Tag Archives: Chicago

A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

image

Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

The First U.S.-China Cyberwar?

There’s growing coverage of China’s Internet ‘cyberwar’ against the U.S., which seems to have been going on for more than two years with neither side wanting to go public. The U.S. is calling the attack Titan Rain, and as Bruce Schneier points out, the attackers are very well organized. This from AFP:

A systematic effort by hackers to penetrate US government and industry computer networks stems most likely from the Chinese military, the head of a leading security institute said. The attacks have been traced to the Chinese province of Guangdong, and the techniques used make it appear unlikely to come from any other source than the military, said Alan Paller, the director of the SANS Institute, an education and research organization focusing on cybersecurity. “These attacks come from someone with intense discipline. No other organization could do this if they were not a military organization,” Paller said in a conference call to announced a new cybersecurity education program. In the attacks, Paller said, the perpetrators “were in and out with no keystroke errors and left no fingerprints, and created a backdoor in less than 30 minutes. How can this be done by anyone other than a military organization?”

So what are they after? Paller says they’re after sensitive information, and may have gotten it, including military flight planning software from its Redstone Arsenal. Here’s a bit more detail about how these guys work, from a TIME story quoting Shawn Carpenter, the hacker who uncovered the attacks:

Carpenter had never seen hackers work so quickly, with such a sense of purpose. They would commandeer a hidden section of a hard drive, zip up as many files as possible and immediately transmit the data to way stations in South Korea, Hong Kong or Taiwan before sending them to mainland China. They always made a silent escape, wiping their electronic fingerprints clean and leaving behind an almost undetectable beacon allowing them to re-enter the machine at will. An entire attack took 10 to 30 minutes.

More on Carpenter in a Wikipedia entry here, and on his whistleblowing experience here. There’s an interesting piece by SearchSecurity’s Bill Brenner which looks at an August report by LURHQ dissecting the Myfip worm which appears to have been used by Chinese hackers to ferret around and grab PDF files. The worm has been around since August 2004. Later variants looked for Word documents, AutoCAD drawings, templates, Microsoft Database files, etc:

[Joe] Stewart [senior security researcher with Chicago-based security management firm LURHQ Corp] said his team was easily able to trace the source of Myfip and its variants. “They barely make any effort to cover their tracks,” he said. And in each case, the road leads back to China. Every IP address involved in the scheme, from the originating SMTP hosts to the “document collector” hosts, are all based there, mostly in the Tianjin province.

China, according to AFP, yesterday denied its military was involved in hacking:

“We have clear stipulations against hacking. No one can use the internet to engage in illegal activities,” foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a regular briefing on Tuesday. “The Chinese police will deal with hacking and other activities disturbing social order in accordance with law.”

Doesn’t make a lot of sense as a denial. Is he saying no one is doing it? Or no one official? Or that it’s going on and the police will deal with it? Not the first time a Chinese spokesman has uttered something meaningless. But I guess so long as the U.S. doesn’t make any official, public complaint this guerrilla war will remain unacknowledged by both sides. I guess the obvious lesson here is that security is not just against sleazeballs after your money, but after your PDF files too. And don’t think that because you’re not military you’re not affected. If you’re any kind of company you might have something that is valuable in the corporate and government espionage world.

Sparking The Wi-Fi Revolution

Glancing at the charts on JiWire’s newlook website of the top 10 Wi-Fi countries and cities, I wondered whether it was worth taking a closer look at the figures to see if there’s any conclusions we could draw about the wireless revolution.

The figures only include those commercially available hotspots, as far as I can figure out. But they’re still interesting. In sheer numbers London Wifi london is way ahead with more than 1,200 hotspots, followed by Tokyo (904) Wifi tokyo and New York (851) Wifi ny. But all these cities are different sizes. How about hotspots per capita? Taking populations of the metropolitan areas of these cities things look a bit different.

If the figures are correct, then Paris has by far the most hotspots Wifi paris with about 35 per 100,000 people, followed by London Wifi london 2 with about 17 and Singapore Wifi singapore with just under 16. Of U.S. cities, Chicago Wifi chicago comes out ahead of New York Wifi ny 2 and San Francisco Wifi sf.

Aware that by looking at metropolitan areas only these results may be distorted a little, I looked at JiWire’s country figures. The U.S. is way ahead in terms of numbers Wifi us with more than 24,000 hotspots. The UK has less than half that Wifi uk with Japan the only Asian country putting in an appearance Wifi japan in the top 10. But what about when the ‘Hotspot Per 100,000 People’ rule is applied?

Once again things look different. Switzerland, with only 1,300 hotspots, has more than 17 per 100,000 people Wifi swiss which is about the same level of access Londoners have. Indeed, the whole of the UK appears to be pretty well provided for: With nearly 10,000 hotspots, there are more or less the same number of hotspots per 100,000 throughout the country as there are in the capital Wifi uk 2. Elsewhere the picture is less impressive: The U.S. falls into third place Wifi us 2 with exactly half the ratio of hotspots in the UK with Germany Wifi germany France Wifi france and Australia Wifi australia trailing behind. Japan, with less than two hotspots per 100,000 people Wifi japan 2 is clearly not worth traveling around with a Wifi laptop as aren’t Italy Wifi italy and Spain Wifi spain.

And finally, without wanting to be biased, the ‘country’ chart doesn’t include Hong Kong and Singapore, both of them separate adminstrative entities that happen also to be cities. Given that, they both put in a good performance in the ‘country’ chart too, with Singapore Wifi singapore 2 coming only slightly behind Switzerland and UK and Hong Kong Wifi hong kong 2 roughly on a par with Germany.

Conclusion? Looking for a Wifi-friendly place to live outside the U.S.? Try the UK or Switzerland in Europe, and Singapore in Asia.

Dialer Scams And Heads In The Sand

I can’t help feeling that telephone companies and Internet Service Providers are in real danger of legal action if they don’t tackle the problem of modem dialing.

This NBC5 story from Chicago quotes a local woman as complaining about a series of weird calls to her phone company, SBC. The answer: “They didn’t know too much about it. They said, ‘Well, you might want to check with your Internet provider,'” the customer recalled. Her ISP, AOL, wasn’t any more helpful. “The person said basically there was nothing they could do; these charges were not coming from them, therefore, they can’t credit us, they can’t help us,” the customer said.

Phone companies and, to a lesser extent, ISPs, can’t stick their heads in the sand on this. They mustn’t palm off customers with stupid answers, and they must investigate themselves the companies behind these scams. If they don’t, class action suits are bound to follow.