growth across the board, particularly among males (there are 3 million more males on Facebook than females in Indonesia.)

Thailand’s Facebook population is still relatively a small proportion of the country—less than 3%—but is showing impressive growth, especially among the under 25s.

Driver Phishing II, Or Who Is Trentin Lagrange?

I’m fully awake now, and doing some digging on who is behind the Driver Robot “driver phish.” The digging has introduced me to a whole level to the software scam industry.

The company that sells it is Victoria, BC, Canada-based Blitware (“or Blitware Technology Inc.,  to be precise,” as its website urges us). Nothing gives on its Who Is page, nor on the driverrobot.com website the software is hosted at. But a clue to the possibility that this isn’t just some cute little software developer is back on the LogitechDriversCenter website, which carries some named testimonials, among them this:

“I got a new graphics card but the framerate was terrible, and the manufacturer’s website didn’t help at all. It turns out that the driver that came with the card was 6 months out of date! Driver Robot got me the latest driver automatically, and now my whole system is more responsive, especially the games.”

Trentin Lagrange, CA

The good thing about a name like Trentin Lagrange is that it’s not that common. Not like the other two testimonials, which come from one Tim Whiteman and one Susan Peterson (not that they aren’t helpful. But nothing like Trentin.)

Who is Trentin?

A Google search of Trentin Lagrange indicates that either he’s a huge fan of driver update software, or that it’s not just about Logitech drivers or one small Canadian company anymore.

Trentin Lagrange, it turns out, has left glowing testimonials for driver update software, not just on the dodgy Logitech website (and a sister one at logitechdriverdownloads.com) but on websites like Realtekdriver.net, which also carries the company’s logo and calls itself “Realtek Drivers Download Center”:

image

As with the Logitech website, it’s only if you scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on a link “About us”

image

do you get to the truth of whether it’s a company website:

REALTEK is registered Trademarks of Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
All other trademarks are properties of their respective owners.
This website is not owned by or related to Realtek Semiconductor Corp.
We are not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.
We are just running a site to help users who have trouble to getting hardware device drivers,
This web site is not associated with Realtek Semiconductor Corp. in any way.

Trentin has also left testimonials on websites that impersonate Dell-–delldriverscenter.com—complete with Dell logo

image

and favicon

image

And SIS at sisdrivers.org:

image

and MSI at msidrivers.org

image

and Intel at inteldriverscenter.com

image

and Asus at asusdriverscenter.com

image

and Acer at acerdriverscenter.com

image

and canon at canondriverscenter.com

image

as well as HP – hpdriverscenter.com

image

and driverforhp.com, with this HP-looking banner atop:

image 

No denials of being associated with HP on their about page, so I’m guessing HP’s lawyers haven’t been in touch yet.

Another website, atidriverscenter.com, seems to have closed. It was active in July, when this person fell for the scam and complained on a forum.  At least some companies seem to be watching.

Well, maybe not. This website, atidrivercare.com, is still working:

image

You get the picture.

Google’s Role

All of these websites appeared as sponsored ads above the search results in Google when looking for that manufacturer’s drivers (hp drivers etc) which throw up links to, for example, “official HPs [sic] Drivers & Updates”:

image

(For many users these sponsored ads are either normal search results, or sponsored in the sense of vetted, so they’d be forgiven for thinking that they’re clicking on something official.)

It seems that either Trentin, Tim and Susan are just really generous with their comments and share software tips on a regular basis, or this software schmoozefest is linked to Swishsoft the company that sells Swift Optimizer, software that compresses Flash files. All three put glowing reviews on the software website, althought it seems Susan has moved from the U.S. to Australia in the meantime. Must be the taxes.

And no, I couldn’t find any reference to Trentin Lagrange apart from glowing software testimonials. Either the guy just lives to write software reviews or he is not really living.

So, we’re clear that whoever is behind DriverRobot is also behind a number of websites that basically impersonate the websites of popular hardware vendors, either within the boundaries of the law or outside the knowledge of these companies’ lawyers.

Sponsored Run

But it’s also energetically fending off accusations that it’s all a scam. Do a Google search for driver robot and you get these sponsored ads above the results:

Similarly, the ads on the side of the results:

  • DriverRobot This Is The Real Deal?
    The Truth Will Shock You! reviewblogs.info
  • “DriverRobot” Report We Bought It And Tried It.
    The Truth Will Shock You! www.todaysreview.info/DriverRobot
  • Driver Robot Exposed Buying Driver Robot?
    Get The Facts! RealityChek.net

    The top one is a straight link to the download site. The others sound like links to stories exposing the scammery, right? But they’re not: They all take you straight to driverobot.com. No reviews, or even pretence at reviews.

    Clever, huh? Outwit your detractors who accuse you of impersonating official company websites by impersonating your detractors. There’s a twist I hadn’t thought of.

    Where are the Reviewers?

    But what about those logos from respected software reviewers, like PC Magazine, Softpedia (five stars!), Geek Files ((5/5 stars, Exceptional Product!) and Chip on the LogitechDriversCenter.com website and elsewhere?

    image

    I could find no reference to Driver Robot on the PC Magazine website. On Softpedia’s website I could find no “editor’s review” but found one user review—giving it two stars out of five but saying it used “borderline means to promote its service.” GeekFiles.com contained only discussions, no reviews.

    Depressing

    All of this is faintly depressing, because all the usual checks and balances we look to on today’s web seem to have gone out of the window:

    • a website address can contain a company’s name, with no apparent action from the company itself to protect either its name or its customers;
    • Googling a product doesn’t seem to work: sponsored ads mislead with words like “official” and what look to be review sites are actually redirects owned by the product’s owner
    • Badges from third party download and software websites don’t seem to be a guide, because they are either out of date or fake.

    The fact is that many people are going to be taken in by this kind of thing. Everyone needs drivers, and everyone searches for drivers by googling the manufacturer’s name and the word driver. As many people search for hp drivers as search for kenya on Google:

    So what I want to know is:

  • What are the companies involved doing to protect their brands, their products and their customers from misleading and potentially damaging products sold in their name?

  • What are software reviews sites doing to protect their brands, and their consumers from fraudulent badges?

  • What is Google doing about sponsored ads that mislead the public? 

Google’s Suicide Watch

image

I don’t really know what to make of this, but I occasionally trawl Google Search Trends/Insights to see what people are looking for, and whether they’re changing much over the past few years.

This seems to me to be as good an indicator of things as anything else.

I did it back in 2005 with Web 2.0, the tsunami,the economic crisis and seinfeld and tina fey.

But how about this one: the rise and fall of the search for “commit suicide painlessly”: things had been pretty flat since 2004 and then suddenly, over a period of three or four months from October 2008 to March 2009, the index goes from about 18 to 100:

image

It’s not good to read too much into Google Insights for Search, but I reckon there’s some interesting stuff in here. For one thing, the spike is a real one. That’s no blip.

(I should point out that these figures are relative. What Google does is to take the highest point—the largest volume of searches for that term since they started saving data in 2004, and then work out the volume in relation to that.)

Secondly, by mid April things on a global scale return, more or less, to where they had been in August 2008, before the crisis hit:

image

But if you look at individual countries, the picture is more complex:

In the U.S., where the search term rose from a relatively low base (actually it shows up as zero, meaning not enough data) it rises to 100, and then falls back by April to around 20. Only in the past few weeks does it seem to have returned to where it was to start with:

image

Look at the UK, by comparison, and we’re not there yet: From zero it rose—a week or so earlier, apparently to 100 by January, and then dropped, but only to around 40. It’s now around 35:

image

In other words, if one could take this data literally, the British are still very depressed and are still likely to be exploring ways of committing suicide. That’s pretty scary.

By the way, if you take these figures and compare them with the official UK statistics [PDF], they don’t tell you a lot. Brits have been killing themselves less since the late 1990s (though without figures from 2008 until now):

image

This pretty much dovetails with the Google results, 2004-9

image

PS I should point out that I used the term above because, having searched for “how to commit suicide” on the Google Trends page, I noticed that “commit suicide painlessly” was a popular search, rising 190%. Confusingly, “how to commit suicide” has, as a search been trending downward since 2004:

image

PPS Google’s nonprofit arm does use its data for this kind of thing, at least in the area of flu. It now carries data on Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and the U.S.:

image

How Good Information Goes Bad

image 

The Internet is fast becoming a sort of gossip chamber where the real merges with the fantasy, leaving ordinary people overwhelmed. I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

Take an email my wife forwarded me this morning. It’s from a newsgroup comprising Indonesian expat mothers in Singapore (talk about niches!). The sender had forwarded an email they received from someone who claimed to have had the scam they describe befall them in Singapore.

The scam itself is ingenious: someone phones a resident, saying they’ve got a package to deliver and confirming someone will be home. The package is a beautiful basket of flowers and wine. No card (the delivery guy says it’s coming later.) Recipient happy, but told will have to pay $3.50 as proof the delivery guy left the alcohol-containing package to an adult. Fair enough.

The recipient goes to get cash. No, says the guy, it has to be by EFTPOS—a bank card—because he’s not allowed to handle cash. Fair enough.

He swipes the card on  his machine, recipient enters PIN, and off delivery guy goes.

Within a few days, several thousand dollars disappears from the recipient’s account, via a duplicated card and the stolen PIN number.

Now this is a good, classy and brazen scam. And it’s true. It did happen—in Sydney, Australia, in October (and possibly November) 2008. The guy involved was arrested on November 21.

But it didn’t, as far as we know, happen in Singapore. Or anywhere else.

But that hasn’t stopped the email from spreading virally. In Malaysia, Canada, and elsewhere.

Myth-busting sites like Snopes and Hoax Slayer have done a good job of trying to separate fact and fiction. The problem is that as these legitimate stories spread, they serve to confuse and alarm rather than educate the public. As Hoax Slayer puts it:

While they may be perfectly valid when first launched, a problem with such warning emails is that they may continue to circulate for years and eventually become outdated and redundant. And, as noted, false or misleading information may be added to the messages as they circulate and such additions can significantly erode their use as warnings. Before forwarding such warning messages, it is always wise to check that the information they contain is accurate and up-to-date.

I quite agree. It’s good that people are wary, but not based on stories that are no longer true.

Checklist to avoid such scams:

  • Ask to see credentials of any delivery guy, whether or not he’s giving you free stuff.
  • If you’re wary, don’t accept the delivery. Even if it’s free stuff.
  • You should not be asked to pay money by someone appearing at your door unless you’re expecting the package. Sadly this is not properly adhered to, even by supposedly reputable couriers. In Indonesia I would find the couriers demanding duty payments that were not sufficiently documented.
  • Don’t let anyone swipe your bank card unless you’ve established who they are.
  • If in doubt, demand a name card and take a photo of the person with your cellphone. Then close the door.

Photo credit: North Shore Times.

The Innovation Gang

131120071195
The AIA winners, Singapore Nov 2007

The past few weeks I’ve been interviewing and writing up the finalists for the Asian Innovation Awards and the Global Entrepolis awards, which are organized in part by my employer, The Wall Street Journal. It’s the third time I’ve done it, and while it’s great to interview them over the phone this was the first time I got to see all of them in the flesh.

The drive to innovate is a weird thing; if I had to identify one thing they’ve all got in common it’s that they’re all their own people. Not a blazing insight, I grant you, but they were characters in their own way, some quiet, some not so quiet, and it was frankly a pleasure to listen to their stories and then try to write them up.

Here are the WSJ.com stories (free access!) which appeared in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal Asia:

Innovator Finds Clever Way to Wash Water” (gold winner – Australia)

Creating Empowerment Through Cow Dung” (silver winner – Bangladesh) 

Rickshaws Drive Entrepreneurship” (bronze winner – India)

GES Winner Stifles Bollywood Piracy” (GES winner – India) 

Technorati Tags: , , , ,