Tag Archives: Company Expansion

Astroturfers Revisited

Good piece (video) by Jon Ronson about astroturfing:

Esc and Ctrl: Jon Ronson investigates astroturfing – video

In the second part of Jon Ronson’s series about the struggle for control of the internet, he looks at online astroturfing – when unpopular institutions post fake blogs to seem more favourable. He meets the former vice president of corporate communications for US healthcare company Cigna, who confirms his involvement in this kind of activity

He talks about the “death panels”: the Cigna whistleblower, Wendell Potter [Wikipedia] tells him that the company created lots of fake blogs and groups, all of which have since disappeared, including from archive.org, to get the issue going. Looking at a google search trend of the term “death panels”, you can see how it appears from nowhere so suddenly:

image

I’ve not seen an issue spring from nothing to the max quite like that for a while.

No question that we don’t really know just how widespread this is. It’s good that Ronson, whom I greatly admire, is on the case. Should be entertaining and revealing too.

Here’s some stuff I’ve written about this in the past:

The Real Conversation I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

Social Media and Politics- Truthiness and Astroturfing Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The Shape of Things to Come

This is from my weekly newspaper column, hence the lack of links.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

We’re all touch typists now.

Of course, the definition of touch type has had to change a little, since most of us don’t actually learn touch typing as we’re supposed to. Watch people tapping away at a keyboard and you’ll see all sorts of cobbled-together methods that would make the office secretary of yesteryear blanch.

But for now keyboards are going to be with us for a while as the main way to get our thoughts into a computer, so some sort of touch typing is necessary.

But the mobile phone is different. After ten years most of us have gotten used to entering text using the predictive, or T9, method, where the phone figures out you’re trying to say “hello” rather than “gekko” when you tap the 4,3,5,5,6 keys.

Texting has gotten faster—Portugal’s Pedro Matias, 27, set a new world record in January by typing a 264-character text in less than 2 minutes, shaving 23 seconds off the previous record—but that’s still slower than your average touch typist, who manages 120 words-say 480 characters—in the same amount of time.

Blackberry uses have their QWERTY keyboards, each key the size of a pixie’s fingernail, and while some people seem to be quite happy with these things, I’m not.

And the iPhone has given us, or given back to us, the idea of little virtual keyboards on our screen. I’ll be honest: I’m not a big fan of these either.

The arrival of the Android phone hasn’t really helped matters: The keyboard is usually virtual (some of the earlier phones had physical keyboards, but most have dropped them in favor of onscreen ones) and I really didn’t enjoy typing on them.

To the point that my wife complained that she could tell when I was using the Android phone over my trusty old Nokia because she didn’t feel I was “so reachable.” By which she means my monosyllabic answers weren’t as reassuring as my long rambling Nokia, predictive text ones.

But that has changed with the arrival of software called ShapeWriter. ShapeWriter is software that provides the same virtual keyboard, but lets you swipe your words on it by dragging your fingers over the keys to, well, form a shape.

Typing “hello,” for example, is done by starting your finger on “h”, dragging it northwest to “e”, then to the far east of “l”, lingering there a second, then north a notch to “o.” No lifting of the finger off the keyboard. Your finger instead leaves a red slug-like trail on the keyboard, and, in theory, when you lift your finger off the keys that trail will be converted to the word “Hello.”

And, surprise, surprise, it actually works. Well, unless you’re demonstrating it to a skeptical spouse, in which case instead of “hello” it types “gremio” or “hemp.”

Now this isn’t the first time I’ve used ShapeWriter. It has been around a while—it was first developed by IBM Labs in the early 2000s. It’s gone through quite a few changes in the meantime, not least in the theory behind it.

But the main bit of thinking is the same as that with predictive text (and speech recognition): what is called the redundancy of language. Taking, for example, the whole body of emails written by Enron employees, the most frequent email sender wrote nearly 9,000 emails in two years, totalling about 400,000 words.

That’s a lot of words. But in fact the number of actual words was about 2.5% of that: That email sender only used 10,858 unique words.

Now of course, Enron employees might not be representative of the wider population, but researchers have to work with data, and the Enron case threw up lots of data. The Enron Email Dataset is a 400 megabyte file of about 500,000 emails from about 150 users, mostly senior management of Enron. Making it a goldmine for researchers of language, machine learning and the like.

Learning from the words used—though presumably not their morals—researchers are able to figure out what words we use and what we don’t. Thus, ShapeWriter, and T9, and speech recognition, are able to tune out all the white noise by only having to worry about a small subset of words a user is typing, or saying. Most words we either don’t use because our vocabularies aren’t that great, or because we haven’t invented those words yet.

ShapeWriter has 50,000 words in its lexicon, but it gives preference to those 10,000 or so words it considers most common (presumably

In ShapeWriter’s case, they produce a template of the shape of each word they decide to store in the software, so the shape you’re drawing—left-far right, up, down, along—is recognised.

In its latest incarnation it actually works surprisingly well, and I’d recommend anyone with an Android phone to check it out. (It’s free.) There’s a version for the iPhone too, as well as Windows Mobile and the Windows Tablet PC. Only downside: For now, at least, only five–European–languages are supported.

I am not convinced this kind of thing is going to replace the real keyboard, but it’s the first decent application I’ve come across that has gotten me back into actually enjoying tapping out messages on my device.

My wife, for one, is happy.

The Rise and Fall of Blogging, Twitter and Facebook

A lot of people ask me whether they should blog. Usually I give them the stock answer: blog because you’ve got something to say, because you feel you’ve got to write, and because you want to connect to other people on the same subject. But now I think I’d add another suggestion: don’t bother.

Here, in a nutshell is a history of blogging: a few years back someone invented the idea of software that would make it really easy to add text and links to a website. It could also add them atop the existing material, so the fresh, new stuff was on top, not the bottom. Blogging was born.

Geeks were of course the first bloggers, and while political blogging is now hugely influential, it’s geeks who have led the pack, adding innovations like voice, video, and mobile blogging (where you can blog from lots of different devices, like phones.) Geeks define the way blogging is going outside political blogging, for the simple reason that geek blogging tends to branch out into other subjects, whereas political blogging is mainly political (more like pamphleteering, I’d say.)

Which is why blogging is now changing. In the past year it’s started to morph into something else. There’s been a rise in something called microblogging (sometimes called tumblelogs), where services allow you and me to post and share little snippets of information about ourselves, whether it’s what we’re doing, thinking, reading or listening to, where we are or who we’re talking to. The best known of these is Twitter, but there are others: Jaiku, Pownce, for example.

These microblogs may not look much like blogs – they’re just streams of 150-character consciousness, from the mundane to the slightly less mundane, to which other users subscribe — but for a lot of people they perform the same function: link them into a broader social network where they can both broadcast their doings and find out what others are doing too. As we in Asia found with SMS, North America has found that an enforced limit on the number of letters you can use in a message is a blessing, not a curse.

Twitter et al have not been for everybody. But as with most technology, its usage has evolved into a new medium. Technology rarely replaces another in direct succession, but creates a new category of its own, as users make it their own (or reject it.) Old technologies might fall by the wayside, but rarely because another technology replaced it overnight.)

So with Twitter. Twitter did lots of things, but probably its most lasting impact was to push blogging away from writing and more into connecting. Most people read blogs because they wanted to feel connected to other people by reading what they were thinking. But it’s time consuming, and as blogs proliferated, and as blog posts tended to get longer, readers had less and less time to read these things. Twitter made a perfect alternative: a palatable buffet of updates, without the indigestion that comes from having to read blogs.

The next step in this process (and all this is happening within the space of a few months) has been the rise of Facebook. Facebook started out as U.S. college yearbook type application in 2005, but last year opened up to all users of he Internet. In the past couple of months I’ve noticed a big jump in the number of new users, at least in my little neck of the woods.

What’s interesting about this is that Facebook, among many of its features, focuses again on what I would pompously call the “networked awareness” aspect of blogging and twittering. The most important part of Facebook is becoming someone else’s friend, which then allows you to see what the other person is saying (whether in their blog, or in a one line ‘status message’ on their homepage.) There’s nothing new about this — the music-oriented MySpace does it, the business-oriented LinkedIn does it – but Facebook revolves around the something we all have in common: a past.

In other words, we build our Facebook address book around people we used to work with, people we went to school with, people who are already in our other address books. Enter your previous jobs and schools and you can easily find familiar faces and names, and add them to your buddy list. As I’m sure you have found, it’s much easier to connect with someone you already know than someone you don’t.

Not that Facebook is a sort of gallery of the past — it also allows you to connect to people via shared interests, or shared friends, or people you worked with but didn’t know at the time. All of the communication involved in this can be done publicly or privately, and can be done individually or as part of a group. Facebook occupies a middle ground between MySpace and LinkedIn because it’s restrained in design (something that could not be said for most MySpace pages) and because it’s not too businessy, which is what LinkedIn is all about.

So Facebook finds itself sharing part of a wave with Twitter, which in turn shared part of a wave with blogging. In a year we’ve found ourselves moving on from simply blogging to make ourselves heard, to building Facebook pages to reach out to those we’d like to connect to more closely. I’m not a huge fan of Facebook but it does connect me to way more interesting people (and long lost friends) than blogging ever did.

So is blogging dead? Some bloggers like Shel Israel, who co-wrote blogging’s defining book “Naked Conversations“ have noticed a fall in readers in recent months, and his comments have quickly led to another blogging “meme” (an idea that spreads, which is what blogging does well). The truth is that more people are blogging, more people competing for attention (leading to a terrible rise in Shameless Self Promotion, where instead of commenting on other posts in the space provided, a lot of folk simply try to point readers to their own sites.) Blogging long ago reached critical mass: Now it’s reached saturation point, and something has to (to mix a metaphor) give.

So expect things to evolve further. I’m not saying there aren’t some great blogs out there — blogs aren’t just about social networks, they’re also about great writing, and about information, both of which blogs also do very well. But blogs will continue to branch off into new areas as our needs, and the devices we use, evolve.

Blogging in short, never dies: It’s just the start of a road that goes we know not where. So if you’re thinking of blogging, ask yourself why you want to do it, and whether you might not be better off twittering, powncing, jaikuing or facebooking. Or waiting until the next Big Thing. It shouldn’t be long.

Directory of Attention

This week’s WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about attention:

If you feel the Internet has both blessed you with an abundance of information and cursed you by drowning you in it, I have one word which might help make sense of it all: attention. (And, if you give me enough of your attention, I promise to give you a tip about how to cope.)

It’s beginning to dawn on people who ponder these kinds of things that it’s attention, not information, which lies at the heart of the new online world. In a world full of information, the scarcest commodities are your eyeballs and ears.

Here are some links to find out more. Suggestions very welcome, as ever.

Attention, according to The Attention Trust, is the substance of focus. It registers your interests by indicating choice for certain things and choice against other things. Any time you pay attention to something (and any time you ignore something), data is created. That data has value, but only if it’s gathered, measured, and analyzed.

A definition of Attention Data from Chris Saad. And I like this one from, again, The Attention Trust:

When you pay attention to something (and when you ignore something), data is created. This “attention data” is a valuable resource that reflects your interests, your activities and your values, and it serves as a proxy for your attention.

Wikipedia’s entry on the Attention Economy, and The Attention Economy: An Overview from the excellent Read/Write Web, are also well-worth a read (as well as the comments.) A look at Google’s role in all this from Sam Sethi, who asks: Is Google building the Attention Economy?

I quoted liberally from Anne Zelenka, who is writing a book on this kind of thing. Check out her blog here, and a great piece she wrote on where attention fits into the whole Web 2.0 thing.

Stuff to play with:

  • Particls, formerly Touchstone, which is a ticker that tries to understand you or tick you off. (My description, not theirs.)
  • I didn’t have a chance to write about Attensa for Outlook, but it’s trying to do something a bit similar.
  • Or the AttentionMap, which “helps you keep track of your attention on a daily basis.”

See also my Directory of Lifestreams

How to Convert Word 2007 Docs for Macs

A few readers have asked how to convert Word documents created in the new Microsoft Open Office XML Format with the docx extension so they can read them on a Mac. The answer: awkwardly.

Windows users have a converter they can download.

The Microsoft Mac team promised something similar back in December and yet haven’t, as far as I can see, delivered.

Into the gap have stepped some third party developers:

  • Docx Converter will convert a Microsoft Office .docx file into a simple html file. (It strips out some of the formatting, but now supports bold, italic, and underlined text. Left, right, center, and justified alignment etc.) A Mac widget is also available.
  • docx2doc allows you to upload a docx document It was free, but apparently seems to be in such high demand it now costs either $1 or $2 per document converted. Payment is via PayPal; upon payment you’ll receive a download link via email.  
  • Panergy’s docXconverter sounds more straightforward, but will cost you: $20 or $30 for two years of maintenance and upgrades. We should hope Microsoft won’t be that long to come out with their own converter.

None of these is perfect; we shouldn’t have to hand over money just to read a document. Of course the best solution is to save documents in the old doc format if you’re going to share them with other people.

Thanks to these sites, and the comments on them, for pointers: CreativeIQ, APC Mag an Lifehacker.